The fantastic theatre maker, Kathakali performer, teacher and Theatre in Education practitioner Maya Krishna Rao.
I am working in Berlin, as a fellow of Freie University’s International Research Centre: Interweaving Performance Cultures. Earlier this week I attended a talk and presentation by Maya Krishna Rao, whose words on process and creativity were illuminating and exhilarating.
I have known Maya and her work for almost ten years. She is phenomenally versatile, this invention and flexibility coming from her training since a child in Kathakali Dance Drama. This in itself is unusual, as females traditionally aren’t given Kathakali training, but Maya was then taught the male roles, where she insists the richness is. ‘It is my greatest pleasure and privilege that my Mother is a dancer… She brought me up like a commando,’ Maya said. ‘The energy of Kathakali is the energy of inspiration.’
‘I must seek accidents, as much of my work came from them… In my work, when teaching at National School of Drama [in Delhi], when working drama in a classroom, I have to keep sensing the surprise, which is what the accident is.’
Her performance work is improvised, working often alone with a video camera, and music. What sparks her when starting out is the tension between the small and the big. The small might be a tiny event, or a prop or object which is of use; the big is an historical landscape, and it is the tension between these, disparate things coming together, which can surprise and create the initial spark.
Each new project needs to bring a new challenge, and she asks ‘what is the unknown?’ For The Job, an adaptation of a short story by Brecht about a woman who worked as a male night watchman for many years, the unknown was using her voice.
She described setting a task for herself – that she would speak non-stop during the hours of improvisation, filming herself as she moved through the tasks of cooking, eating, bathing, talking non-stop although at the start she felt self-conscious about her voice. But she stayed true to the task, and worked through her self-consciousness and ambivalence towards her voice, and material began appearing, memories, text, nursery rhymes. She felt that these must be connected in some way to the developing piece, and had faith in her improvisations.
As she described this process, I was struck by the way she stayed true to the tasks she had set herself, and trusted both herself and the process, even though she was in the midst of creating it.
There is no doubt the foundation from which Maya works is provided by her Kathakali training, but even for those without such deep practice, some points can be drawn out.
So often I have heard of solo artists ‘cheating’ on themselves, cutting corners, failing to do what they set out to do, or, most often, giving up on the work owing to self-consciousness, or lack of focus and discipline. It is a massive task just to get up and put in the hours when working alone, creating raw material, especially when young in career. Self-doubt so easily sets in, or boredom, which is why Maya’s insistence of finding ‘the accident’ which surprises; the juxtaposition which creates tension is so valuable and important to remember – and the promise to complete the task set for ourselves – and to trust eventually something will come through so long as we are patient and work at it.
She spoke about the preparation required to begin work. She said she can’t sit at a desk and think of the big and small. Her inner word is prepared with the breath. ‘You prepare and get into limbo, but you can only do that if you have the rhythm. Get the beat, sense the gaps, and then surprise yourself by doing something – and then you can inspire yourself into the inner and the outer worlds.’
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