What is it like to take traditional gender roles and play with them – tickle them, stretch them, bend them, and turn them upside down? Those are questions whose answers come alive with glorious unpredictability in two plays staged by the Mumbai-based theatre group Patchworks Ensemble.
In Ila, which is inspired by a Devdutt Pattanaik story based on Hindu mythology, a king is cursed to become a woman every month, and his gender changes each month with the waxing and waning of the moon. He struggles with the transitions at first – and then he learns to accept his new self. And in The Gentlemen’s Club, we see a day in the lives of an idiosyncratic group of drag kings. They live in a world where being queer is not unusual, and the play just crackles with electricity, full of exciting dance performances intercut with funny conversations that they have in the green room.
In these two thrilling plays, gender is treated with a light, affectionate irreverence, and they seem to ask the question: Who are we really, deep down, and how do we learn to be comfortable with that? Well, we had lots of questions of our own to ask, and we spoke to Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid, founders and actors at Patchworks Ensemble, to find out more.
What was the process of creating these plays like?
Puja: For both the plays, we were dealing with some complex ideas, but it was an exploration for us, and we were learning as we went along.
Ila was devised from a story by Devdutt Pattanaik. We did a lot of exercises, improv, etc, just exploring with the actor’s bodies – switching from feminine to masculine and then back again. And in that process you start realising, why am I saying that this is masculine and this is not? We so often associate mooch with mard and matakna with aurat – these were cliches we had to address, you know, you can’t jump over them. So we did start by working with that, but I think there was a clever choice we made where there was not just one actor who is playing Ila. The whole cast [which included men and women] plays Ila at different points.
Working on Ila threw up many questions for us. One was, what is the female equivalent of mardaangi in Hindi? We couldn’t find a word for it. If there’s mard ka mardaangi, is it aurat ka aurataangi? Streetva? Auratpan? Aurata? Where does language come from, how come some things are included and some are not?
Sheena: There was one time during the rehearsal process for Ila when we were just stuck. There was just no creativity, it was like banging our heads against the wall. And we thought, let’s just have everybody dress up as someone from another gender. Let all the women bring in a male persona, and all the men bring in a female persona. And some of the women came up with the most incredible characters. Whereas a lot of the characters that the men brought into the room were highly sexualised. But the women had these really believable characters. That’s how Gentlemen’s Club came about.
Both your plays are an exploration of queerness, expanding the boundaries of masculine and feminine. What, according to you, is the meaning of queerness?
Sheena: Patriarchy creates all these boxes for us to think within. Queer is anything that doesn’t fall inside those boxes.
Puja: For me, I think for me the quality the word queer throws up is a spectrum. It is the possibility of in-betweens in everything. It’s like that paper thing that we made when we were kids, where you open up something on this side or on that side. Tippy-tippy tap, which colour do you want?
Queerness is ultimately about finding out, What is my true form? Where am I most comfortable even if it is not the accepted norm? When am I really in my skin?
And finding that out is a bloody job!
Ila seems to be saying that there is queerness in everybody. Is that right?
Puja: I think fundamentally what we are saying is that each one has to figure it out for themselves, there’s no formula. I think one basic quality of our work is that we share our curiosity. It’s never been, “You know, guys, we’ve figured it out!” These are things we’re curious about, and are still trying to understand.
Sheena: I think it very simply says is that gender is a spectrum, individuals fall in different parts of the spectrum. Where you stand on the spectrum fluctuates as well. We might not always be rigid on your position on the spectrum. I think the pay is trying to say that gender is something far more fluid than it is given credit for.
Is it a conscious decision to portray tough questions about gender with a light touch?
Puja: Yes, because people are always looking for sob stories or sensational stories. People interviewing us about Gentlemen’s Club ask us things like, do you have scars when you take off the binders that you wear? But we like to go with a celebratory approach.
We have to find an interesting way to talk to people, because everybody is bombarded with so much material all the time… it’s an overload and it’s so easy for people to just switch off. So our challenge is, how can we have a meaningful conversation?
And the issues will come up by themselves. We don’t have to yank them out. But of course, this does not mean that we dismiss people’s experiences.
How did these plays change your own understanding of gender and sexuality?
Sheena: These plays for me have unlocked something in terms of my own exploration. That has shown me that there is so much more to learn, and so much more to absorb from the environment around me, even if it is just about myself. And there is so much unlearning of gender roles and expectations that we also have to do. I feel like the moon, always changing!
Puja: I think our awareness on these subjects has shot up a lot more. Like sometimes people easily mix gender and sexuality . I think that was a big thing that came up for a lot of actors, to understand the nuances of gender and gendered experiences.
What’s the mental process of getting into the shoes of a drag king like? Because in Gentlemen’s Club you’re not just playing men, you’re playing women who play men.
Sheena: Drag is a heightened state. For us it’s not about, Hmm, what are the internal workings of a man. It’s about, What is masculinity?
Puja: …What do you see?…
Sheena: …What do you pump out there? It really was about physically taking on these bodies and having fun with that.
What do you think people get out of watching drag?
Puja: In 2005 I had gone to France for this workshop with a travelling theatre company, and there were people from all over the world there. There was one Italian girl, it was her birthday, and when someone asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she said, I want a man. As a surprise for her birthday, all the women dressed up as men. It was such a great night. I was like, I’m looking so hot, and all these women are looking so hot. It was just such a lovely feeling to see yourself like that. And I think that’s what happens to the audience too – maybe this unlocking of a door, of possibility, like Oh, maybe I can do this too. Just opening up a space for imagining new things.
Sheena: There’s this really great line that I once read: Drag is a celebration. A celebration of masculinity, a celebration of femininity, and for us through this process it was also understanding that nobody owns masculinity or femininity.
It’s so liberating. It’s so empowering to watch such … joy! People are so energised by it.
Sheena: At one time we were performing two back to back shows of the The Gentlemen’s Club – it happened to be the same day as Mumbai Pride, so we had a lot of people who had attended Pride coming in to the second show. It was packed and the sound wasn’t very good. We felt it didn’t go so well and after the show I was a little upset. I was telling my cousin, Oh no, the earlier show was a lot better …. And my cousin told me to shut up and look around. Among the audience there was this incredible man, maybe in his early twenties, in high heels, a short dress, a huge wig, fabulous make-up. So many people in ride outfits were there and they all looked so happy! My cousin said, look at this environment that the show has created! That’s what the show is about – enjoy that, appreciate that, and be aware of that
What is drag doing for you, when you’re performing these characters?
Sheena: Same thing. It’s so liberating. So fun. And it’s just so…
Puja:…surprising as well…
Sheena: Yeah, it really is. And it’s also a lot more than that. I think as artists we’re really really lucky to be in this position where we can question what we’re doing all the time. And I think this show really gives us that.
What do you think we can all learn from drag?
Sheena: That masculinity and femininity are up for grabs. These energies are there for you to play with. And we all do it in our daily lives. There are no set rules!