The solo show

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Increasingly, women theatre artistes are staging monologues, a difficult but very fulfilling form of theatre. Shoma A. Chatterji reviews some of the popular solo shows and tries to understand the dynamics involved.

Monologue theatre is very challenging in its form which demands its own content, as not every play or story or novel can lend itself to monologue or solo performances. Monologues are obviously, intensely character driven, and the incidents emerge from the character or multiple characters where the actor enacts different characters within the same play fluently and naturally.

Women theatre personalities have taken to solo theatre with a vengeance. Every noted theatre personality is performing solo on stage with great success commercially, and in terms of media coverage. Today, women are not only writing plays but are running their own theatre groups, producing, directing and performing significant plays not only within the country but across the world. According to Dr. Anuradha Kapoor, erstwhile director of the National School of Drama, “Earlier, theatre was considered a hobby at best, but today people are more open to making a career out of it,” she says, adding, “though there isn’t a substantial reduction in obstacles that theatre faces in India, there is now a parallel narrative that says one can survive in the art. Students, who are driven by passion, still have to fight their way into joining a theatre group or an institute like the NSD. Dr. Kapoor was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Direction in 2004.

Triumphantly striding a patriarchal world are Neelam Mansingh Chowdhary, Geetanjali Shree, Tripurari Sharma, Usha Ganguly, Saoli Mitra, Swatilekha Sengupta, Sohini Sengupta, B. Gauri, Sarita Joshi, V. Padma, Jyoti Dogra, Seema Biswas, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, Neeta Mohindra and many others. They have all performed solo theatre not once but several times, because they are challenged by versatility on the one hand, and the demand of keeping an audience captive solely with a single-actor performance. Let us take a look at some of these solo performances by women to find out not only how versatile they are performance wise, but also how courageous they are in exploring different subjects, territories, characters and histories.

Some monologue theatre performances

Designed and performed by Usha Ganguly, Rangakarmee’s Antaryatra is a unique blend of the personal, the retrospective, literal and political. Ganguly uses the strategy of the monologue to journey through a melange of historic characters to portray the psyche of the woman, and interweaves into this larger framework, snippets of her own life and experience as a woman who has chosen theatre as her way of life. In so doing, through the aesthetic and imaginative use of minimalistic props like colourful geometric shapes of the circle, the square, the triangle used in different ways, she brings to life historic characters like Nora from  Doll’s House, Sanichari from Rudaali, Himmat Mai (Mother Courage and her children) based on Bertolt Brecht’s famous play written in 1939, Kamala from Vijay Tendulkar’s play and so on.

Teejan Bai of Chhattisgarh has performed different episodes from the Mahabharata in her unique ‘Pandavani’ style over the past three decades. She broke tradition by becoming the first ever female performer in the Pandavani style that was an exclusive domain of male performers. Though at 71, she tires easily, her grit and determination triumphs as she takes the stage by storm, singing in her guttural voice, performing different characters from the episode of Draupadi Vastraharan to a spellbound audience. Instead of performing seated as per the Pandavani tradition for women performers, who would only sing, Teejan Bai strides her performance into a celebration.

Jyoti Dogra of Mumbai is a living example of what has come to be known as “Abstract Theatre” which is quite real in terms of actual performance, but abstract in concept and in ideology. The presentation is a blend of the abstract and the concrete. The concept is born of an abstract idea. Dogra has carved a niche in solo performances in contemporary Indian theatre. With Notes on Chai, she has turned this mundane, everyday addiction on its head to make a strong, socio-political statement on contemporary life, relationships, and human interaction, making optimum use of not only her body, but also every feature of her vocal elements.

About this stunning performance that keeps the audience mesmerised for the entire span, Dogra says, “Tea works as a springboard that moves into other issues — there is a shift from the seemingly superficial to an addressing of deeper insecurities and fears that one does not speak of directly. Tea is an agency that brings and keeps people together. Tea keeps you company when you are lonely, depressed, or even happy and overjoyed. Tea is central to my performance because it is not just the cup that cheers. It offers a journey to dwell on nostalgia and to dream about the future. At some point along the way, it liberates itself from the confines of the worldly cup to travel yonder. It becomes abstract because it is an idea and a concept and much more than just a cup of addictive drink.”

Among earlier performances, one must mention Shanu Roy Chowdhury, the one-woman performance by the talented theatre personality Swatilekha Sengupta. Inspired by and adapted from a Willy Russell play called Shirley Valentine, this one-woman performance revolves around a woman, 42-year-old Shanu RoyChowdhury. The play evolves as the ‘collective voice’ of middle-aged, bored, exploited, and lonely housewives across the world, bent under the heavy burden of a creative process called housework that patriarchy has reduced to a chore. Women who are craving for simple things like approval, some companionship, a little love, the freedom to express themselves, and last, but never the least, to shape up as individuals in their own right, with their own little islands of sunshine from a life essentially spent in the shadow/s of other people. There is a Shanu RoyChowdhury hiding in all women everywhere, crossing barriers of age, time, class, race and place. It played to packed theatres when it was first staged years ago.
Actor Poornima Shettygar’s original solo work was called Truck. The “protagonist” is a truck, decorated with tassels, bright colours and feminine accessories as trucks often are. “The truck seems hyper-masculine but drivers often dress it up like a woman. That is because it fills a kind of void in their life,“ she points out. The script travels across several Indian states and Shettygar’s lines touch eight languages, tracing the roots of trafficking, combining humour, nautanki and grim drama.

The Vagina Monologues and other stories

Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal has produced, directed and acted in The Vagina Monologues, a play no one was willing to touch, but later ran to packed houses in Mumbai and Delhi. She donated a few lakhs from the proceeds of the play to two shelters for battered and abused women in Mumbai. She brought Jane Fonda, Marisa Tomei (Oscar winners) and Eve Ensler (the playwright of The Vagina Monologues) to India in March 2004. About Vagina Monologues which she continues to perform across the country over several years, she says, “The Vagina Monologues has universal relevance. It is brutal and explicit in its strength, and people, irrespective of their gender identity, are moved. It is hilarious, heart-rending, and poetic. Most people think ‘vagina’ is a dirty word. It is not. It is the biological name given to a part of the body that belongs to half of the world’s population. Everyone has spent the first few months of his/her life in close proximity to this part of the anatomy. The vagina is the spirit of womanhood. It is this spirit that is battered, abused, raped and dehumanised across the world. The sad thing is that we, as women, are ashamed to talk about it. The message in The Vagina Monologues is “silence is death.” The mounting of the play was the most challenging part, because everyone from producers to actors and sponsors refused to be associated with this play only because of its name!”

In Khanabadosh, based on writings of noted Punjabi litterateur Ajit Cour, Nivedita Bhattacharjee under the able directorial wand of Jeetendra Singh brings alive the unconventional autobiography of an unconventional woman writer who broke every rule in the patriarchal book to live life on her own terms and also, to illustrate how a woman’s love for a man who is not her husband can lead to the same betrayal she has been subjected to within a married relationship. This is so subtle and understated that the woman concerned does not even realise that she has been emotionally blackmailed and duped to believe in a love that forever, was one-sided on the part of the woman while she surrendered to his physical demands and also enjoyed the surrender knowing fully well that he was married with children.

Sushama Deshpande’s Tichya Aichi Goshta, arthat Majhya Athavanincha Phad (“Her Mother’s Story, or My Own Memories”) has had a successful run for more than a decade. Scripted, directed and performed by Deshpande, the performance is the result of a fusion of her research on tamasha and tamasha performers in Maharashtra into a single character. She effectively communicates the pain, the struggle and the social stigma that attaches to women in tamasha. An unusual feature about the monologue was her emphasis on the empowering element that tamasha bestows on women tamasha artists. This sense of empowerment derives from their ability to influence men.

Seema Biswas gives a completely new turn on her one-woman performance in Tagore’s short story Jeevit-Ya-Mrit as Kadambini, the woman who died to prove that she was alive. Adapted from Tagore’s famous story, Jeebito O Mrito. Seema Biswas played the solo act under the directorial baton of Anuradha Kapoor. Biswas through her versatile acting skills brought alive the miseries and maltreatment of Kadambini who was set on fire by her own family. The silent hall broke into a thundering applause when she woke up in the play – questioning whether she was dead or alive.

Heisman Sabitri of Kaakshetra Manipur, the most celebrated performer among them all, once presented a 40-minute autobiographical journey in A Process. She explored her technique of acting, she demonstrated how she privileges the actress in her, over the character the actress is playing, generously drawing from her five decades in theatre with honesty and integrity of expression, fluid and mobile face, her incredible range in voice, tone and pitch, and her command over Manipuri.

Youngsters are getting bolder and rebellious with every passing day. I will close this with Shilpi Marwah’s A Woman Alone. Despite its pitch black humour, this Hindi adaptation of the famous Dario Fo and Franca Rame piece very popular among women in theatre, became a cult play within eight months since she first performed this solo act in March 2016. Adapted by director Arvind Gaur, the mono play has drawn full houses; tickets, on the odd occasion were selling in black. “It was that direct about sex,“ Marwah says. “At one point, the protagonist, imprisoned at home by a violently obsessive husband, compares his brutal lovemaking to “zameen main paani ke liye boring karne wali machine ki tarah.“

As journalist Malini Nair writes, “A solo is a terrifying act to pull off but it packs the most punch in theatre and allows an actor to evolve along with it over time. An increasing number of young female actors are now going it alone on stage, telling some of the most forceful stories of our times.” And so, the solo show goes on……


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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