An image of a full moon is projected on a large screen, as a woman reads out stage directions and lists the characters of her play. Although she is clad simply in salwar-kameez, she describes a beautiful woman wearing a nine-yard saree. She mouths a long dialogue in ornate Marathi, in a masculine voice, and then proceeds to describe audience applause. As if given a cue, her spectators begin to clap, tentatively, haltingly, not realising that the woman on stage is describing the setting of an old Marathi play, and the described beautiful woman is played by a man.

Anuja Ghosalkar’s theatre production Lady Anandi is a bundle of contradictions, unsettling and amusing its audience with both form and content. The documentary performance, which is being presented as a work in progress, is about a female actor, Lady F, who is haunted by the ghost of her great-grandfather Madhavrao, a late 19th century female impersonator. Madhavrao played men and women on stage, including the eponymous Lady Anandibai, who is notorious in Maratha history for engineering the demise of her nephew and heir apparent, Narayanrao.

Lady Anandi is a one-woman show, with Ghosalkar moving about nimbly on stage as she modulates her voice to sound old or young, male or female. At the end, the audience is invited to ask questions or suggest changes.

Ghosalkar collates family stories, and archival evidence such as photographs and interviews, to weave together the story of Madhavrao, her own great-grandfather. She has worked extensively with archives in the past, and is particularly interested in the recording and retrieval of personal narratives.

“I am fascinated by the artist’s process in interpreting the archives,” Ghosalkar said, after a performance in Mumbai on October 23. “It is interesting to see if they can do away with the heaviness of history.”

Courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar

The photographs of Madhavrao performing on stage, which are projected on the screen in the background, are arguably the most important characters of Ghosalkar’s production. They are haunting and insistent, prompting Lady F to place herself in them, imitating Madhavrao’s stance as he plays men and women. “The closest I ever got to my great-grandfather is though photographs,” Ghosalkar said. “It’s ironic that the images are the most real things I have of him.”

She selects snippets of information about Madhavrao, and sketches a story around them, lacing them with her own experiences as a theatre actor.

“I wasn’t looking only for evidence,” she explained. “I was interested in fictional accounts as well, because we all embellish our personal stories and those make for great performances.” Consequently, Lady Anandi is a sort of theatric montage of disparate sequences, comfortably straddling fact and fiction, doubling up as research project and an artistic endeavour.

In one neatly crafted sequence, Ghosalkar juxtaposes her inability to play a conventional lady on stage with Madhavrao’s laborious effort to walk like a lady with “knees bent and shoulders hunched”. A young wrestler, Madhavrao is cajoled by his brother into playing a woman on stage, wearing lead anklets and a padded blouse. Since Ghosalkar herself plays Madhavrao – a man who successfully learned to impersonate a woman – the comparison resonates beautifully.

Ghosalkar demonstrates the gender fluidity of her characters several times. Lady F, for instance, pronounces her love for “thick, long, dark, hairy moustaches” with deliberate emphasis and fixes one on herself. However, according to Ghosalkar, Lady Anandi derives its feminist politics from its form as much as its commentary on gender fluidity.

“I genuinely wanted to try something with form,” she said. “This form is vulnerable, loose and raw. And that is my feminist intervention.” She asserts that her form demands openness to suggestions and willingness to move pieces of the play. “All the male directors I’ve worked with are very much into clean, shiny, finished product, and I’m not into that.”

Courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar

Lady Anandi thumbs its nose at the conventional aesthetics of theatre even as it pays homage to the process of staging a play. Its aesthetics is remarkably flexible, allowing it to be showcased in virtually any space, ranging from basements and breweries to elaborate stages.

Although the form has received an enthusiastic response, Ghosalkar says some of the audience has resisted her often reading out from a piece of paper. Still, she maintains that the act of reading is integral to the aesthetics of Lady Anandi – the paper allows her to break the fourth wall, acknowledging the presence of an audience. “It’s also like finding pages in the archive. I am also a researcher, so I have an innate fascination with finding the paper.”

Even as Lady Anandi visually ruptures traditional theatric forms, it conforms sonically. Its minimalistic sound and light design are within the boundaries of dramatic convention. The dialogues are mostly edgy and relatable, replete with pithy observations about being a perfect lady, such as the line “be pretty, not slutty”. Particularly refreshing to the ear, however, are the ornate and quaint Marathi monologues, excerpted from Madhavrao’s plays and recorded in Ghosalkar’s voice.

“The flavour of that time will come only from the language,” she said. “I wanted people to hear it.”

Ghosalkar says the production is evolving, and has already changed considerably since its inception. She has made some revisions after listening to audiences and friends, but she does not accept all the feedback. She believes that the Q&A session at the end is also performative and deems it the “most importance part” of the show. “The moment we open the floor to the audience, they ask these terribly intellectual questions.”

While experimenting with form, Lady Anandi tugs at the threads of issues like gender, censorship and ethics. These threads sometimes snarl together into a knot, but the many different elements running through the play are unified by their insistence on the power of personal histories. As Ghosalkar said, “Lady Anandi is basically about an archival intervention where there are archival absences.”

She hopes that her production will help audiences realise the importance of their personal stories. “The more personal histories we have, the more easily we can challenge the grand historical narrative. Finally, it is the idea of challenging history that excites me.”

Courtesy: Anuja Ghosalkar