(Spoiler Alert: this text may contain spoilers for i am not here by The Lost Post Initiative.)
i am not here, at first glance, is a phrase of unassuming lower case letters, but make no assumptions about its abysmal depths. The censorship of women who write, wrote, had been, had not been, are, and are not written about in history and poetry is an agonising, disempowering long game of negation, resultant from an interplay of patriarchy and its faithful bedfellows- misogyny, toxic masculinity, and oppression – just to name a few.
As a dance theatre production that refuses to cower in silence nor insignificance, it is in fighting fit form to spar with a legion of demons taunting women in writing. The play serves as a primer in introducing insidious ideologies, an exercise in confronting them, and an avenue for the shape-shifting thespians to exorcise them. These demons- which can be named- may be maimed and cast out, albeit temporarily.
Directed by playwright Deepika Arwind of The Lost Post Initiative, and masterfully steered into action by performing artists Ronita Mookerji and Sharanya Ramprakash, the scene is set for battle. A boxing ring sits in the dimly-lit black box. It is in this conspicuous arena where a series of encounters, ranging from eerily playful to embarrassingly painful to shockingly explosive, take place. They do so with each round intensifying in its ability to unnerve those viewing it.
In a pre-recorded version of this tightly-crafted work, I watch flashes of my lived experiences as a woman and writer of this world fleshed out in movement, mime, and speech. All whilst stomaching a soul-piercing punch to the gut when dancer, Ronita Mookerji interrogates herself, her tormentor, and the audience.
“Am I good enough?” she asks. Not once. Not twice. Multiple times. The question has possessed her like a nervous tic and I am not sure if she is still in character. For all of those emotionally charged moments, she has briefly transcended them and I honestly do not know how to answer her. Or myself, for that matter. I squirm in silence, willing for impostor syndrome to be banished from my marrow and wishing I were there, seated amongst those distant, faraway members of the audience of another time and space. At a cerebral level, I want to writhe away in shame and rage awkwardly with them in a collective display of palpable unease. I can sense it through the screen. I am unsettled.
Interestingly enough, for all the rhetoric on patriarchy, it is an authoritative female figure who unleashes madness upon another female performer. Theatre-maker, Sharanya Ramprakash, is stunningly artful in her execution of the haughty grand dame of Bharatanatyam. Her gait is powered by an air of condescension and her words, laced with acerbic wit, mock ruthlessly, inspiring nervous giggles from the audience. Ronita, who cuts a leaner figure, becomes part jester and part student – eager to please her dance teacher. Her poses and hand gestures suffer from the imposition of impossible beauty ideals, forced upon her by the lyrics. Who has shaped these words, where a woman must participate in her own objectification – and that, too, perpetuated by another woman?
Ronita’s character reaches breaking point when she aptly assumes Vrikshasana, alternatively referred to as the “tree pose” in yoga parlance. She meditates upon the injustice she has experienced, to build mental focus to address this grievance, this inadequacy she has been conditioned to believe. Her body instantaneously morphs into an untamed river of fluid movements with no beginning and end, but are punctuated by the repetition of the question, “Am I good enough?” and proclamations of how she “can do more than this.” We know she can but we keep quiet. We are challenged to face our complicity in this all while she twists her body and flexes her muscles summoning the imagery of a bodybuilder who is proud of what he has done to and with his body. Why must the body be valued more in its doing rather than its being? And simply being is sadly a luxury many women still cannot afford.
The sequences preceding this breakdown had not been easy to digest either. “Virginia Woolf is my material source.” I heard the words clearly articulated at the beginning of the play and my mind latched onto them, eager to catch references to Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. Sharanya plays Shakespeare’s sister, Judith – a fictitious character born of Woolf’s imagination. An Elizabethan woman with the same incandescent mind and literary gifts as her celebrated brother William, but shot down for being a woman. She eventually shoots herself — against an aural backdrop of suspenseful, sinister notes and beats.
Sharanya commands the stage, embodying Judith’s bold heart with her grand dreams. And through her, we witness the death of a woman crushed by the weight of violence on her body, mind, and spirit. A spider – an allusion to the act of writing fiction – has apparently outlived her. A comical moment of levity is offered, but the darkness overpowers.
The thwarting and quashing of dreams, often portrayed as suppressed in the female psyche and physique, is a recurring motif in the subsequent scenes. A life of domesticity takes a disturbing turn in the dark of night, when a homemaker wields a frying pan as her weapon-of-choice in her fight for freedom. She writes on this (dangerous) cookware item in chalk. She, at some point, even outlines the physical form of her sleeping male partner. Her childish artwork resembles a crime scene, suggesting that she harbours fantasies of killing him, or at least, what he might represent. Notwithstanding the lingering and rising sense of foreboding, Ronita is mesmerising to watch. She effortlessly bends and contorts her body, dancing deep-seated desires to life.
As a repressed being, her moves are, rather ironically, free-flowing and running rife with cheeky abandon. In her hand, the frying pan is transformed into a tennis racquet and she serves playfully. In this nuanced offering of the brutality involved in sidelining and silencing women’s narratives, this impishness is grossly needed. It is what carries us through when we are impelled to witness more perturbing scenarios: the scathing attack on a female insta-poet by a male reviewer who accuses her of “spinning easy feminist ideas”, the violent beating of a dog by a curmudgeonly old man.
The creature was hit relentlessly into submission. It was wrong to have barked incessantly at other barking mongrels. Was this a nod to an obsession with purity, rooted in casteism? Are the women of the #MeToo movement no more than yapping dogs who ought to just let it go? My interpretations of this abusive scene came at me fast and furious and I was left to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: our oppressors and saviours often emerge from the same source.
i am not here is honest, harrowing, and teaches us through humour that we must, no matter the circumstances, not lose hope in fighting for our vocality and visibility. Combat readiness is our war cry. “Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.” Writer Teju Cole’s words sum up this sentiment beautifully. I want to be here for the better days to come.
i am not here by The Lost Post Initiative played as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival between 20—26 January 2021.
Ranjini Ganapathy is a trained secondary school teacher by profession. Upon leaving the service from the Ministry of Education in 2012, she continued to teach History, Social Studies, and English as a facilitator of enrichment programmes in schools. A former company dancer of Apsaras Arts, she is committed to critiquing and appreciating the popular and problematic narratives of Bharatanatyam in an attempt to better understand her relationship with the art form. As a Brisbane-based creative arts educator, she integrates her passions of crafting and dance into her language lessons. She is also a volunteer tutor teaching adult migrants English.