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Ramu Ramanathan toys with the idea of two women in conversation in a new play

It’s one of the few plays by Ramu [Ramanathan] where nothing happens,” says Gurleen Judge, of her latest directorial venture which stages today at the National Centre for Performing Arts’ (NCPA) Centrestage Festival. That kind of an introduction to Ambu and Rajalakshmi, the protagonists who give the play its name, may sound a lot like Waiting for Godot, but let us put assumptions to rest right away.

A still from the rehearsal of Ramu Ramanathan’s new play Ambu and Rajalakshmi, directed by Gurleen Judge
A still from the rehearsal of Ramu Ramanathan’s new play Ambu and Rajalakshmi, directed by Gurleen Judge

Two meetings in the life of two women, both in their mid-thirties, and the conversations that ensue may sound Beckett-esque, but in this oeuvre by playwright-director Ramu Ramanathan, things are cheerful, even when life throws a spitball at you. Judge, who has been part of Ramanathan’s more intense works, including Postcards from Bardoli and The Boy Who Stopped Smiling (on chess prodigy Viswanathan Anand), says, “Although the content is solemn, the tone is lighthearted. We are calling it a lyrical play.”

Gurleen Judge
Gurleen Judge

Ambu and Rajalakshmi, cousins, meet at moments of crises — the funeral of a grandfather in Benares and a cataract operation of a grandmother in a city. Ambu is a globe-trotting writer, while Rajalakshmi is a homemaker. With them, Ramanathan has set us up for easy expectations. What will they speak about? Will we have to choose Ambu’s camp or Rajalakshmi’s? “It is not a homemaker versus working woman kind of story,” says Judge, “though their conversations sometimes veer towards husband and children. They are aware of what it means to be a woman, but their experience is not limited to their gender.”

Ramu Ramanathan
Ramu Ramanathan

Judge, who has been juggling her day job as theatre facilitator in schools with rehearsals for the play, says this is her second major production, after The Two Character Play by Tennessee Williams. The 23-year-old has worked as lighting designer for Ramanathan and Manav Kaul, and is conscious of the role that lighting plays on stage. “Sound, light and set are also important, and bring more to the text. Having said this, Ambu and Rajalakshmi is my least designed play. The set is austere too; it’s two people talking, and that makes it an easily travelling show,” she says.

That they belong to the Benaras gharana only lends delicious notes of music to the conversations. Coming from the same milieu as Siddeshwari Devi, who tamed the thumri on her lips, the conversations between the women, in English and Hindi, evoke the queen of cabaret Helen, while Siddeshwari’s tunes are rendered by Somitra Saha. Siddheswari and Helen broke the mould; they made the outrageous acceptable.

Judge has no illusions that the play, about two women and directed by a woman, will mostly see female audiences. And, that the question of ‘Who is freer?’ will be something that is left to the audience to ponder over. Judge feels it may not be an either-or situation at all. “Ramu calls it apolitical, but I disagree. It has people and their personal lives at its centre, and is gentler than Ramu’s other plays, but the women are definitely political,” says Judge.

When: Dec 6, 5 PM 
Where: Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point 
Entry: Rs 250 
Call: 66223723

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