How theatre bade farewell to Section 377

Mahesh Dattani | Updated on October 11, 2019 Published on October 11, 2019

Setting the scene: Two Soldiers, a play written and directed by Prajesh Kashyap, Dusha Nandu, and Apeksha Vora   -  IMAGE COURTESY: VIKRAM PHUKAN

A collection of short plays focusing on queer lives celebrates the reading down of Section 377, and also heralds new directions in Indian theatre

When used on homosexuals, the word “queer” may seem pejorative to many. But the word has been proudly embraced by a larger community united by its reclamation.

Under the umbrella of queer identity, a whole range of genders, sexuality and their combinations — such as transgender, non-gender, gay, bisexual, lesbian and bi-curious — co-exists, celebrating differences among themselves. The polarity of queer is straight, to describe exclusive heterosexuality. Straight is not seen as pejorative though, but only as a way of defining a mainstream identity.

Over thousands of years of literature and arts, the queer voice remained invisible and queer representation in our stories very rare.

But the 20th century opened doors to many firsts in queer literature, theatre, cinema and allied arts. India had to wait its turn. But change did come a couple of decades before the reading down of Section 377, the archaic colonial-era law that considered homosexuality an ‘act against the order of nature’.

Queer literature in India, with a strong emphasis on the sociopolitical aspect of being different, got a boost with the imprint Queer Ink in 2010. Under the vision of the maverick Shobhna S Kumar, Mumbai-based Queer Ink has grown from a landmark publishing house of queer literature to a platform for the arts.

The offshoot of Queer Ink is the drama production house InQueerable Happenings, in collaboration with theatre writer and director Vikram Phukan.

On September 6, the group staged a collection of short plays with queer content to celebrate the first anniversary of the reading down of Section 377. There was a repeat performance on September 18, which marks 377 days since homosexuality was decriminalised. Both performances were completely sold out and many were disappointed they couldn’t get to see them. For the audience, it was an evening of engaging theatre, with powerful new stories being told, and told well.

Intriguingly titled Short + Salty, the collection of plays was witty, thought-provoking, and tender with insight. Curated by Phukan, the idea came about when he realised that he had seen quite a few short theatre pieces, mostly by young actors. Two of these short plays were the outcome of a student project at The Drama School Mumbai, which conducts a year-long course in theatre. Many young professional theatre artistes were a part of this project not only as actors but also writers, directors, sound and set designers. The performance venue, Five Senses Theatre, is a studio theatre in Lokhandwala, Mumbai, dedicated to promoting new theatre. It is an ideal venue with informal seating for about 60 people. On the first floor, one has to negotiate two-way traffic on a narrow stairway. This immediately gives the feeling of an intimate theatre space with cutting-edge content and underground theatre all rolled into a compact hall on the first floor.

Short + Salty is clearly breaking new ground. In the past, most plays with queer characters had been written by seasoned writers such as Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar, whose most memorable characters are straight. Cinema has often showcased queer films — take, for instance, the Kashish Mumbai Queer Film Festival — curated by Sridhar Rangayan, a well-known queer activist — which screens short and feature-length films.

But InQueerable Happenings is probably the only theatre group focused exclusively on queer theatre.

Two of these short plays were commissioned by the group. The artistes had the liberty to write a text or devise the performance, allowing the actors to participate in the shaping of the narrative.

One piece of writing that was strikingly original and exciting to me was the poem Rangoli by Trinetra Tiwari. The poetry in the narrative brings alive the character of Rangoli, who is from the hijra community of transgendered people. Tiwari also performed the piece with the flamboyance associated with the hijra community, but however lost an opportunity to show the character’s nuances.

There is something politically incorrect when cis-gendered actors play transgendered characters with flamboyance. The applause from the audience at his entry also shows how we perceive the hijra community — with indulgence.

My favourite piece, though, and one I had seen before, was definitely Two Soldiers, written and directed by Prajesh Kashyap, Dusha Nandu, and Apeksha Vora.

The play was set in an army training camp. The story moved with astonishing pace from the strict regimen of military discipline to the tender personal love story developing between two soldiers.

The ensemble worked with precision in spite of the compact space, and managed to create a mise en scène of barracks, training grounds, dance floor, and more — changing from one to the other with a set of boxes.

Queer is here, and its cultural presence long neglected by the arts is finally finding expression, making its identity visible to mainstream society.



Mahesh Dattani is a playwright and stage director

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Published on October 11, 2019
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