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In search of the self

Laxmi Chandrashekar, well known theatre and TV person, feels that feminist themes can never get irrelevant in our context

— Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

Laxmi Chandrashekar: `Theatre is never stagnant.'

IF YOU'VE known Laxmi Chandrashekar, you're not unaware of her doggedness. Her steely resolve can even shock you at times. She, like many other women, manages two worlds: work and home. She packs in an unbelievable lot of things into her schedule: she teaches (in the English Department of NMKRV College), acts (both on television and on stage), and writes. She is so committed to theatre she manages to watch every play in town.

Laxmi has been associated with Kannada amateur stage for more than 38 years now. In the recent years, she has even tried her hand at solo shows, Hennalave and Singarevva, and has received an overwhelming response, even travelling all over the world with the two productions. Imagine having just a week to set out for an international convention on Shakespeare in Chicago, and thinking of an unusual theatre piece for the Kannada audiences there! That was how her first solo show (most of which was rehearsed en route), Hennalave (Just A Woman), took shape.

Laxmi, who has done more than 100 shows of Hennalave and 45 shows of Singarevva, will be performing both the shows at Ranga Shankara for four days.

Excerpts from an interview:

What prompted you to take on these one-woman shows?

At first, it started as an attempt to do something during my trip to the U.S. in 1998. But soon I realised that it fulfilled a deep-seated desire within me for a really challenging role. There are very few plays which revolve round a middle-aged woman. A solo performance gave me the chance to play all kinds of roles and hold the audience for an hour or more with my act. It was a fearful responsibility, but also an exciting project. It also helped me do theatre along with television and reviewing, because I could rehearse and do shows at my convenience.

But isn't it ironical that someone who began her theatre career with a group like Samudaya, which believed theatre as mass movement could be the instrument of change in a society, takes to solo shows?

I don't think I have departed all that much from the Samudaya philosophy. When we talk about theatre as a mass movement, we are not really saying that theatre should always be done by the masses. It should reach the masses and deal with issues, which are relevant to society and act as a medium of change. My plays are about living issues concerning women.

What do you think is the reason for this trend of one-person shows which are common on the national theatre scene too?

Theatre is never stagnant. Every age comes up with different forms of theatre, depending on the nature of social change. Solo is perhaps what we need today. In today's conditions, the pressure on people's time is such that it is difficult to keep a group together and mobilise the resources necessary for a production and travel. Production cost is going up all the time, but the returns haven't increased. Many cultural organisations, which used to sponsor theatre events, don't do it anymore. Besides, for many people like me who do not want to choose between theatre and TV, this gives the opportunity to do both. The recognition one enjoys through the exposure on TV can also be useful in attracting people to theatre.

Both your productions, Hennalave and Singarevva, are women-centric. Was it a conscious process? Aren't feminist agendas too beaten?

As a woman, I am most comfortable talking about women and sharing my experiences as a woman. Since I do narrative theatre, it is always more authentic to narrate as a woman. I have also been part of the women's movement. There is a certain prejudice about feminist agendas. Something like "burn your bra" movement can get outdated. But in a country where there are any number of cases of female infanticide, dowry deaths, rape, and acid throwing, how can women's issues be outdated?

One is not talking only about these extreme forms of oppression. Not all working women in our midst have the right to spend their salaries as they want, do not have husbands sharing half the housework or parental responsibilities. Entire families kill themselves because they can't raise money for daughters' marriages. Political parties shy away from 33 per cent reservation for women. In many Panchayats, husbands attend meetings in the place of women members. How can we not talk about these issues?

As an extension of the earlier question, considering your feminist concerns, isn't the choice of Singarevva rather unusual? It's a novel that has for its core a feudal value system.

Basically, Kambara is anti-feudal, though his attitude to women is not totally feminist. All his works revolve round impotent landlords pitted against macho slaves. The landlord has no right to keep the land he does not till. The woman often becomes a metaphor, and is equated with the land. But she defies tradition to fulfil her sexuality and desire for motherhood. When she is oppressed beyond a point, she rebels. There is definitely a feminist element in him. It is this which attracted my director Soumya Varma and me to Singarevva. The book reminds of great European novels such as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. In the play, we underplay the feudal element and focus on the feminist element, the bond between the two women, and the protest.

Your first production Hennalave saw many changes since its original form. What prompted the changes?

In its first form, Hennalave was a crude narrative with little theatre in it. It was like a feminist speech with a few illustrations thrown in. Soumya Varma changed it into a good piece of theatre. I did only eight shows of the first draft. All other shows have been directed by her. We have updated it by adding fresh information into the narration and changed it a little in response to audience feedback.

Laxmi Chandrashekar presents a series of solo performances in Kannada and English at Rangashankara from January 5 to 8. The shows begin at 7.30 p.m. Advance booking at Rangashankara between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

DEEPA GANESH

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