A vanity bag springs to mind all things womanly. But in the Kannada play Vanity Bag, performed by Sanchari Theatre at Ranga Shankara on October 12, the bag is more than just an icon of femininity; it represents a place personal and private, speaking for the feelings and experiences of a woman.
Two men enter the stage and spot a giant vanity bag. Their curiosity aroused, they nudge each other. They - and the audience - catch a glimpse of what they expect to see in it like a lipstick and compact powder. But these images soon disappear, indicating that they were merely superficial contents. When the actors approach the bag for a second look, nine girls and women pop out, bursting into a song adapted from Kannada writer and poet Vaidehi’s poem Nodabarada Cheeladolaganu.
Backstage, a young girl hands out ‘love notes’ to actors dressed in sarees. “We pretend to read out love messages on the stage though what’s actually written are motivational quotes,” shares one from the 25-member cast. With an undercurrent of feminism running throughout, the play is described by director Mangala N as one that protests against a patriarchal society that makes it its business to delve into a woman’s heart merely to satisfy crass inquisitiveness.
The script is a brew of 18 of Vaidehi’s Collection of Poems threaded together by Vanity Bag. “When I read the poems the first few times, I related to each one individually. But after a few more readings, the poems seemed to be interconnected,” shares Mangala. She confides that she was unsure of the play and it was Vaidehi who gave her the confidence to stage it. “She told me that the worst that could happen was that it would turn out to be a mess and that she would stand by me no matter what.”
Having directed close to 10 plays during a decade of being a director, Mangala calls Vanity Bag her most challenging work so far. “Prose is far easier to work with. Everyone interprets a poem in their own way,” she says, adding that she wrangled the hardest with Avanu Avalu Bhashe that talks of a married couple.
But for anyone watching the play, it is this very poem that brings in the humour. It also establishes the vanity bag as a metaphor for the need for space that is universal. It tells the story of a newly-wed couple very much in love. However, as the novelty of their relationship diminishes, the duo can no longer understand each other. They begin to live as strangers with no common ground or mutual understanding. The woman says, “I have prepared your favourite padartha (dish) kayi saaru (a slightly sweet coconut concoction).” He has a spoonful and mistakes it for majjige huli, a sour dish made with curd, and responds a with comment on it needing more salt.
Talking to City Express, the director says that it was B V Karanth, who inducted Mangala into theatre, who introduced her to Vaidehi. “We hadn’t met before this. Karanthji had spoken to her about me. But from our first meeting on we got on very well.”