International Women's Day: I realised that I don’t feel any gender on stage, says Nimmy Raphel

For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements?

Nimmy Raphel
Nimmy Raphel

Sampurna Chattarji

Considerthefemalebodyyourmost Basictextanddontforgetitsslokas [...] Wehavewrungpoemsfromhouseholdtasks Carryingwaterchildsorrowcanyoudoasmuch? [...] MyworstfearissankarathathadIindeedbeenyou Imightnotafterallhaveconceivedanythingnew

‘Genderole’ by Rukmini Bhaya Nair

An observance that grew out of the American suffragette movement, International Women’s Day has, for little over a century now, been marked as a day that aims to celebrate women’s rights, and honour women’s achievements. For creative people who also happen to be women, what role does gender, community, tradition have in shaping those hard-won rights and fiercely-cherished achievements? As a young writer trying to elide/elude labels, I remember how struck I was by this poem by Rukmini Bhaya Nair, in which the run-on lines that mimicked the inscription of Sanskrit slokas insisted I find a new way of reading, inserting the spaces that my mind needed in order to make sense of what was written. This re-seeing of what feels simultaneously very old and very new provoked the questions I put to the practitioner featured here.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI, poet, editor, author, most recently of Unmappable Moves

What is the ‘genderole’ you resist/redefine/reclaim through your work?

I grew up in a village in Wayanad where most people, including my parents, are farmers. I did not grow up with too many restrictions—my folks gave me all the freedom I needed. But I was tutored from the beginning to be responsible for my actions, though not in the sense of ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’. When I moved to Adishakti and worked with Veenapani (Chawla, founder of Adishakti, Pondicherry) and Vinay (Kumar KJ), I found a role model. More than gender, just how to be—as an artist and as a person—that’s what they really showed me. Through my work, I realised that I don’t feel any gender on stage. I don’t know how to explain this in words, but I don’t see myself as a female character or a male character. I see myself as a neutral body trying to tell a story. And this has really helped me. I try to be as neutral as I can be, even though it’s very difficult for an onlooker because my body clearly looks female. As a person on a stage, what I do is to become interested in stories and I explore them in a way that is possible for the body to explore on stage.

What role does the community play in the making/unmaking of your work?

I’ve been living in Adishakti for 20 years now. It’s my first and ongoing experience, as an artist and as a person, of living in a community. What it has made clear to me is how an individual aligns with the community—not in a disciplinarian sense, but rather how the individual feels responsible for the community as well. [So], it’s not about ‘me’ as an individual—the community becomes the focus, Adishakti becomes the focus.

Sometimes you strongly feel the need to be in the place but you also feel a need to untie yourself. You feel the need to grow further, and you ask: what kind of growth is the institution providing? When people leave, it’s probably the need to grow further… it’s a larger question, and very difficult! At this juncture in my life, it’s my responsibility to make the space conducive for artists to come and work. Because theatre is going more and more into the margins—it’s becoming very, very difficult to make a play, and tour with it. It is collaborative work, and we also have to play a part that will enable others to do that as well. How can Adishakti contribute—that’s the community work we do. True, Adishakti is localised, we have a physical space, but we also try to move out of the physical space through the work we do, to bring people here, and also to move them out.

What tradition do you align yourself to even as you break/remake it?

I’ve had a strong background of dance, I learnt Kuchipudi and Mohiniyattam at (Kerala) Kalamandalam, though I didn’t finish my course, and it didn’t make me think ‘why was I doing a particular form’ till I came to Adishakti. And then I realised most of the traditional forms—that we see and enact through our bodies—are from a very experiential landscape, created, and accumulated, over centuries of practice. Accessing that is also a big responsibility for contemporary performers like us.

What tradition probably means to me is assimilating a kind of experience, which is also what we’re trying to do as we tell stories—to allow that journey to continue. That’s how I see tradition, not as a frozen, fossilised thing. There’s a lot to learn from tradition: for instance, how it archives processes. Archiving in a purer sense, not like digitising. Passing on a tradition is also a kind of archiving—not lifelessly but like a ball that is full of energy—squeeze it and it will open out [again]. That’s how I see tradition—an archive that has life, that moves forward.

I don’t know if there are women who have played [the mizhavu] before me. I’d seen it in Kalamandalam, had always wanted to play it, but we were not allowed to touch it. I remember feeling I’ll never be able to reach it. But when I came to Adishakti, Veenapani said: “Go ahead and touch it, you’ll be taught how to play it.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Even now, it feels like a fulfilment of something I thought I’d never be able to do. You know desire itself is very hard to feel, sometimes you may even forget about it when you actually get what you desire. … That’s something we constantly feel in art—to touch things distant and removed from us. Those moments when something comes to us, like new ideas, or you watch a performance for the first time and you say, “Ah, this has happened!” Playing the mizhavu gives me the same sense of joy. Every time. And hence, the feeling that nothing is impossible.

NIMMY RAPHEL is an actor, dancer, drummer, and co-artistic director of Adishakti Laboratory for Theatre Art Research.

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