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The Indian singer app

At a time when much is being said about rape in India, a hilarious and thought provoking theater performance is giving audiences in Germany a real insight into the insecurity and sufferings of Indian women. “Shilpa – The Indian Singer App” is a theater performance with music, a solo performed by the Bangalore-based singer and actress M.D. Pallavi. It has being shown in different theaters in Germany, most recently in Kassel, where German theater-goers are invited to interact with an app for mobile phones.

The beginning: Shilpa 202

As the curtain rises, we see Pallavi hidden under a big hoody, programming an app in loops of text and Konnakol, which is the art of performing sound syllables orally. She appears to be a “Cyborg,” which is a hybrid of machine and organism and speaks to the audience in the dark. She addresses us as her users and tells us that she is a product for the global market and is currently being tested in Germany.

The audience gets to “use” Shilpa, a blinking, ever-smiling woman in a sari. She takes our texts and lets us chose the parameters for her voice, from a high pitched one to sexy. We are also allowed to choose an emotion, a raga, which is one of the several “moods” in Indian classical music, and one German word, which she then sings. It is painful and hilarious at the same time, when she sings words like Kartoffelsalat (potato salad) or Kuchen (cake) in the mood “depressed.” The audience rolls with laughter at Shilpa 202. Then, the lives of the women behind “Shilpa” start unfolding.

A young singer, Shilpa’s voice is asked to sing “Put your pipe into my well, your long long pipe” to the melody of Michael Jackson’s song “Scream.” As an actress, Shilpa’s body has to rehearse a generic rape scene for a commercial Hindi film which is set in the Vatican museum, the symbolic centre of white male power. In the process of recording and rehearsing, the professionalism of the women who execute sexist images and sounds, get an uncanny resemblance to the app and make us think again of the opening lines of the hooded programmer “The Cyborg is a hybrid of machine and organism.”

The evolution: Shilpa 404

When both the actress and the singer are questioned by an endless loop of Pallavi’s own recorded voice about why they are not behaving as Indian women should, the young singer breaks down crying, the actress starts to scream and hammers parts of the sound engineer’s equipment to pieces. But the machine is stronger and asks “Shilpa” to “restart the play.” The fight between organism and machine and between human beings and technology creates an amazing tension and constantly changing relationships.

Pallavi’s voice is distorted, amplified and looped. She fights her own voice, she hammers the machine, in the next minute she sings a Christian Canon in the sweetest of voices, looping herself, only to use this song as an audio backdrop for a feminist computer game for girls, called “Vatican Attack.”

The hooded programmer thus leads us through the game to the underground vault, demobilizing guards with pepper spray, cracking codes with her laptop, where she finally meets the pope who tells her that women cannot be priests. She laughs at him and proceeds to Level 2. From then onwards, everything, everyone malfunctions – the upgraded Shilpa 404 refuses to take inputs and sings revolutionary songs. Pallavi gives us a brilliant version of the “Internationale,” the singer decides not to get married and tells us this through a gut-wrenching love song to the microphone. The lights shine on the audience and the Hindi film director looks at us for a long time before telling us that we are all at an audition for the Vatican rape scene. People around are squirming in their seats. The power has shifted away from the audience.

The emergence: Shilpa 606

We are suddenly in her hands as she makes all the men pretend to ride a motorbike. Here, as an Indian in the audience I know where this is going, the German men seem not to. When Pallavi asks them to quickly grab the breasts of the imagined woman they are passing, they pull back their hands in shame. The Indian version of this play is called C sharp C blunt, the bluntness is hitting us right in the face here. But before we can think, Shilpa 606 has taken over, informing us that she has decided to upgrade herself and is now more intelligent than us. In an unsettling parallel to the current NSA espionage, “Shilpa” informs us that she has read our e-mails and bank accounts and is now writing a program for us, her users. In the end with an apple in her hand, “Shilpa” throws a full-throated scream at us – “aoow.” This one pierces our eardrums, we hear glass shattering. The lights go out.

Pallavi is both an outstanding singer and a brilliant actress with a huge range of expressions in her armory. She can age 20 years in a second and takes us through the characters with playful ease, from the naive singer to the powerful director, from the perfect and sparkling Shilpa 202 to the malfunctioning 404 to the dangerous 606.

Director Sophia Stepf directs this razor sharp, sad, hilarious and very intelligent performance in such a way that during its 80 minutes we have no time at all to be bored. She weaves metaphors and symbols of seemingly disparate worlds and ideas to create an inner logic for the play describing how pop culture and religion define the lives of women in a globalized world, how social conditioning works and explains why there is a need in today’s world to speak openly about sexism. At the same time, the play retains a unique sense of humor which makes it a must watch for German audiences.

Author: Debarati Guha
Edited: Grahame Lucas


02.10.2013 | 13:23