Letters are meant to be read, but the one written by Rabindranath Tagore in 1891 was different. “I saw it as a text that did something to my body,” says Mumbai-based actor Kalyanee Mulay. Tagore had written a shocking missive, titled Ramabai-er Baktitar Upalakkhe, an ode to patriarchy, upholding tenets, such as “Obeying her husband is a woman’s duty and should not be compared to a gora sahib giving instructions to natives”.
Goa-based director Vishnupad Barve found the letter in the Sahitya Akademi library, lodged under “Miscellaneous Tagore”, and he dismissed the idea of performing it as a dramatic reading or a conversation on stage. With Mulay, who had been his junior at Delhi’s National School of Drama, he created unSeen, a 55-minute non-verbal play whose flight path begins with Tagore’s words but meanders into contemporary realities of being a woman.
The play, by Process TheatreZ, will be staged as part of “Ignite!, a Festival of Contemporary Dance,” on October 14. Excerpts from an interview with Mulay:
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How did Tagore’s letter trigger the play, unSeen?
In 2012, we were marking 150 years of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth, and Vishnu (Vishnupad Barve) was searching for a way to look at the Nobel laureate differently. During the investigation, he found the letter written by Tagore when he was in his 30s in response to Pandita Ramabai’s speech the year before. (The social reformer had caused a ruckus at a sabha in Pune by saying, ‘Women can do anything a man can, except drink alcohol.’) The letter was published in Bharati Periodical. Twenty years later, Tagore became one of the spearheads of women’s emancipation. This showed that he had undergone a huge personal transformation. Our question is, ‘Is society still like the younger Tagore?’ unSeen is not based only on this letter but it started a churning in our minds.
What is the narrative structure of the performance?
The play has several divisions — gaze, touch, sanitation or beautification, kiss, menstruation, becoming a deity and fantasy ramp walk, stamp and home. In Touch, I measure every unit of my body using a tape while in Sanitation, I explore if the conventions of cleanliness are a woman’s personal choice or has she been conditioned. If she has body hair, why doesn’t she feel all right? I shave my legs on stage in this segment. Ramp Walk is when she does a fantasy sashay while dressed in household things, like a skirt made from a tub or a washing machine pipe acting as a corset or a mixie blade as a nose pin.
Your body is thrust under the spotlight as the zone where a macrocosmic gender struggle plays out. How did you experience the play as an actor?
It is not just a body; it is my body in this space. While performing unSeen, I got a chance to explore the often-blurred line between the public and the private nature of being female. During rehearsal, we asked the others at the residency to stamp my body wherever they wanted. I was stamped at several places, from tongue to toe. We have kept some of these places in the play where I stamp myself.
Does the play also draw from your personal experiences?
As I look at it, a solo performance is, most of the time, based on the direct experiences of the performer himself or herself. The emotional story is the performer’s story, one way or the other. In the Touch segment, for instance, I do an action in which I sit with my legs wide open and then slap myself in the thighs. This action emerged suddenly, possibly, from a memory of being told as a child, ‘Why are you wearing Bermudas’ and ‘Don’t sit with your legs apart.’ After I did this, my director and I didn’t speak about it. My mouth is wide open in this 30-second sequence. It means different things to the audience; some have seen this as rape, others as love making. For me, it is about holding that moment.
How was the process of creating the play during a residency in Goa?
The residency lasted almost two months, during which I had to think about the various ways in which I looked at my body. Two fine artists made the props while Vishnu (the director) crafted the sound installation from kitchen utensils. The soundscape finds rhythm in the different things that women do in the kitchen, and there are two intervening songs — one from Chandalika and the other a piece of ramp music.
The play has been performed at major venues, from Colombo International Theatre Festival to International Theatre Festival of Kerala, and won acclaim from the theatre community. But, did everybody see the same play or did it change every time?
As things go on in the outside world, my performance begins to evolve in terms of the energy in my body and my breath. Sometimes I am angry, sometimes sarcastic and sometimes helpless. unSeen is still evolving.