South Asian sensibilities on stage 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur 
Photos: GB Kiran 

January 4, 2009 
The International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFK) organized by Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi in connection with its Golden Jubilee celebrations kicked off in Thrissur on 22nd December 2008, with the staging of the Peking Opera. 

The ten-day fest was a meaningful intervention by artistes through theatre to check cultural invasion. "It was relevant at a time when society was closing its doors to ideas of friendship and cooperation," said MK Rana, noted theatre stalwart of the subcontinent. Here artistes from our Asian neighbors have found a common platform to herald a unique theatre experience at a time of deteriorating bilateral relations. 
"The theme of ITFK 2008 is ON STAGE: MODERNITY IN TRADITION, focusing on efforts by Asian theatre stalwarts  in denying the decrees of global market forces, thus securing a place apart from local idioms, expressions and experiences through adept modernizations," said the festival director J Sailaja. Plays from China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran and Nepal besides works from different states of India enthralled the audience. Group theatres from Kerala found a venue for showing their experimental work side by side with that of the masters. 

Peking Opera 
Monkey King
The inaugural item, Peking Opera, presented a slice of Chinese indigenous expressions, in music, dance, drama, and spectacle staging four ancient legends. Traditional in format, the opera is a synthesis of the folk and classical streams. Its special music (string instruments, cymbals and drums), traditional costumes in pleasing colors, rhythmic movements, and mastery of acrobatics evolved from its martial arts, was a new experience to the theatre buffs of Kerala. The stories though culled from Chinese legends, are universal in theme. Rebellion, love, and journeys in search of things special are common in human cultural history. A synthesis of natyadharmi and lokadharmi speaks in volumes of the Chinese experiments in Opera, which is a European art form. ‘The Intoxicated Concubine’ shows not just a leaf from its social history, but also a powerful human emotion with Chinese sense of aesthetics. The play ‘Monkey King’ is a riveting display of acrobatics. Beyond the apparent fun and spectacle, it evokes legends of Hanuman for the Indian audience. The play explores the theme of happiness. A group of monkeys understand that real happiness lies in community life, a living together sharing the joys around.  
Wen Gusheng, the actor/director of the troupe is a familiar name in global theatre circuit. A winner of many awards, including the UNESCO award, he represents the younger generation of artists and has taken his group to the world stage. For him, opera is a tool to present social concerns. 
'Mudrarakshasam,' a Sanskrit play of 4th c AD was a tribute to Jose Chirammel, a promising young director who met with a tragic end. He directed the play 21 years ago. Most of its former cast, 16 actors who have made their name in different fields of performing arts joined to re-enact the only political play in Sanskrit penned by Visakadatta. The play is a marvelous attempt at evolving a powerful indigenous theatre idiom borrowing heavily from Kathakali: its mudras, its abhinaya and its kalasam and making use of masks from folk arts.   
'Rarang' (The Distant Drum) by Mamunur Rashid (Aranyaka Natyadal from Bangladesh) is a harmonious blend of spectacle, music, dance, light and movement. A stunning and energetic performance, its theme is the issue of the landless and migration of the marginalised. It is an issue not just in Bangladesh but all over the world: how the nurturers of the land are still being thrown out, and mainstream politics destroy aboriginal peoples, their land, and their culture. The story revolves around the history of Santal, a hill tribe that inhabits the eastern part of the Subcontinent. 
'Paari Padukkalam' from the Department of Theatre, Pondicherry, is the product of  a team of multilingual artistes who are students. Directed by Pralayan, the play is a page from the hidden past of Tamil history. It tells the story of a good chieftain of a small principality who becomes a victim of the rivalry between Chera, Chola and Pandya kings. There is the subaltern issue even among the royalty. Environment and good governance are woven in as sub themes. Although conceived as a poetic play that suits a tragic story, the play is not effective, in spite of its brilliant lighting. 

'Bulha' from Pakistan is a tribute to the great mystic who advocated peace, love friendship and harmony among religious sects. Bulla was a Sufi saint. The play is a presentation of powerful scenes from his life that has come through his poetry, historical records, popular myths and dramatic episodes. The play recreates his times and his mission in life. His search for truth, his endearing relationship soaked in humanity with his mentor Sha Innayat, his struggle against the intolerant clergy and corrupt Nawabs, his opposition to war and bloodshed in the name of religion are a string of scenes in the play. Qawali music and songs that evoke the call from the mosque reverberate and lighting weaves a theme of its own: symbolic and aesthetic. It is a celebration of Punjabi culture. The play is a forceful message to the present day Pakistan and a plea for love and peace.  

The director Madeeha Gaur is simply brilliant in giving the feminine sensibilities to a spiritual and social theme. And the play is wonderful blend of all aspects of theatre. 
'Face to Face' is a special feature that gives an opportunity for interactions with the visiting artistes, for furthering relations and understanding between geographical vistas that shared a common bond in not a very distant past. 
The Peking Opera troupe spoke of the themes that they use at home which show contemporary concerns. They shared their experience of interacting with other cultures. 

The group that staged the Sanskrit play Mudrarakshasam recalled their experience as beginners 21 years ago when the director Jose Chirammel directed the play for the first time. The interaction brought the evolution of Malayalam theatre to date to the focus.  

Mamunur Rashid from Bangladesh is an internationally acclaimed theatre stalwart. He, with other renowned theatre personnel, has spearheaded alternative theater movement in Bangladesh. Politically active and socially committed, theatre is a powerful tool in his hand. During face to face, he shared his experience of making the play which is based on a real event. The central character is modeled on a real person whose name and identity is retained for political reasons. He also spoke on his experience of intolerance of theatre activism from the mainstream society and the State.  

Madeeha Gaur is a theatre activist who works for women empowerment and social justice. She has more than twenty plays to her credit. A member of the Ajoka Theatre from Pakistan, she is bent on strengthening people to people contact across the border. Ajoka has performed in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and in the West. The theatre stalwarts believe cultural ties in the subcontinent alone will be the harbinger of peace beyond political turmoil. 
The drama festival was a venue for seminars. Chaired by Bharath Murali, the chairman of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Sasi Kumar, Chairman, Media Development Foundation, presented a paper on Theatre and Visual Media.  
He dwelt on the process of discovery and exploration, which began in the 1920s with Eisenstein's cinematic montage and Brecht's epic theatre that now comes into its own. Perceptions have changed in the last one century; the world has moved from photography to cinema and to the present digital mechanism. In a world of digitalized sensibilities we have moved from linear, centered perceptions and understanding to a non-linear, multi-tasking surface reality in this information age. Technological convergence could redefine and reinforce the mutuality of theatre and cinema and its manifestation in the newer television and cyber media. 

"A new set of dialectics is at play: between the linear and the non-linear, between analogue and the digital, between sequential cause and effect and discrete sound and sight, between the centre and the margin between unity of time and space and a dispersed pixelated environment."  
The second day saw Dr. Syed Jamil Ahmed of the Department of Theatre, University of Dhaka, mapping Bangladesh theatre in Asia.  
His 'East is Beyond the Horizon' presented an overview of contemporary urban theatre. According to him, urban theatre articulates a distinct identity of its own. Theatre traditions of Bangladesh and minority ethnic communities have influenced contemporary urban theatre. Group theatre since liberation, examines various issues like the crisis in the middle class, colonial history, relations between the masses and leadership, gender problems. Street theatre is another vibrant medium of mass protest. Theatre idioms reveal the legacy of south Asian theatre in the rural theatre of Bangladesh for, the source of its vocabulary is imbued with a pan-Asian consciousness with cross cultural roots etched in history across the current political border of the country.  
'Playing for change, contemporary theatre in Pakistan,' was the paper presented by Madeeha Gaur, the director of Bulha, the play from Pakistan, who spoke in the absence of Shahid Nadeem, the proprietor of Lahore based Ajoka Theatre. She began with Partition to give a historical and cultural context in which Pakistani theatre came into existence.  Official Pakistan was paranoid about demystifying its Indian connection. And the political attempt at imposing Urdu as its official language and looking to the Middle East for a cultural sustenance virtually cut indigenous ties.  In the process, vibrant folk theatre disappeared. And street theatre and political theatre vanished. Geographic reality got subsumed. In the 50s and 60s, theatre was just amateur trying to boost Government ideology. Commercial theatre remains entertainment oriented.  

Theatre movements started as anti military. Socially-committed theatre-groups started challenging the politically and culturally repressive military regime. Ajoka is such a theatre group addressing social and political concerns. For evolving a performance idiom they use indigenous language and culture, besides experiments to link contemporary reality with traditional and folk forms. 
The other plays staged were Atmahatya, a Marathi play (Sadanand Paramanand Borkar) Sinhabahu from Sri Lanka (Ethriweera Sarachandra), Jocasta from Iran (Mohammed Aghebati), Dusamay, a Bengali play (Pratap Jaiswal), and Fire in the Monastery from Nepal (Sunil Pokharel). The 10-day fest ended with the New Year, ringing the bell ushering a new dawn for theatre in South Asia.. 

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to