Maya Krishna Rao Interview with Deepa Punjani
As the Delhi-based theatre artiste and performer Maya Krishna Rao gets ready to stage her production LOOSE WOMAN to audiences in Mumbai at the G5A, we take the opportunity to talk to this daredevil of a performer, who in her practice has moved beyond the conventional labelling of an "actress", and who is keenly interested in exploring questions around women and gender in general. Maya Krishna Rao has been trained in Kathakali, she has taught at the National School of Drama and at the Shiv Nadar University. Her previous performances include A DEEPER FRIED JAM, KHOL DO, WALK among others.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): You are a formidable personality, Maya, and your presence on stage shows it. What kind of reactions have you had from your audience, especially from younger men and women?

Maya Krishna Rao (MKR): Around LOOSE WOMAN, responses from young women have been particularly warm - the idea of a woman starting with her daily personal, household routine, and who ends up trudging the larger landscape of this country, is what they have responded to.

DP: You have been pretty much on your own in solo performances with various collaborators. Does this medium give you more freedom?

MKR: Not sure! I haven't worked with other performers for more than 30 years now. But yes, working with good sound and video designers has not just brought greater freedom but also unending possibilities of creating images, situations, sensations, thoughts, etc. It would be good to work again with a good team of devising performers and a creative, collaborative director. That process could create a fresh set of possibilities.

DP: You have been an actress long enough to know the definitive shifts your acting trajectory has taken. Which of these have been prominent phases?

MKR: Discovering that I didn't need a script / story to start off the process was one of the early discoveries. That empty space can be inspiring was a revelation. Making the camera part of the improvisation and creative process was another turning point. The fact that sound and video collaborators could come from a very different practice; that their way of looking at the artistic process could be exciting and jog me out of old habits, was yet another discovery. Another phase was, when I realised that 'street theatre' and theatre in an auditorium don't belong to completely different universes, and that the artistic devices of one, can nourish the other.

DP: When you were starting out in theatre, who inspired you?

MKR: My mother most definitely, though it took me time to realise that! Artistes who imagined, worked long long hours. It was daily sadhana. I imagined Da Vinci to be one such, or my Kathakali gurus - Sadanam Balakrishnan and Madhava Panikkar - most of their waking hours they are doing, thinking, talking Kathakali. It's a way of life for them. I imagine so many of our musicians to be like that. People who work by the skin of their teeth, or by the sweat of their backs, again long long hours, under very trying conditions. These people are inspiring. Stone breakers, for instance. Wives of farmers who have committed suicide.... it's a long and varied list.

DP: As an acting teacher and professor having taught at the National School of Drama and at the Shiv Nadar University, where you also designed a post graduate programme for Theatre For Education and Social Transformation, how do you view the strengths and challenges of our systems for actor training?

MKR: There are 'systems'. Some of them fossilised. And then there are practices. Teachers who are alive to changing life and art practices around them have interesting methodologies that an actor / performer can absorb, translate, transform to suit themselves and modify if they go ahead and become teachers themselves. Today theatre or actor - training (I prefer the term 'performer') needs to be open to drawing in from other disciplines - visual arts, music, film, architecture, even sound engineering and gaming and including the traditional disciplines of History and Sociology. I'm after a teaching practice that aims at preparing the self-dependent performer - one who is ready to look around either alone, or in a group, and create performances by themselves.

DP: As a creator and performer who has not shied from taking the woman's body centre stage, what are the questions that still nag you when it comes to theatre by women and of women in India?

MKR: I don't think anything nags me. I just think there's more and more to be explored, challenged,'s exciting to think, "its all been done in the past, somewhere sometime, the point is to find another lens, a different way of saying, sequencing and making it..." One thing we need to watch out for is, particularly when we deal with themes of gender - how challenging is it for the performer to go through and create every subsequent moment of the performance. There's a lot of theatre around us that 'tells' the audience how to think and behave. But to take up gender related questions in all their complexity and present them in a way that is both challenging for the audience and the performer(s) is something special!

DP: What would you tell aspiring young women performers? And, what would you tell the men?

MKR: To all genders across the spectrum I'd say every part of the theatre - making process is special and significant. Right from when you think to work together, to meeting in the rehearsal space to tea breaks, to parties, to the final performance and beyond; the more we can from draw from ourselves and each other in what's called a safe environment the better stuff we will create. Also, it's a real need of the hour. Here, the onus is on the men. Women need to both stretch their own boundaries and be able to look at men more squarely in the eye. The rehearsal space can be a good rehearsal for life - if we start by changing ways of being together on the rehearsal floor, and that can go a long way in changing life-relationships. It's a space worth fighting for. I think we need to be more aware of composing theatre groups of gender across the spectrum - there's a lot to be learnt from each other.

Deepa Punjani has been writing on theatre and performance and reviewing it for close to two decades. She is our Editor-at-large. She represents the Indian National Section of Theatre Critics, which is part of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC). She is Adjunct, Director of Conferences at the IATC.

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