At 11 PM every evening, one of the ladies compartments in the Mumbai local gets transformed into a general bogie. Since waiting areas for all classes are clearly demarcated on the station platform, it is most likely not accidental that hordes of men suddenly throng this lone compartment that, during the day, can never be infiltrated by their sex. Peculiarly, the momentary lifting of the shackles of segregation invests the space with a frisson that is entirely its own. “It’s as if the ‘gender’ of the train changes at that very instant,” says Puja Sarup, the co-director of a new play, Ila, which takes a look at the fluid nature of gender. “As men rush in, even my posture, the way I carry myself, changes. I feel that we are all both male and female, and we wanted to explore that in our play,” she remarks. Presented by Sarup and Sheena Khalid as the first offering by their new troupe, The Patchworks Ensemble, Ila had premiered at the NCPA’s Centrestage Festival in December, and simply on the strength of that single staging, made it to quite a few ‘best of the year’ lists.
Research into the play’s residual themes led the collaborators to Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Pregnant King, which contains interesting nuggets from Indian mythology reinterpreted in his distinctive style by Pattanaik to illustrate the dualities of human nature. Particularly, his accounts of the patron deity of Vallabhi, Ileshwar Mahadev, whose sex changes with the ebb and flow of lunar cycles, provided the team with a point of departure that allowed them to devise several of the play’s unique set-pieces. Initially working without a script, eight actors worked with gestures and movements to evoke the ideas that would contribute to the fleshing out of the play’s narrative spiel. An early session involved the entire cast dressing up as the opposite gender — the women as swaggering crotch-grabbing dandies, and the men as flighty damsels with an exaggerated sexuality.
While its gender-bending credentials don’t seem to be in question, Ila doesn’t delve into the prickly subject of transitioning — the complex psychological and hormonal process by which a sex changes can be effected. For a queer population, especially, trans issues are rife with conflict. On its part, Ila takes a somewhat whimsical look at the oppression wreaked by preconditioned standards of masculinity and femininity. Peppered with comic interludes, it promises to be an entertaining ride.
Ila, NCPA Experimental Theatre, 4-5 April at 7 PM.
Directed by – Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid
Performed by – Amey Mehta, Arpit Singh, Bhavna Pani, Mukul Chadda, Mukti Mohan, Prerna Chawla Rachel D’souza and Shruti Vyas
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