The invention of the photograph did more than spur the impressionist movement and, later, pave the way for the selfie.It changed the way we understand reality. The idea of a photograph, and later, a moving picture, gives us a sense of reality, an immediate recognition of life as we know it to be. But the truth is the idea that nurtures our believe in photography, film and documentation, that is, the concept that seeing is believing, is older than the invention of the camera. The first record of this phrase dates back to a book of idioms, from 1639, but the history of the idea of evidence and the importance of first hand visual experience has haunted philosophers and thinkers from Aristotle to Kant.
Much like a photograph, a documentary presents a false construct to which few can help but respond. We believe in the veracity of a photograph, despite the fact that we know it can be staged, and we have no context for the image. So too do we have a sense of documentary as “real”, contrasted with the way that a narrative film is “fake”. But a documentary filmmaker is still deciding what world fits into a camera lens and what needs to be chopped away, neatly ignored in favor of their vision.
So too does documentary theater contrast itself against dramatic fiction. In the case of a piece like Techtonic Theater’s The Laramie Project, the company’s choice to put themselves into the piece itself lends an even greater sense of veracity to the story, that is, we trust it even more deeply because we understand the group as separate from the story, or at least, that is what we believe to be the case. We appreciate the insights and commentary that the theater makers construct against the “first hand narrative” of the townspeople of Laramie; we judge this as more true, more real, than the fictions of non-documentary theater. But how do we know that any of it is really real? We are, once again, like a photograph, viewing the world only through the lens of the “camera” of the director or theater group’s design. We are choosing to see one thing and let the rest be cut off, and it is in the choice of that one thing that the significance and impact of a documentary piece lives. The resonance between enactor and subject, performance and focus, is in and of itself a primary part of the performance, and it is in this interaction, the murky space between performer and performance, that documentary theater finds fertile ground to grow.
This certainly seems to be the case with Lady Anandi, a piece in progress by Bangalore based theater maker Anuja Ghosalkar. I caught this piece thanks to a far more Mumbai-theater-literate friend on Sunday evening, as it is, like so many performances here in India, I’m learning, an extremely limited run of one night only.
Stemming from her research, Lady Anandi was inspired by Ghosalkar’s own relative, her great grandfather who acted in Marathi theater, playing women’s roles. While virtually every culture on earth has, at some point in its theaterical history, barred women from the stage, it seems that parts of India adopted that practice later and discarded it later than its Western counterparts, with female actresses scorned and ostracized well into the early 20th century. While the subject of women in public spaces in India could fill up many a master’s thesis, I would invite you to check out this organization if you are interested in the subject.
Indian theater traditions date back to Sanskrit theater, which emerged as a form sometime at the beginning of the first century of the common era, and enjoyed a heyday of productivity and huge outputs of written plays before the first Islamic invasions of the 10th century. The most complete dramaturgical text in the world comes from India, a work called Natyashastra, or A Treatise on Theater, attributed to Bharata Muni, an ancient Indian scholar. Performing plays based on the mythic traditions of the Indian epics, theater groups underwent rigorous training, were mixed gender, and often were performed for the Ancient Indian royal courts.
After centuries of scholarship and theater making, the Indian theater scene suffered quite a blow when Northern raiders came, bringing the tandoor but banning performance. The Turkic rulers of Northern India discouraged theater, and while local performances began to creep back onto the scene, it wasn’t until the British toppled the crumbling remains of the Mughal empire that a theater tradition was revived in India, although this time it would have to fit into European sensibilities and be influenced by Western forms of what a play is and should be. Nevertheless, regional forms did manage to find a balance and use their own traditions to create traveling pieces, like Marathi Theater groups which began performing Marathi pieces incorporating music and folk dances for public consumption in Maharastra around the early 19th century. Women were, however, barred from performing in these plays, the most famous of which was Shakuntal, a play based on the Sanskrit play Abhijñānashākuntala, or The Recognition of Shakuntala. I could go on and on about Indian theater, and in fact, would love to, but instead I might just encourage you to read this text, as I myself plan on doing soon.
But instead, let’s get back to the rather modern piece of theater that Ghosalkar has presented, an unfinished work that perhaps is completed in its incompleteness, that trades on its roughness to aim for something more interesting than a conventional realistic stage play, and instead tries to explore the lines of performance and gender, the boundaries between past and present, and the way family histories often must be imagined to be understood. While there are many Indians who can recite their ancestors names back into centuries past, those whose ancestral villages remain yearly pilgrimage points and whose lineages are drilled into babies at birth, there are also many Indians whose diasporadic family histories have caused gaps in the narratives of family, those for whom the tumultuous political events of the last century have erased large portions of family trees. And then there is Ghosalkar’s family. While she has a lot of ties to her past, finding information about her great grandfather proved a difficult task, with just a handful of photographs and a literal footnote in a history book as her only guides. What she was able to find was that her great grandfather once played Lady Anandi, a Lady-Macbeth like character who pushes her husband into murdering someone, and a treasure trove of information on the men who played women in Marathi theater, the way they trained themselves to walk, talk, and act like women.
Using that as the basis for her research and exploration, Ghosalkar has created a play in which she reads all of the roles. from her distant relative to his admiring fans to herself, an actress struggling to find a place for herself in the contemporary Indian theater scene. Using snippets, real and imagined, from her great grandfather’s life, she moves from moment to moment in a non-linear way, standing in the frames of projected old photographs in a stunning visual showing the artist trying to find a place for herself in a past to which she has little access. We’ve all had those moments with old photographs of family members, one’s we’ve never met, or maybe photographs of strangers, when we wonder what their lives were like, who they were, if they were ever like us. Ghosalkar embodies those haunting questions in the final moments of her short piece, letting her shadow block the majority of each image as the digital projection flickers across her face, both inside and outside of the image, imposing herself on history.
Because the work is unfinished, Ghosalkar holds a talk-back afterwards, asking the audience for questions and feedback.As Ghosalkar described her frustrations with theater as it exists, with the roles she was given, with feeling like a prop in other people’s productions, and how this piece has made her feel a part of something, giving her roots in performative traditions, I wished I had seen that in the performance itself. As she spoke about trying to find herself in the piece, all I could think was, yes, that is what this piece needs, it needs you. The character she wants to explore, the great grandfather, the mysterious Lady Anandi, is inaccessible to us, and to Ghosalkar herself. It is only through the lens of her that his story becomes meaningful, interesting, tragic, triumphant, real. It is only through Ghosalkar and her own story that her research, her explorations, her performance feels relevant and real. This feels now like half of a piece, a blueprint that needs to be constructed with Ghosalkar’s own stories, her own understanding of what it is to be a woman on stage, to act the lady.
One of the things this piece does suffer from in its current form is the over-explanation effect. Between the one-page program which describes in painstaking detail what we are about to see, to the introduction by the actress who reiterates the program’s through line, we are so prepared for what the piece intends that we don’t always get a chance to react to it organically, so busy are we looking for what we are supposed to being seeing in it. If you put a jug on stage and tell the audience that jug is a symbol of labor exploitation, we can’t help but try to find that, somehow, in the jug. Our understanding of the jug will come down to how much we read exploration and labor into the jug, whether we “see it” or not. But who knows what we might have seen, had we not been told what there was to be looking for? Ghosalkar’s piece hangs heavy with expectations, but as much as it includes the audience and as hard as it tries to avoid being a “play”, it still works overtime to dictate the experience of the spectator in a way that robs it of being a living breathing thing.
It is, however, deeply exciting to see a piece in progress, to watch its seams and see the thread slowly stitching moments together, to watch the actor in the process of discovery. It’s a brave act, and a vulnerable one, and it does what performance should do, it invites the audience in to sit down, relax, and watch something in the very moment of its creation. Wherever this piece goes, it’s bound to have a crowd following behind it, and not just because it looks good in a blood-red sari, either.