Desdemona Roopakam: Abhishek Majumdar’s new play probes the muted female voices in Shakespeare’s Othello

Bringing MD Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy in a play for the first time, the 90-minute performance is taking the stage at Ranga Shankara this weekend; home kutcheris in the offing

MD Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy in a scene from ‘Desdemona Roopakam’ (image credit: Virginia Rodrigues)

By Reema Gowalla

So, you’re familiar with the story of William Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’? Abhishek Majumdar’s ‘Desdemona Roopakam’ may still take you by surprise. This adaptation spotlights the female voices in the narrative that were often missing. The concert theatre piece simultaneously probes the absence of feminist narratives in traditional Indian mythologies, juxtaposing texts from the tragedy and notes of Hindustani and Carnatic music.

‘Desdemona Roopakam’ sees two award-winning artistes — MD Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy — come together in a theatrical production for the first time. The script is co-written by Veena Appiah, Irawati Karnik, Abhishek, Pallavi and Bindhumalini, while the play also includes poetry by Tishani Doshi. Sound design is done by Nikhil Nagaraj and light design by Niranjan Gokhale. Traditional dramatic art forms like Yakshagana, Harikatha and Yellamanata add to the distinctive approach and treatment of the narrative. A Nalanda Arts Studio presentation, the multilingual play (Kannada, Tamil and English) is supported by Ranga Shankara’s ‘Play the Play’ programme.

Where it all began..

Speaking about what inspired him to work on this piece, director Abhishek says, “I was very keen on doing an adaptation of ‘Othello’ at some point in my life. In fact, Roysten Abel’s ‘Othello: A Play in Black and White’, which featured Adil Hussain, was one of the most important influences that drew me to the theatre during my college days. Cut to recent times, I had been contemplating working on a classic for a while now.”

Abhishek Majumdar

He adds, “Sir Michael Boyd once said, ‘you should do an old play as if it’s a new one and a new play as a classic’. This thought kind of stayed with me, and when Ranga Shankara approached me last year for a play to be part of their reopening shows, I took that as the opportunity to bring my adaptation of the tragedy to stage. One can find productions that foreground Desdemona, but looking at it alongside perspectives in Indian epics and folk stories with Hindustani, Carnatic and folk music being an integral part of the narrative make this performance a different kind of experience for the audience.”

From ‘threshold’ to the theatre

Referring to the comfort level she shares with her partner of ‘The Threshold’ musical conversation series, Pallavi says, “Apart from being a brilliant musician, Bindhumalini also has a keen sense of dramatic arts and character. Of course, working in the theatre entails a different experience from that of being on the stage as singers. But the trust that we have in each other and the tuning that we share is both endearing and inspiring. She is a great teammate whether we perform as ourselves or different characters.”

Adding to that, Abhishek says, “Although Pallavi was part of ‘Muktidham’ and ‘Salt’, I have mostly worked with both her and Bindhumalini as musicians in the past. Conversations were going on for years to do something together in the theatre, but nothing took shape until this play came into the picture. It’s always nice to work with actors who can enact Shakespeare, sing and devise. In Pallavi and Bindhumalini, we found all these three qualities. It was a great place to be in as a director.”

MD Pallavi

Deciphering the graph of Desdemona’s life

According to Pallavi, working on the play has been a unique experience in more ways than one. “A musical telling of sorts, the play investigates the method of presenting, curating and narrating women’s voices in Shakespearean literature as well as that in Indian mythologies. Bindhumalini and I are the only two actors in the play, and we assume different roles within the gambit of the performance — from different characters of the tragedy to narrators. Together, we try to decipher the graph of Desdemona’s life through other female voices in the narrative that lend a different perspective to her psyche and personality.”

Rehearsals amid the pandemic

The rehearsal sessions, according to the director, were more of a developmental process. “It started with the notion that what is it that we are trying to say through this play. We were stepping out of our homes putting ourselves and our family members at great risk, so it better be worth it. That’s what the writers of the play kept going back to while devising it,” says Abhishek, adding, “Having a dexterous lot of artists onboard meant that there were many skills on the plate which, in turn, helped in creating a nuanced piece. The technique employed is such that it dabbles in monologues then moves to scenes that are sung completely,” he explains.

The team began rehearsing some time in September 2020 in a part physical and part online model, with all safety measures in place. “Unfortunately though, both Bindhumalini and I contracted the virus and the play had to be shelved for months. Then in April 2021, we premiered the show at Ranga Shankara only to be locked away again due to the second way. Overall, the making of ‘Desdemona Roopakam’ has been an intense journey. Hoping, this run of the play will go smoothly, and we can take it to more people,” says the actor.

Where next?

“The piece is soon premiering its home kutcheri version, where shows will be conducted in people’s homes in an intimate, 10–15 audience member capacity space. A high-quality recording of the play will also be made available digitally in the near future. Meanwhile, plans are afoot to curate techniques, methods and improvisatory workshops and dialogues around ‘Kaumudi’ and ‘Desdemona Roopakam’ to expand their scope. This will serve as an exchange programme between us and young aspirants and enthusiasts who could not do much in the past months due to the pandemic,” Abhishek sums up.

‘Desdemona Roopakam’ is scheduled to take place at Ranga Shankara on September 19 at 3.30 pm. You can book your tickets here.

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