Ulka Mayur describes herself as an Indian theatre artiste, storyteller, writer, actor, director and folklorist. She is also a dancer, scholar and founder of the production company, Story Circus, with her husband, writer Mayur Puri. She has been creating unusual content for children and adults and much of her work is inspired by folklore and mythology, which remain an abiding passion with her.
Her latest play, Ballad Of Desires, weaves mythology, poetry and philosophy to tell the stories of women like Ahalya, Renuka, Ruchi, who were punished for desire, using the medium of dance. “I have taken the poetry of Maya Angelou, Pablo Naruda, Khalil Gibran, concepts from the Rig Veda and Gita, sifted through abstract concepts about the enigma of desire, the debate on desire,” she says, “there are two types of parallel narrative that go on—dance pieces that convey the philosophy of desire, and the stories of women from Indian mythology. I have also included a tribal character from an alternative version of the Mahabharat.
“There are also the apsaras, who are meant to be objects of desire, but Rambha was raped and Menaka was punished for falling in love with the man she was supposed to entice. I have touched upon all these aspects and I have also tried to infuse some humour and satire. The language is not Sanskitised Hindi, because that would alienate the audience. I have experimented with language, using Urdu, a bit of English—like we speak.
“I have also broken convention with dance,” she continues, “My training is in Kathak, but I have used other dance forms– elements of paso doble, salsa, butoh, hip hop. I have a strong visual sense and Ballad Of Desires is inspired by the art of Raja Ravi Verma. I created it like a series of paintings, so I had to make the actors stop moving about too much and be still. The music composed by Bharat-Hitarth is original, except for a tribal song and a chaupai.”
Her earlier, acclaimed one-hander, Cast Off All Shame, was about the female Bhakti poets of India. “I have always been a humanitarian,” she says, “I come from a place of love and I try to subvert all hostilities be it religion, caste or gender. I have also taught my kids the basic qualities and values of empathy and understanding of humanity. Reading history and mythology, I try to understand women in folklore and indigenous traditions. We are fortunate that we belong to a generation that has awakened and we are aware of how things should be.”
She recalls a sold-out show of Cast Off All Shame, which she discovered was for an all-male audience of military men. “Not a single woman in a show that was totally meant for women. In that play I made a conscious decision to break the fourth wall, the character should be able to peer into the soul of the audience. I didn’t know where to look in an audience of men. But after the show, the response I got was wonderful. Some of them said that at some point they had gone through the same emotions and I realized that emotions are universal.
“A man may not understand what a woman experiences, but he will understand vulnerability, because we can all be vulnerable. Some said they thought they were evolved, but when they saw the show they realized that they had discriminated against women in subtle ways. I am not aggressive, but I believe that everyone should get respect and dignity and I practice this in my life and in my writing. So it comes across in my work, even the shows that I do for children.”
Married to a writer and creative person, Mayur Puri, whom she met in college in Ahmedabad, she says, “We don’t invade each other’s space. We have so many interesting things to share, but we also have to grow separately. We inspire each other all the time. He read the first draft of Cast Off All Shame,, and asked me to simplify it; he said everyone in the audience is not a PhD. I am a researcher and my PhD training is such that when I read something my mind automatically goes beyond the text, but I learnt not to make things erudite.”
Ulka says that it was because of her children that she discovered she had it in her to be a storyteller. “I had learnt classical dance with Kumudini Lakhia and Uma Dogra, but I wanted to evolve, develop my own language, my own creativity. I am a later bloomer. Initially I kept busy with academic pursuits, I taught in a college for 10 years. When my sons were born, I thought I should remain at home for them. Their childhood would not return, work could always happen.
“Working with kids was a different ball game altogether. I like storytelling, I wanted to perform. I started writing for children because my kids could accompany me, I didn’t have to leave them at home—so it was for a totally selfish reason but I found there was demand for it. Performing for children keeps you on your toes. I grew as a writer, I learnt to improvise a lot as a performer.
“I have so many stories within me that I want to share. If Cast Off All Shame, was about emotions and Ballad Of Desires is about sensuousness, I Cloud was about the mind. Because the characters in the play are not real, they are representations of his thoughts. It was inspired by 1984 (by George Orwell), and we said a lot of things politically that we didn’t expect would happen and they did. So we were advised not to do any more shows.”
(This piece first appeared in mumbaitheatreguide.com)