Strident cries of “I am superior!” saturating the air – are typically a cause for concern, and might even provoke bewilderment amongst unsuspecting spectators. However, on 29th September, Hyderabad’s popular cultural centre, Lamakaan, bore witness to a magnificent piece of art – which commenced with the above statement being shouted out by two spectacular artists, in turns – as their wide-eyed audience was transformed to a world of desire, epiphanies and symbolism.
A recently concluded presentation, ‘Four Play‘ is an interactive performance art piece, curated and performed by Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a dancer and performance artist – along with theatre artist, Sajiv Palasa.
A socio-cultural commentary on insular societal attitudes towards desire, sexual education and same-sex relationships, ‘Four Play‘ relies heavily on symbolic representation and satire to portray humanity’s warped perception of social taboos, alongside other traditional institutions and paradigms, which we’ve all been indoctrinated into– unquestioning, unthinking, and blind.
The performers, who referred to themselves as “exhibits” throughout the performance- included Sastry (Exhibit 1), whose body appeared to be home to an unusual concoction of vibrant drag attire and a stark absence of cosmetics – conferring a fluidity to his gender identity, which resulted in his representation of a more feminine identity. On the other hand, Palasa (Exhibit 2), whose bare skin oozed masculinity, in the absence of gender non-conformity – appeared to harbour a gender identity more authentic to himself.
The exhibits, who assumed the roles of living embodiments of gender roles in a marriage – proceeded to play four symbolic games during the performance: lust, ego, greed and anger – in an attempt to mock the fundamentally flawed institution of marriage and the structures of heteronormativity, which it is built upon.
Game one was a representation of Okhli, a traditional game played during South Indian marriages, with a notorious twist. As part of the game, the exhibits were required to locate a pair of handcuffs in a bucket full of beans. The winner of this game would call “superior”, whilst the other removed a piece of clothing from his other body.
The next game, which served as an allegorical reference to the sacred 7 steps – involved the exhibits walking indiscriminately within the confined perimeter of a mat, whilst handcuffed together. To complicate the game further, the mat was folded to half of its total length, at fixed time intervals – ultimately imposing restrictions on the physical space available to the pair. The folding of the mat is an emblematic reference to the restrictions imposed on same-sex couples/ straight couples, who often confine themselves to enclosed spaces as a result of the harsh moral policing they are subjected to.
Upon reaching the minimum fold, the pair was expected to fight using pillows (an intimate game played by couples) – ultimately shredding the pillow, and leaving behind tufts of cotton. Sajiv was proclaimed the winner of this game, resulting in Sastry donning a two-piece costume. One of the most powerful visuals exhibited during the performance was that of Sastry standing stoically, whilst clad in the inner garment of a woman – a form of silent protest, resisting the moral policing of the societal norms that dictate a woman’s appearance and behaviour.
Game three commenced with the couple playing Talambralu (a south Indian marriage ritual) using the rainbow colours to depict queer pride. As the pair gradually indulged in sexual exploration, their movements became more subtle and sensual, demonstrating the significance of physical touch, eye contact and emotional bonds, in the context of a sexual experience or a relationship. The fading dynamics of superior versus inferior, dominant versus submissive and masculine versus feminine, were illustrated by the act of pouring colours from each other’s head, in turns – which also served to symbolize a neutralization of sexual instinct, presenting both partners with equal sexual agency in the process.
The final game “Brahma Mudi” involved a long rope being dangled between the couple, in an attempt to showcase queer couples’ prolonged fight for marital acceptance in this country. The rope was wrapped around both the exhibits as they walked towards each other, eventually forming a cocoon whilst they stood entwined in each other’s arms – where they shared a passionate kiss, as a symbol of love’s victory over everything else.
At this moment, the ethereal fourth wall was broken, as the enamoured audience started entering the performance space to wrap rolls of tissues around the cocooned couple, as a symbol of the social taboos associated with displaying affection in public spaces. The entanglement of the tissue rolls, with the cocoon of human bodies, delivered a powerful visual narrative – which accounted for the discrimination faced by queer couples, their right to express and the moral policing aimed at queer individuals.
The background music provided by Pawan from Nations Rock Beat enthralled the audience, enabling the artists to create a dramatic atmosphere during the performance, and eventually build to a gripping climax. At the end of the performance, a brief interaction with the artists was conducted, during which, the wide-eyed audience posed questions regarding the performance and its context of production. One of the participants, for instance, asked “Why did you choose these games? Was its intent to mock the marriage system?” – to which, Patruni responded, “This was to symbolize the unacceptance of these rituals to same-sex couples by the society and as a strong statement that this is how the same-sex couple visualize these ceremonies where the society closes the door”.
The event was concluded with Patruni thanking Lamakaan Operations, Mobbera Foundation and Manab Das for their wholehearted contributions in enabling the event to be successful in reaching an engaged audience.
An avant-garde event, ‘Four Play‘ tackled social issues which have plagued our community for centuries – with tactful sensitivity and artistic virtuosity, whilst refusing to compromise on the entertainment value of the piece. This made the piece more accessible to the common man, to whom, elitist concepts of acceptance and revolution are outlandish. Alien, almost. What the common man needs is an unambiguous breakdown of these concepts in an intriguing, easy-to-digest manner – which is precisely what ‘Four Play‘ did.
The upsurge in experimental theatre pieces like ‘Four Play‘, addressing social-political themes relevant to today’s times – is spectacular to witness, and I cannot wait to see what the political theatre scene has to offer in the coming years.