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How well-known theatre artiste Maya Krishna Rao drove her body to depict the darkness of death-row cells

For the first time in her 50 years of performing on stage, Maya Krishna Rao, 70, is feeling unsettled before a show. She thinks it is because she is talking about bodies that are on death row but not yet dead, and her body has to be a conveyor of this state.

The performance, ‘You Really Want to Know My Story?’, revolves around death row prisoners and is based on real stories. The central protagonists are a bus driver, who has mowed down 10 people, and a migrant worker, convicted of rape and murder. On September 20, the piece will inaugurate an online exhibition, “Capital Letters: From Death Row, India”, organised by the National Law University, with ReFrame, an initiative that responds to contemporary challenges through art. Comprising letters from death row prisoners, the exhibition seeks to give people a glimpse of the space where the living wait for the end.

“Usually, when you make a performance, you are worried if the camera will work, if the musician will pick up the note or if you will remember the text. In the case of this particular performance, it’s a very strange sense of will I arrive? I don’t even know where it is that I want to arrive,” says Bengaluru-based Rao, a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner. She returned the award in 2015 to draw attention to the killings of Md Akhlaq in Dadri, Narendra Dabholkar in Pune and Govind Pansare in Kolhapur.

Rao, who started with street theatre in the 1970s and moved to the proscenium for 25 years after that, is today identified as one of the most powerful artistic voices on protest platforms. She is a solo performer, whose works have questioned governments and demanded answers, be it in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape in 2012 or the farmer’s movement in 2020-2021.

It has become easy to forget that Rao likes to make audiences laugh and has created endearing comedies, such as Quality Street, about a mother and a daughter. Her last play, announced in 2018, was Loose Woman, which showed the free spirit of women straining against conventions and had lines, such as “I want to dance, slow motion, I want to send arrows, arrows, arrows, arrows, slow motion”. One of the finalists at the competitive Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards in 2019, Loose Woman was travelling right up to February 2020, before the lockdown was announced.

Now, as she creates her first research-based solo performance with “You Really Want to Know My Story?”, Rao reels off statistics that she never knew had existed — there are more than 50 types of crimes for which the law can sentence a person to be hanged. We like to believe that the death sentence is reserved for the most heinous cases, but the truth is that there were 730 people sent to the gallows in the last five years. “That is one person every 2.5 days. Once they are picked up and locked away, we know nothing about them. The more pressing point is that we don’t seek to know. It is only while going through the death row cases that you realise that the inmates’ true stories rarely come out because their legal representation is weak as they cannot afford lawyers,” she says.

Unlike any other play, Rao spends two hours in the mornings preparing, wondering what she should be eating, how she ought to breathe and exercising in ways she never has before. She wants her body tightly wound to show to the audience prisoners who are being tortured every day. A special aspect of her shows is working with musicians and, for this performance, it is Goa-based Vishesh Kalimero. As Rao worked online with Vishesh, she found that her speech was going into all sorts of sounds, from breathing to semi-words to half-sentences to growling and singing, though she is not a singer. The spoken text has emerged really fast and Rao has maintained the tempo though it was hard for her body to keep up.

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People in India are divided about the death penalty, with eminent lawyer Indira Jaising even asking the mother of the Delhi Gang-rape victim to forgive the rapists. Rao has always maintained that the rapists “absolutely needed to be punished but I did not believe that they should be given the death penalty”. “I never stopped thinking about who they were and how they ended up becoming these kinds of men. It made me think about the modes of violence happening in private bedrooms. We feel okay when the five men were hanged as it makes us breathe a little relief but it shuts our eyes to how rampant violence in every form is,” she says.

Her show is about giving the audience an experience about what it is like to be picked up for a crime, to have a sword hanging on the head and a noose hanging in the future.

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The performance will be held at India International Centre, New Delhi, at 6 pm today

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