Project Darling: Director Sharanya Ramprakash’s play is a quest for Kannada theatre’s lost comedian Khanavali Chenni

A devised piece, ‘Project Darling’ marks the pinnacle of Sharanya Ramprakash’s ‘Company of Nayakis’ research project. New shows coming up at Ranga Shankara on May 25

11 min readMay 21, 2024
Through Project Darling, Sharanya Ramprakash questions the ‘respectability enterprise’ in performing arts

By Reema Gowalla

Some time ago when award-winning theatremaker Sharanya Ramprakash and collaborator Surabhi Vasisht set out on a journey to delve deeper into the marginalised narratives of Karnataka company theatre’s female actors, their experience turned out to be poignant and to an extent agonising. The research project eventually took the shape of an interview series, called the Company of Nayakis, which aimed at documenting the invaluable-yet-forgotten contribution of yesteryears’ artistes, who were popular on the stage as heroines, vamps and comedians. Marking the culmination of the initiative, Sharanya employed the findings into directing an experimental play in 2023. Titled Project Darling, the piece reintroduces the bold and iconic Khanavali Chenni, who once ruled the Kannada stage with her slapstick comedy and along the way smashed patriarchy, one joke at a time!

Although female bodies formed an integral part of the state’s cultural imagination, Kannada theatre’s relationship with women performers has often been unsettling and paradoxical. Project Darling makes an honest and desperate attempt to explore the forgotten character of Khanavali Chenni, who was a force of nature on stage. She boasted undisputed authority in the male-dominated world of performing arts.

In the devised play, a group of performers embark on a search for their ancestry. While doing so, they come across the legend of Khanavali Chenni and redirect their search toward her. They also meet several other actresses who have their own stories to share. The 100-minute performance is an ‘incisive examination of female sexuality at the crossroads of censorship and culture’. The cast includes actors Matangi Prasan, Shobhana Kumari, Shrunga BV, Shashank Rajashekar and Surabhi. Supported by a India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) research grant and reFrame Genderalities Fellowship, the play was developed at acclaimed actor-director Prakash Raj’s Nirdigantha — Incubator for theatre arts.

Presented by Dramanon Bengaluru, Project Darling is now poised for a new round of shows at Ranga Shankara on May 25. In an exclusive conversation with TheatreRoom, Sharanya elaborates on what fascinates her so much about Khanavali Chenni, the urgency of female performers to reclaim their body and narrative on the stage, why she relied on postdramatic theatre to design the play, and more. Excerpts:

Sharanya Ramprakash with Rameshwari Verma and Manjulamma

Q. While doing the research, you have expressed your frustration at the contradictory nature of your findings. Why so?

A. Yes, there has been a lot of grief and anger, because you don’t know how to deal with the fact that there is nothing that is documented about these iconic female actors. There’s also this uncanny realisation that one day it might also be you, because somehow time has not changed anything. In fact, it feels like the women before us were way more liberated than us, the so-called liberated feminist performers. I think this grief, confusion and anger led to the beginning of this project. Essentially, it’s a disappointment at how willfully women have not been heard and left out of the narrative. I think one of the most important things that came out of the interviews was the idea of ‘respectability’ and ‘vulgarity’. What is vulgar and what is respectful?

It’s something that haunts female performers even today — whether you are the heroine or someone doing an item number. So, where does vulgarity really lie? It’s a question that’s very relevant to me. What is it that society considers vulgar and what is it that is actually vulgar in our own experience? They both seem to be very different from each other. I feel what society thinks is respectable is actually very vulgar, and what is vulgar is actually very respectable. In most cases, the role of the heroine is of someone who’s chased all the time. She’s a desirable woman, who’s part of the male gaze. Then, she’s married to the hero, bears his children and wins over her mother-in-law. All these things that she goes through are actually extremely vulgar. Whereas, a comic actor — who’s in charge of her own narrative and her own body — although she’s considered vulgar, I feel there’s so much respectability in the way she looks at herself. She reclaims her story with so much agency. This was a major discovery of my research, finding women before us who redefined vulgarity for Kannada theatre at that time.

A scene from the play

Q. What according to you made Khanavali Chenni such an iconic character in Karnataka’s company theatre?

A. During our research, we found this woman who played the character called Khanavali Chenni. She was not the heroine or the vamp or any of those top characters. She was just a comic woman. In a sense, she was the clown of the production. Being the clown, she could pretty much say whatever she wanted — be it about her own body, society, her interactions with men as well as her finances. She had many opinions and often placed herself at the centre. We found out that this iconic character had been played by several female actors in the past. And not just cinema, she became extremely popular even in the Kannada theatre circuit, so much so that drama groups would run house-full shows, as people thronged to see her and what she does. From Umashree, Malthishree to Helen Hubballi and more, a whole bunch of actresses have played Khanavali Chenni at different times.

I think that was such a big part of our history. In a sense, going from the confusion and anger, rediscovering Khanavali Chenni was a really important part of the research. Finding out that there were women before us who rejected the idea of this ‘respectability enterprise’, called out how hollow it was and rather said that respectability has nothing to do with who they were. What Khanavali Chenni very iconically does is that she places vulgarity exactly where it belongs — in the eye of the beholder, much like beauty. She says, ‘vulgarity is not in my body, it’s in your mind’; ‘it’s in how you think and see’. The way this character has defined herself is an important part of our history.

The trailer of Project Darling

Q. The character of Khanavali Chenni seems to have a deep influence on Project Darling. Tell us about it…

A. Project Darling is about the search for the actresses who played Khanavali Chenni and how iconic the character really was in theatre. She not only reclaimed history, but also had an unapologetic agency. During the study, we realised that for a long time in Karnataka’s company theatre, there were no women because they would only have men playing women’s roles. Why? Again, because of the ‘respectability’ norm! During those days, they didn’t want women on the stage.

Then the talkies came and they started making money. So, even people in the theatre felt the need to hire women. They came from various places to perform in the company theatre, and it was around the same time that Khanavali Chenni began to define her presence on the stage. Basically, her role was that of a frontline comic, who appeared whenever they were changing the set in the background. Until the new set comes up, she would interact with the audience and crack a few jokes. She would then leave and the main story resumed. This went on for some time, but her increasing popularity eventually made her a part of the main act.

She improvised dialogues and could capture people’s attention as a comic performer, who had so much agency. The audience simply loved her on stage. In a way, I feel, it brought in vulgarity or the idea of female-oriented comedy as a universal idea. During the 1980s and 1990s, Khanavali Chenni became a super hit, a ruling figure in Kannada company theatre. This is a big part of our history as female performers. She’s someone we have to look at as an icon, but her stories are not told because people always considered her indecent. So, you can say that in the middle of the research, we realised that there is a character called Khanavali Chenni, and then the rest of the study was focussed on finding her. Where has this amazing performer gone? Where is she today? We went to all sorts of places and even visited Banashankari Jatre to find her. To be honest, it also became a search for the ‘liberated women’ metaphor. Thus, the play is like a meditation on her. The quest to find her became the narrative.

I think that is really the crossroads of sexuality and censorship. There’s so much censorship when it comes to women’s bodies that we neither want them to own their body nor their own story. And that’s pretty much the patriarchal theatre. But at one point in history, this woman ruled the stage. Unfortunately though, it is such an ignored part of Kannada theatre history. Today, if you go to Hubballi-Dharwad and mention Khanavali Chenni, people say, ‘oh my god, when she used to come on stage the audience used to go crazy’. People used to line up for tickets the whole night to watch her. That’s how remarkable she was, but what happened to her now?

The play’s format is inspired by Germany’s postdramatic theatre

Q. We speak a lot about the emerging prominence of female gaze in cinema these days. Do you see the same happening in theatre too?

A. In a sense, characters like Khanavali Chenni did pave the way for that change in theatre. She was an iconic comic, but never a victim. In my opinion, when you do comedy, you can never be the victim. You have to be the one who’s commenting at all times. In a sense, she turned the gaze back at society, and labelled them funny instead. She was the narrator of her own story, and was very relatable. Simply because, for comedy to be relatable, you have to be able to appeal to everybody’s sensibilities. She was somehow able to create an aesthetic that was popular, commercial and financially viable, while it was also steeped in the female gaze. It’s been said many times that art cinema or art theatre is feminist, but commercial films and plays are not. I think Khanavali Chenni has somewhat broken that barrier. According to her, something which is extremely popular can also be feminist. As far as today’s theatre is concerned, I think there is still just a small number of women performing, writing or imagining how a piece should look like.

Maybe we have more female actors now than earlier, but when it comes to writing or directing, which comprise the fulcrum of imagining a story, the count is still far less. Whether they’re writing/directing a play about men, transgender people, politics or hunger, their numbers are few. If you look back, there were probably more women doing this in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s than in 2024. The kind of things that Khanavali Chenni was able to do, I don’t think I can even do 10% of that in 2024. It’s something like you no longer see an equivalent of women such as Helen, Rekha, Sridevi or Malashri on the big screen today. You don’t get to see those strong, devil-may-care female leads anymore. They were not necessarily doing female-oriented movies, but they were in the centre of all of those narratives. It seems to me that there was an era of women, who were these unapologetic central figures, and Khanavali Chenni belongs to that tribe of Vijayashanti and C Shakeela.

The devised piece uses aerial yoga, among other elements

Q. On Project Darling’s cast, characters and storyline…

A. The play has five actors who are from Kannada theatre. Surabhi and Shrunga have been doing theatre for 19–20 years, while there is Shashank who’s hardly done any theatre. In the story, a group of actors go out on a search for Khanavali Chenni. So, they use the research, improvise on it and do a whole bunch of things on stage. Basically, the play conveys the complexity of the findings. Like, how does one craft a story when there is no narrative that can happen.

While working on Project Darling (a Kannada play with subtitles in English), I was very influenced by Germany’s postdramatic theatre. In this method, they discard the idea of a ‘dramatic narrative’. It’s called postdramatic because there is no beginning, middle or end in the play. I really dug this technique to be able to construct this play. We have also used a lot of improvisations, body, multimedia and soundscapes to be able to convey the complexity of the study. So essentially, it does not dumb down the research. Rather, it uses all contradictions in it — from anger to joy and glory. It tries to keep all of these things and does not give a defined answer. I have tried to keep the contradictions of what it means to be female and have a female gaze, and the postdramatic theatre format has really helped to sustain that. It discards the idea of a story, and instead owns the idea of experience and paradox. Thus, the play keeps its complexity without wanting to simplify things.

While Khanavali Chenni was an iconic figure and her shows were running housefull at one point, it’s also true she’s completely unknown to one part of history. So, these contradictions exist together, and they can’t be solved. Project Darling is an experimental piece, where we also use aerial yoga, a typewriter, photographs as well as old Kannada movie clippings and songs. It’s a fun play with plenty of clowning, singing and projections, among other things that unpack the research. The goal was also to have fun while making this piece. I feel we need to get suffering out of our vocabulary when it comes to feminist work.

Project Darling’s crew comprises Sridhar R Prasad (project dramaturg and production manager); Kruti R Purappemane (co-writer); Aswin Varrier (assistant director and sound design); Arun DT (lighting design); Rumi Harish, Priyashri Mani and Pardafash (music); Siddhartha and Dadapeer Jyman (songs); Rency Philip (puppets) and Khaju Guttala (set execution).

Catch shows of Project Darling at Ranga Shankara on May 25 (3.30pm and 7.30pm). You can book your tickets here.