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When big is beautiful

A troupe from Bangalore that has only plus-sized actors is giving a new twist to Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana

“A fat person can never be Shakuntala in a play about her”, Anuradha HR says categorically. There seems some truth in this for when was the last time you saw a plus-sized actor playing the protagonist of any prominent theatrical production? Perhaps never.

It’s this very frustration of being restricted to only side roles, that propelled Anuradha to form The Big Fat Company in 2017. Based in Bangalore, this theatre group is an ensemble of only plus-sized actors.

The idea started out with the need to challenge stereotypes quite commonly associated with body image through the medium of theatre. “An actor who is plus-sized is given very stereotypical roles — either it is an old person or a comedian or a mother-in-law. Always some supporting role, never the protagonist. The idea was to break the visual aesthetics of the body in theatre,” explains Anuradha.

This unique group is all set to perform its production ‘Head 2 Head’ in the Capital for the first time. Retelling Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana in its own way, this play gives the iconic Kannada play a new spin.

Dealing with questions of identity, Hayavadana remains relevant even after half a century, and seemed to be only a natural choice for the theatre group to put across their point.

With a cast of five plus-sized actors, ‘Head 2 Head’ uses sections of Hayavadana, to interrogate identity and archetypes, and the much-vaunted mind-body (dis)connection.

“It is an iconic play which talks about the question of whether it is the mind that makes our identity or the body. Should we even look at it differently? We found it very relevant to our questions as plus-sized people, in terms of where does our identity lie. How do we perceive ourselves? How do others perceive us? Where do we project our identity? And what better play than Hayavadana that would help us talk about these issues,” adds Anuradha.

For those who have watched productions of Hayavadana in the past, this will be a different experience all together. According to Anuradha, this can be both good and bad. “Since it’s an iconic play, most people have watched it being performed in an iconic format and we question that very format in our visuals, aesthetics and the body. It would be challenging for the audience to see it in a different style.”

In case you are not familiar with the story, you won’t be missing out as the play introduces the story of Hayavadana before it kicks off. The idea is to take the play to even the non-theatre crowd.

For the uninitiated, Hayavadana follows the story of Padmini who is attracted to two men, both of whom are close friends. While she marries Devadatta — a man of intellect — she is physically attracted to Kapila. As the story goes the two behead themselves, while Padmini ends up mixing up their heads and switches it before reattaching.  On coming back to life, it’s the mind that wins over the body.

‘Head 2 Head’ however does not agree with this ending. Not having any definite ending as such, the play closes with questions. “The play is not about giving answers but about raising questions,” adds Anuradha.

In a way, going head to head with Hayavadana, the title of the play goes much beyond that. “We are also head to head with the concept of body and mind. We are head to head with our own issues with the body we have.”

Interestingly, actors often hesitate to associate themselves with the group. The most common question the troupe is asked: ‘Are you suggesting obesity is good?’ The group has only one answer for them: “We are saying healthy is good and beauty has got nothing with  fitness.”

Anuradha requests all kinds of audiences to drop in, especially the younger crowd. “It would be nice if adolescents come and watch this play because it is at this age when all their impressions of beauty standards start forming.  We would like the audience to come and figure out what they behold as beauty.”

The play will be performed as part of the Old World Theatre Festival in India Habitat Centre on August 24