Growing up, Ankita Kumar-Ratta always felt like she was torn between two cultures. Like many children of immigrants, the Canadian performer spent much of her adolescence asking questions about how she defined herself and her cultural identity. She would later channel many of those answers into her art.
Kumar-Ratta’s interest in her Indian identity was part of the reason her mother would urge her to go live in India after her college graduation. It was that experience and the people she met during her two years away that inspired her new show “Undercover Indian.” The one-woman show featuring Kumar-Ratta playing nine different characters ranging from ages four to 87. The characters explore themes like environmentalism, aging and family.
We had the chance to chat with Kumar-Ratta about her show and why she insisted that it be an immersive theater experience.
The Teal Mango: Your show takes place in a yoga studio, which I thought was a perfect place for an ‘undercover Indian’ to hang out because the connection between yoga and South Asia seems so detached in North America. Can you talk about why yoga and performance are such a big part of your show?
Ankita Kumar-Ratta: Yes it really is detached; we really don’t see South Asian representation, or really any diversity, when it comes to the promotion of yoga in the West. It was when I came back to Toronto after living in India for two years that I started feeling curious about what yoga was. I realized that it was kind of stuck between the East and the West, and since one of the major themes in the piece is being caught between two worlds, I wanted to experiment with how I could use yoga theatrically.
One of the characters I play in the show is a yoga ‘teacher’ (who begins by saying: “I am not a yoga teacher. Yoga is the teacher.”). She gives me the chance to play with my audience and brings up certain ideas that I want them to think about. For example, one of the lines she says at the beginning of the show, while the audience is in balasana (child’s pose) is: “Civilization. What is civilization? Mahatma Gandhi was once asked: what do you think of Western civilization? To which he responded: Western civilization? I think that would be a good idea!”
These moments of reflection make a huge difference because the audience comes to the next part of the story refreshed and – (I hope) – excited about what’s to come.
TTM: When I was reading about the history of your show, I learned that your mom actually suggested that you go to India after you graduated so that you could get in better touch with your roots. What was that experience like?
AKR: Actually, my Mom insisted that I go. Thank goodness, because going to India was one of the best decisions I could have made. I realized how much I didn’t know about Indian culture, and the more I learnt, the more proud I felt to be Indian, and own up to the Indian part of my identity. I built a real relationship with India; I worked in a waste management NGO called Waste Warriors for the two years I was there. Every time I picked up a piece of garbage, I would feel that if this isn’t an expression of love, I don’t know what is.
I remember when one of my cousin-sisters told me that she didn’t wanted to leave India to study abroad, work, or even visit, really and at first, I couldn’t understand why. “Don’t you want to see the rest of the world?” I asked her. “I know it will take me a lifetime to see even a small percentage of what India has to offer,” she responded. That conversation has really stuck with me.
TTM: One of the reviews of your show mentioned that your show is “a must see for anyone who has roots in more than one place.” What do you say when people ask you where you are from?
AKR: I tell them that I was born and raised in Canada and my roots are in India. I take pride in saying I’m both. Spending a longer time in India has allowed me to own up to, and appreciate, the Indian part of my identity — so now I feel at home in India, too.
TTM: What does the phrase ‘Undercover Indian’ mean to you?
AKR: Whenever I spoke to my friends back in Canada (while I was living in India) - I would refer to myself as an Undercover Indian. I always found it a bit funny that even though I could physically blend into most situations, I was looking at everything through a North American lens. Because, for the most part, no one knew there was anything ‘different’ about me until I spoke. I really did feel undercover – Indian on the outside and Canadian on the inside.
Throughout making the show, I’ve had to think a lot about what it means to be undercover and I’ve realized that many of us are in one way or another. For example, I have a friend who’s a corporate director for a large company and yet he’s also one of the most phenomenal dancers I know. I think this feeling, of one part of us fitting in, and another part not, is pretty common.
TTM: Finally, it’s important to say that your show is very interactive. The audience is not only watching you do yoga but is ask to participate as well. What made you decide to make the show an immersive experience?
AKR: I wanted the chance to play with the audience. Going to immersive and site-specific theatre has always excited me. It reminds me of the beauty of the fact that what I’m watching is live and only exists in that moment. And I love that a whole world is created for an audience to take part in, as opposed to just watch.
As a performer, I love the interactive bits. I figure that the audience is there, the performer is there– so it’s a shame for us to have to pretend we don’t see each other. The show is pretty personal so, if I can avoid it, I don’t do the show on a raised platform or a traditional stage. I want us to be on the same level, so it feels more like an interaction.