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    Provoking and playful, The Patchwork Ensemble’s Ila looks at what defines man and woman

    On the Mumbai local, every night at 11 pm, the ladies compartment turns into a general. Come 7 am the next morning, it reverts into a ladies-only ‘dabba’ once more. “This was the starting point of our play Ila—the idea that there is this space where gender keeps changing,” begins Puja Sarup, co-founder of the year-old Mumbai-based theatre production company, The Patchwork Ensemble. And to go with the space, she had a story—a lesser-known myth about a king who changed genders with the waxing and waning of the moon, which she had come across in the pages of Devdutt Pattanaik’s book, The Pregnant King. “Sheena (Khalid, co-founder) and I were excited to explore how these ideas of masculinity and femininity kept changing depending on time and context,” explains the 33-year-old, of the play that they debuted in Mumbai last December and are staging in Pondicherry this weekend. Both provocative and playful, it questions what it means to be a man, a woman and “everything in between”.
    Space and time
    A devised performance, Ila is crafted as a series of conversations between five women and two men taking the local from Churchgate to Virar. “There are frequent jumps in space—between the present, in this confined compartment, and then poof, to the jungles in the Puranic times. It’s a form we were keen on creating, this constant movement in space and time,” says Khalid. The challenge, however, was to explore gender and not sexuality. And to stay true to the idea. “Devising is hard because we are developing the script on the floor. We explore, give shape to the theme through workshoping and then we write it. We got together a group of friends—like actors Shruti Vyas, Amey Mehta and Bhavna Pani—and we developed it even as we played with it,” says Sarup.
    Implicit, not explicit
    The 70-minute performance is quite stark, too—depending less on props and more on lighting (by light designer Arghya Lahiri) and, of course, acting. “What excites us is seeing the performer’s body be the main tool to portray the different spaces. So our set is very simple—like a string of lanterns to represent the moon. We don’t want to spoon-feed the audience; we want to let their imagination fly, let them see what they feel like seeing,” explains Sarup.
    Even as they are excited about unveiling “their baby” in Pondy, they are also busy finalising their next production, Tape. Careful not to reveal too much, Sarup states it is an engaging and relevant piece of work that is being done in collaboration with writer Vikram Phukan and Gaysi, the Mumbai-based gay desi community. “It’s about a drag king and we will premiere it next month,” she signs off.

    Sunday, at Adishakti Theatre, from 7 pm. Free entry. Details: 0413 2622287

    Surya Praphulla Kumar

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