In a state of wonder
Connecting two diverse disciplines of Kathakali and theatre, Maya Rao has traversed a wide variety of roles from Desdemona to Ravana. She talks to LEELA VENKATARAMAN about her evolution as a performer.
Maya Rao... the performer and (inset) the person.
THE gender divide, Stree Vesham, Purusha Vesham, demonic role, seductively feminine role, classical dance, contemporary dance these are all categories to which Maya Rao will not succumb. "I don't see myself as anything but a performer" is her final statement. From Being to Becoming the performance process, indeed one's whole quest in art is a journey, during which the performer dons several hats. For Maya Rao, who lives between the twin worlds of theatre and dance, dividing lines if they exist at all are blurred. Life inscribes its experiences on each person. "Everything leaves a stamp. Kathakali has given me imagination. Listening to and imbibing rock music has left its mark on me songs coming from different philosophies have left their deep impressions on me. Power, weakness, nostalgia, Gujarat everything has left its imprint."
Casually dressed, her face clean of makeup, her hair pulled in a comfortable pony tail with no hint of even to camouflage the generous sprinkling of grey, Maya Rao is one of those naturally open people. The transformation, when she performs, is an amazing departure from the picture one has of her as somebody fearlessly facing the world as nature made her, warts and all. To watch her as Ravana is to experience stance and movement assume an Olympian grandeur, the facial muscles rippling in incredibly fluid mobility, the eyes impaling the audience with the concentrated power of their gaze, the body communicating an energy beyond itself. Here is a performer without the baggage of conceit or inhibition, with the empty spaces for that "other" to enter and fill the being.
Ranvir Shah, artistic director, Prakriti, in whose "Samavesham" Maya donned the role of Ravana says that after watching her in "Khol Do" based on Hasan Manto's short story, the masculine power the performance evoked gave him the feeling that Maya would be ideal in a large male role like that of Ravana Kathakali having a special place for this anti-hero in its repertoire.
If Ranvir had seen her in roles of twittering femininity or as Desdemona to Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan's "Othello" in the Kathakali version of the play, he would have known the range of Maya's talent. "I adore even pretty roles. It takes a lot to make them pretty. To be a coy maiden shyly looking at the hero the first time, it makes my hair stand on end!" And Maya goes through the whole process of being coy. "It is not the coyness, but what one invests it with in acting that counts," she says.
The blended power of Kathakali and the instinctive feel for theatre can be felt as Maya performs. And yet she has no smart or slick answers on how she connects the two disciplines or on how she sees the contemporary in the classical idiom.
"I have no evolved methodology," she remarks frankly. "I cannot answer these questions. I have no director to tell me what to do or what not to do. Right or wrong, I can only make surprises. I need a challenge without which I cannot work. I was already 40 years when I created my first work. My initial bread and butter came from being a lecturer in Political Science. `Khol Do' fascinated me, impelling me to do a piece on it. Then I did one called `The Job' based on a Bertold Brecht story of a woman who lived for 12 years as a man, working as a night watchman in a factory. Imagine looking after the safety of males working there! I found this dramatic. In my work, the person, as a woman, engaged in daily chores, is reminded of scenes from her earlier life. I even had a bathing scene and one with mortar and pestle. I have worked with rock music too. I flow with whatever inspires me at that point in time."
Maya is certain that the "mother inspirer" in all her work is Kathakali, even when she may not be consciously using its vocabulary in a production.
"Kathakali taught me to let my imagination roam freely. For example Ravana's entire feelings, in the piece I did for `Samavesham', move in a 28 beat cycle of rhythm in divisions of 14 beats. Automatically, imagination weaving the flow of emotion puts it within the tension of time. I love challenges and Kathakali is a constant challenge, taking a lot of doing to do. Just the fluttering fingers showing lustrous hair (her fingers unconsciously trace the movement) becomes such a large moment which can suck everything out of you the breath has to come from the nabi."
Maya acknowledges her great fortune in being able to train under one of the finest Kathakali gurus, Sadanam Balakrishnan of the International Centre for Kathakali at Delhi a willing and inspiring teacher with no question about how his teachings are used in one's own work.
"He is the most extraordinary person I have met. `You want to learn Kathakali? I am here' he seems to say. `What I teach and do is strictly classical Kathakali. What you do with it is your artistic choice.' He comes to see my contemporary work and discusses it with me. I have had the pleasure of learning the entire Kathakali Ravana interpretation from him. I want to do a work with him where he does classical Kathakali and I express myself in a contemporary idiom."
Maya recollects the arduous nature of performing the Kathakali Ravana on stage. "I died innumerable deaths during the performance and every moment I felt that I had to make my bow and exit. But I carried on for the challenge was too much. I thought I would not survive the experience. I did though. But this stamina drawback comes from not being a constant Kathakali performer." The ability for the concentrated mental and physical focus one sees in her work, she attributes to her regular yoga and pranayama routine.
Her fascination for Shakespeare, which she constantly translates into Kathakali, is well known. Maya calls it the "fascination of working with two juggernauts which are contra-indicative for Shakespeare is all high word primacy, while in Kathakali you are taught to never open your mouth. The real challenge lies in combing speech with movement. Shakespeare provides so much space between lines of speech for the actor to fill in just like Kathakali which allows full scope for the actor's creativity."
Maya is drawn by the dreadful power of scenes like Lady Macbeth calling upon the "Dark Night" to disarm her of all feminine softness and to fill her with the dread purpose of carrying out murder. "I have yet to fully evolve a way of using the text. I have always been uneasy with textual plays excepting Lear in which I acted with Amal Allana. But Shakespeare's language has me enthralled."
One of Maya's loves is in working with children who create scenes without any intentions of entertaining an audience. She recollects the joy of working in Rishi Valley with children who created a whole feel of ancient China with carpets and nuts being sold by traders. "I worked for four days with youngsters on just use of the eyes that bridge between the whole outside world and inner Self. Eyes are not static for a moment and they are man's greatest communicating tools.
Having grown with a mother, a versatile actress who at the age of 50 plus donned a pavadai (ghagra) costume, for a skittish little girl role, Maya has imbibed a sense of theatre from childhood. "My daughter who is great at working with her hands will be what she wants not a Kathakali dancer or an actor like the mother."
Commissioned to work for the London International Theatre Festival (LIFT), Maya asked to work with somebody who could "create noises, not music!" Soon a film expert of a special kind joined the experience. "I get stretched working with all kinds of people. Pulls and pressures change and with that I change. No I am working with a film personality. So what I do will be different from what I have done till now. Even my teaching assignments at the National School of Drama are not based on rigid teaching schedules. Things evolve and the entire process, which is interesting for the students becomes the work. Artistes in constant touch with themselves evolve a methodology for whatever they are doing."
Maya Rao fits in with her down description of Kathakali. "It teaches us to keep our eyes thus in a perpetual state of wonder a natural attitude in the performance. I want to look at the world like that always with wonder!"
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