The award-winning play, Elephant in the Room by Yuki Ellias reimagines the myth of Lord Ganesha as a coming-of-age human story. The writer of the play, Sneh Sapru, says, “It is about the adventures of a boy named Master Tusk who has an elephant head. He sets out to find his boy head back again.”
People who have grown up hearing mythological stories about Lord Ganesha know that he was not originally born with an elephant head. Beheaded by his father, Lord Shiva (although there is another version to this story), and then having his human head replaced by a tusker’s bean, the God of New Beginnings accepted his fate. However, if given a chance, would he ever set out on a journey to get his original human head back?
The one-act play is conceived, performed and directed by Yuki Ellias who heads Dur Se Brothers Production, a theatre company. Elaborating on how she conceptualized the idea of the play, Ellias says, “I wanted to re-tell the story of Ganesha from another angle—how did he accept the new elephant head after being beheaded by his own father? Also, I wanted to explore the perspective of the animals— on sacrificing their young ones to give Ganesha a new head. All these questions led to the making of Elephant in the Room.”
Finding Ellias’s concept fascinating, Sapru quickly jumped in and helped shape the story idea. Sapru says, “I found the premise interesting. To me, the story of the elephant head is incomplete without the idea of considering what happened to the baby elephant, whose head the boy now wears. That’s what I tried to build the theme around.”
The play, which has been performed at the world’s largest art festival—The Edinburgh Fringe Festival– is a one-woman act. Besides, juggling direction and acting is not everybody’s cup of tea. Ellias admits that preparing for the play was hard. “Since I was working on the floor alone, developing an outside eye for my own work was difficult.”
Without giving away the plot, Ellias says of her role, “I play nine different characters—Master Tusk (Ganesha) who is searching for his old boy head; a spider who is cursed; a hunter trying to lift the curse; a cheetah who sees a prophecy; a hyena looking to migrate to Africa; a Siberian crane who has to change his flight patterns; the personification of day and night; and Wordsweight, an old elephant.”
Like other mythological stories, the task of adapting Lord Ganesha’s story into a contemporary theatre piece is no child’s play. For Sapru, it was also a question of identity, “If you had to live with a completely alien head, how comfortable would you be with it? What would you become?” Also, deciding on the setting of the story was no less than a test. She further adds, “If a powerful Lord, enters a forest full of animals, considered dispensable by him, what would the consequences be? What do animals think of the Gods? I tried to base the drama around these questions.”
Apart from recreating Ganesha’s tale, the play has human stories at the center of it. According to Ellias, it is important to review our myths and the perspectives from which they are usually read or told. “The myths should open our minds and question the ideas of power and powerlessness, and of choice and fate. The play also touches upon the themes of migration, patriarchy, hierarchy, and power.”
It is perhaps this unusual touch that the play has traveled from Theatre Olympics in Bhubaneswar to By the Bay Festival in Hong Kong and received an overwhelming response. At the META festival 2017, the play won three awards—Best Actor Female, Best Lighting Design, and Best Costumes!
Ellias’s social media accounts are bombarded with messages from people across different countries, “People both in India and outside, are able to relate to the play’s story because we used Ganesha’s myth as a springboard to more universal themes.”
Surely, Lord Ganesha would approve!