Desdemona Roopakam at Prithvi Theatre: MD Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy on what makes this performance unique
Directed by Abhishek Majumdar, this concert theatre piece was largely created during the pandemic
Known for their collaboration and camaraderie on stage as part of illustrious The Threshold musical series that celebrates the works of remarkable women globally across generations, award-winning singers MD Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy have been widely spoken about for lately their performance in Abhishek Majumdar’s Desdemona Roopakam. It’s a concert theatre piece that probes the absence of feminist narratives in traditional Indian mythologies, juxtaposing texts from the tragedy and notes of Hindustani and Carnatic music.
A Nalanda Arts Studio presentation, the script for the multilingual play (Kannada, Tamil and English) is devised and co-written by Veena Appiah, Irawati Karnik, Abhishek, Pallavi and Bindhumalini, while the play also includes poetry by Tishani Doshi. Irawati is also the dramaturg for the play. 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. It is supported by Ranga Shankara’s ‘Play the Play’ programme.
Desdemona Roopakam is now all set for its maiden performance at the prestigious Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. Pallavi and Bindhumalini indulged in a candid conversation with TheatreRoom ahead of the performance. Excerpts:
Desdemona Roopakam: Abhishek Majumdar’s new play probes the muted female voices in Shakespeare’s…
Bringing MD Pallavi and Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy in a play for the first time, the 90-minute performance is taking…
The journey so far..
Since its premiere in April 2021, Desdemona Roopakam has had several shows at prestigious venues as well as alternate spaces. Speaking about improvisations and the changes made to it along the way, Pallavi said, “Since we started performing it, we have had one major reshaping of the play — we extended a few scenes, because either those or the arguments were too short. After maybe 10–15 shows, we again got back to the rehearsal room and worked on some of the scenes. Apart from that, we haven’t made any major changes to the play. That’s also because the play was devised with two of the finest playwrights — Irawati and Abhishek. So whatever we devised, it was then put into text by them. And it seems pretty solid in terms of the way that it is written.”
Adding to that, she said, “Of course, we evolve from show to show. But that is in terms of performance, not the text. Of course, we as actors and singers, are constantly trying to go back to the rehearsal room, rework and reimagine. There’s a lot of improvisation that happens musically too. That also is a big challenge every time we do it, because a lot of it is kind of improvised.”
What makes Desdemona Roopakam a special performance
“This play was made at a time when all of us were really in a very vulnerable state. During the Covid-19 pandemic, all of us were cooped up in our own homes and feeling a bit miserable that we are not able to step out. But it was possible to make Desdemona Roopakam, first because it’s a very compact and small team, and second, each of us trusted each other that much — both in terms of professionalism and even personally. Because the two of us got a very bad bout of the virus, the play did not open at the time it was supposed to open and we had to dismantle and then regather after a month. So, I mean, all those dangers were there, even though we had taken extreme precautions. But the play remains special because we managed to make it during the pandemic,” Pallavi said.
Meanwhile, Bindhumalini said, “It was very interesting to do this piece, where music takes the lead. Abhishek was very clear that it’s an operatic piece, meaning the performers are first musicians and then, if possible, actors. That was the premise of how he approached this piece itself — that you don’t have to be an actor, but you need to hold the whole piece through your singing. So, it was very interesting. We all have our own idea, including myself, of what an opera is and how an opera should be. And the way this play is designed, it also goes into the new paradigm of opera. The arc of the whole play that way is large, but production wise, it still holds strong and stands on its own feet with nothing. I think that way it’s a great design, something that is exclusively inspired and developed during the pandemic. I think it’s an extremely smart way to move forward in our imagination of scale. It’s kind of exploring many new paradigms in its process.”
Adding to that, she said, “Even for Abhishek to say, let’s all co-write this was a new thing. I’m sure he’s done that various times. But for him to kind of invite all of us and make it into a collective piece of written work, I think was also lovely. All our voices are there. The collective voice and our various questions makes the piece what it is. Hence, the process was also extremely beautiful in its own way, where you are involved intellectually, emotionally, physically and artistically, and then, being guided by Abhishek, as the director, was a unique experience. We have used absolutely traditional forms of music and storytelling forms of music and operatic forms. And at the same time, we have questioned the forms themselves. I think that’s great that you use the source to also question the source. We are not replacing Carnatic music with Hindustani music to make it something else. We are questioning Carnatic through Carnatic itself. I guess, all these factors are very special about this play — both in terms of how it’s formed and the content.”
Echoing similar thoughts, Pallavi said, “Desdemona Roopakam is also special because it is directed by Abhishek. It’s always great to work with him, not only because he enriches the play with his own experience, but also simply to see how hard working he is. Anybody who signs up for a play with Abhishek knows that they have to work hard and he’s going to work harder than them. But it’s great fun as well, and the thing is that it was a team effort.”
Pallavi and Bindhumalini collaborating for a play
“In Desdemona Roopakam, I’m acting with Bindhu, who I really enjoy working with. I’ve already done so many projects with her and this was the first time I was working with her as an actor. So, that’s fun. It was a team that felt like a family meeting together during the pandemic and doing something special. It’s a devised performance, and so we were continuously asking each other questions, discussing and talking about improving the performance. It was not a set text, so there was a lot to discover and create,” Pallavi said.
Adding to that, Bindhumalini said, “Be it The Threshold, Desdemona Roopakam or the new production that we’re doing, we have built this creative relationship and slowly it’s continuing. It’s just opening up more and more possibilities. This camaraderie allows each of us to explore and experiment more. What’s really precious is what she has brought in — be it in The Threshold or Desdemona Roopakam — as a senior artiste. I think that also allows for a lot of things to emerge. She comes from a family of theatre practitioners. And although all that experience is there, you can see how she comes every day as if it’s her first day, in terms of openness to working and exploring every time and keeping it so equal. I think that’s what is really fantastic about Palavi.”
Reimagining Shakespeare’s Othello
“The need for an artistic piece to be relevant is important. I would rather start from that end of saying, ‘Does Othello still hold true in all its colours even now or are there gaps?’ What else can be relevant now is how it starts the process, and from there builds this piece the way it is built. So, I think it’s very contemporary that way. Every piece needs to make us also think from where we are rather than probably constantly finding a need to either celebrate the past or blame the past. That’s very convenient, because many things have happened and they’ve happened,” said Bindhumalini, adding, “But we live in a different time, and we can’t exactly expect everything in the past to have been like that, because we live a certain way now. But at the same time, we carry the impressions of that and it is deeply ingrained in all of us, and we move forward with those frameworks. And to suddenly wake up, to also say that, to be aware of that and hence navigate the future differently by altering the present, art allows you to do that. The process and the piece do that. And even for us, there’s always something to constantly discover or bring into the piece. Every time the piece is performed, it’s a new thing for me. That way, I guess it’s absolutely relevant, and it holds the thread from the past to now in a very continuous way.”
Desdemona Roopakam will be performed at Prithvi Theatre on July 1 (6pm and 9pm) and on July 2 (at 5pm and 8pm). You can book your tickets here. There will also be shows at Veda Factory on July 4 (8pm) and on July (8pm).