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A Review
Deepika Arwind’s i am not here

i am not here
Photo: Bombay Film Factory © Ranga Shankara

i am not here by Bangalore-based theatre maker Deepika Arwind is supported and co-presented by the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore and has been developed with inputs from German dramaturg Theresa Schlesinger. Our author Joshua Muyiwa finds that this play uses caricature cleverly but not cuttingly enough.

By Joshua Muyiwa

Theatre practitioner Deepika Arwind has through her body of work, so far, shown a great eye for caricature. In her production, i am not here, which premiered in Bangalore at the 15th edition of the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival, she further demonstrates her ability to enhance, embellish and exaggerate characters through the two performers on stage – Sharanya Ramprakash and Ronita Mookerji.

Arwind’s work isn’t directly inspired from Behzti, a play by Gurdeep Kaur Bhatti, which had to be cancelled in 2004 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre due to violent protests by Sikhs, but rather investigates the circumstances around its cancellation and censure through reading Joanna Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing, to create this devised work along with her two performers.

At this show, most of the audience was invited to sit on three sides of the stage around a red boxing ring, and the remainder in the regular stands of the theatre. The two performers enter the stage in normcore workout gear – black tracks and grey sleeveless tank-tops – set down their kit bags and water-bottles and it begins.

Soon, we’re beamed into the story of Shakespeare’s sister Judith, shown the impediments in her life and led to feel ‘Poor thing’ for her, but instead are left asking the question: What would Judith really have written?

Then, we’re looking in on a couple – Sharanya Ramprakash in an over-size suit is the man and Ronita Mookerji in her skivvies is the woman – literally negotiate space on stage through dance-like sequences of them sharing a bed. At times, the woman wriggles out from the hold, the hands and the heavy thigh of her man and becomes wild (read: creative?). Through the moment of them treating the prop – a tawa with a heart drawn in chalk – as a mirror it would seem to suggest the man can see himself in their love, but she never does.

Immediately, we’re introduced to a classical dance teacher and her student. In this sequence, the teacher elucidates the metaphors and similes used to describe the mannerisms of women, and the ways that it burdens our collective constituting of women. If, in the classical dance moment, the woman is expected to navigate a garden with the grace of a fish, then in the next sequence, a movement solo by Ronita Mookerji, the script is flipped to ask: Can that fish be a shark instead? Can the bird not be a peacock but a hawk?

In next scene, we’re audience to a woman writer reading a review of her own novel, which would be described over a dinner table as a ‘sexist review’ or a ‘mean take-down’. And then, we saunter into the last two scenes, that perhaps I can’t summarise, because they simply came across to me as the interaction between a dog and its master, and then, two women playing fridge magnet poetry.

In this way, nearly all of these scenes-slash-sequences in i am not here work because we’re essentially shown the reasons that women’s written word struggles to find its way into the world. It echoes the position that either women aren’t given opportunities at all, or that they’re trapped by societal structures in a way that male artists just aren’t, or that they’re weighed by the historical meanings of being a woman, and even when they do make work it is relegated to being read as ‘only of concern to women’.

Again, I’d like to repeat: Deepika Arwind has a great eye for caricature. One sees this best in her directing of the men in her world on stage. While, wholeheartedly in private, I would agree with her estimation that most men are gross, grand and guttural, her ease with portraying them as such on stage also makes me distrust her. It makes me ask: Why are only the lives of the ladies layered? Why are only the lives of the ladies in her works viewed with a modicum of distance and restraint? Or better still: Why are there men in her world at all?

If the men in her work are meant to eviscerate or enlighten other men of their actions in the real world, then, because of her deployment of caricature they’re simply rendered as silly, as funny. In i am not here too, we’re taken to the edge of the awkward, the uncomfortable, the not easy-to-digest and immediately we’re reeled back into a soft landing with humour, or quickly given the answers. This isn’t to say there aren’t bits that are successful, it’s just that they remain just that, successful.

If I travel back to the time of the audience walking into the auditorium and waiting for the play to start, Maya Arulpragasam aka M.I.A’s track “Come walk with me” was blasting through the space. The beats on the track twisting, turning, teasing and tricking us with delight and discord, and it reminded me that something meant to dissent can still entertain, educate and excite – all at the same time.

Deepika Arwind’s latest directorial work i am not here entertains, and even educates at some points, but it doesn’t really manage to excite the conversation around censorship, women and their artistic practices. It simply shows us that there is one brewing.