Maya Krishna Rao can command a crowd as easily as she fills auditoriums with her solo performances. She has a reputation for not mincing her words and suffering no fools. Yet, the theatre actor says, all she wants is to make people laugh. “I want to go on a protest stage and do comedy. The forces on the opposite side are so exhausting that, as an artist, the least I could do is help keep our sense of humour alive,” she says.
Rao is leading the campaign against hate from the stage. She has spent 45 years essaying roles from Indian and world classics and her own solo plays. Her protest theatre articulates the anxieties of living in an unequal world. The last piece was titled after the movement it supported, Not In My Name, and addressed the forces of Hindutva directly: “Don’t you dare, / Not in my name, /But don’t you dare, / In the name of Allah, Krishna, Buddha, Jehovah, / Kalburgi, Pehlu Khan, Dabholkar, Mohammad Akhlaque, Pansare … / Junaaaaaaid.” Her deep voice rolled through a crowd of several thousand at Jantar Mantar on June 28 as they clapped to her beat.
“If you are dealing with an issue on a protest stage, you must truly believe in what you are doing and be fully present, and people will hear you,” says the actor, who, with her tumbling silver hair and dark eyebrows, resembles Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon queen from the series Game of Thrones.
Protest theatre is a political tool used by the underprivileged against religious, social or political establishments. Rao has adapted the form into a solo performance that has no storyline, props or costumes. It is a monologue, which may be confrontational or deeply reflective. “I have to stand on my feet and make a play because it is only then that I think,” says the actor. She does this in the living room of her house in a leafy neighbourhood of south Delhi. The walls are covered with Kalighat paintings and black-and-white framed photographs of her mother, Bharatanatyam dancer and actor Bhanumathi Rao. “Art was not something we aspired to as children, it was like brushing our teeth. There was no living room because all the furniture would be pushed to one side and people would land up for rehearsals,” she says. She would learn Carnatic music in the morning and Kathakali in the afternoon.
Now, Rao does yoga exercises, stands in the middle of the floor, plays music and “just waits” while a video camera rolls silently. Most actors begin with a script. For Rao, it is the reverse. “The impetus has to come from the body, not from the head. A certain kind of theatre emerges when it is only you in the room. You learn to pull your voice and a landscape of characters from all around,” she says. Rao has no director. After every rehearsal, she watches herself on camera and edits.
Her plays include Ravanama, in which the anti-hero of the Ramayana tells Sita the story of her life because she has forgotten it; Heads Are Meant for Walking Into, in which a woman sits at her desk with bits of a puzzle that needs to be solved by stepping out into the real world; A Deeper Fried Jam, a rock show cabaret, in which there is a scene where Rao picks up salt and says, “Yes, one day we’ll eat, /the salt of freedom/ Right here where I stand, / the salt of Dandi, / I promise you, Gandhi”.
It was in this room that one evening in 2015, Rao told her husband she was going to return her Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar to protest the lynching of Akhlaque in Dadri and the killings of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. “You feel that you are a medium between society and art. These are interesting times for an artist. The way things are playing out in the public domain is so intolerable that it moves you in the gut,” she says.
The gut is to Rao what the heart is to the young romantics in her acting classes. The lemon cover of Giulia Enders’ best-selling book, Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, shines on her living room centre table. “There is more tissue in the gut than in the head. It’s a thinking place, a feeling place, a whirlpool and a springboard. As actors, we do a lot of exercise to feel our gut,” she says.
Rao’s protest theatre emerged in 2012. She was following the news of the Delhi gangrape and the police crackdown on protesters, when she received a phone call inviting her to a protest platform the next day at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Rao made Walk, with a stream-of-consciousness script: “Not 10, not 11 / 12 / midnight / raat ke barah baje/ midnight, I want to walk / walk the streets of Delhi,” she says. Her movements are exaggerated versions of walking, teetering, lurching, tilting and stopping.
Walk has carried the flag for a range of causes, from the LGBT fight to an anti-ordinance gathering. The play has become an articulation of different kinds of freedom. “When I can walk to any place in my city at whatever time, I will have new experiences and discover myself in new ways. I want to sit at a bus stop at 3 am and knit, or with a pen in my hand if I am a poet,” she says.
Her artistic influences came from home and Modern School, Barakhamba, where theatre actor-director Om Shivpuri cast Rao as the fool in King Lear. She ran away from the National School of Drama after three days and couldn’t face its director, Ebrahim Alkazi, for many years. Rao made up by honing her theatre skills in England. Her politics was shaped by the communist student’s movement when she was in college, Miranda House, and in JNU, where she had enrolled for her graduate course in political studies. “My husband and a lot of our friends are from the communist party,” she says.
The couple refused to keep a help when they had a daughter. But feeding, cleaning and caring for the baby took so much of her time that Rao realised she needed a new language of theatre if she wanted to continue performing. The furniture of the living room was moved back and Rao created a play on the Partition by Manto, Khol Do, as a solo work as her friend held a camera.
She had been recalling her old plays on the evening of Eid, when she received a phone call from the organisers of #NotInMyName. “I am becoming increasingly the kind of person who gets a call that says, ‘parso aa jao’. I say, ‘Ok’ because I feel it’s my job. The magnitude of events is too big. I have to do my thing,” she says, and adds, “Anyway, at 64, I have very little patience to go into a room and rehearse for months.”
“This is the first time I watched Rao perform and I was taken aback by her power, passion and force of resistance. She was able to turn a political issue into an individual concern,” said Medha Patkar, an activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, who was among the audience at Jantar Mantar.
For a long time, however, Rao couldn’t get the first line of the script for Not In My Name. “Words like ‘cow’ are so mundane. We don’t use them in theatre,” she says. Once again, her gut responded. “I realised that the cow is a very male issue. It is men who look after cows. It is men who are getting lynched,” she says. “In the name of a cow, my cow, you strike a knife through me” was the opening line. At Jantar Mantar, it was the hook that held the crowd’s attention for a full 20 minutes as Rao’s voice rose and fell like the tide and her body moved between a dancer’s elegance and a marcher’s belligerence.