The changing profile of theatre in Kerala
- Padma Jayaraj
Pics courtesy: KSNA

October 11, 2013

There was a time in the cultural history of Kerala, when theatre as a movement fuelled social and political reforms. Even villages boasted of drama troupes. Since television conquered a prominent niche in households, performing arts have been relegated from the centre stage of social life. However, lovers of drama are trying to change the situation for the better. Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi has taken it as its duty to promote theatre. Hence we had this gift of Amateur Theatre Competition 2013. Six dramas were selected for the final round from performances at various venues. Inaugurated by S. Ramanujam, a renowned director in the field of drama, the competition kick started on September 26, 2013 for a period of six days, at the Akademi Hall in Thrissur.

Amateur theatre, as the term suggests is passionately involved in dramaturgy. As a genre it focuses on experimental theatre. As such, each production showcased the changing profile of theatre in Kerala.

The Saints of Anna Louis was the first play staged by Magical Theatre Forum, Thrissur. It was an attempt that highlighted the social malaise of our times. Organized crime against women, children and the weak is the theme of the play. Institutions that were sacred collude with criminals today. Religious bodies that ministered to the spiritual needs and hospitals that took care of the afflicted are now interested in making money. They have become as disgraceful as sex rackets. In short, what the news media has been scanning is brought under the lens for a close examination.

As the play starts we see a cemetery. In pouring rain Anna Louis buries her daughter Sophy. Slowly, the rituals of burial acquire shades of irony. In an aside, the priest, who consoles the bereaved mother, confesses his fascination for her physical charm. The technique of flashback is used to narrate the story of Sophy’s happy days on the threshold of youth and her innocent friendship. She accompanies her aunt to a textile shop to buy a dress to celebrate her 14th birthday. And from there she mysteriously disappears. Information reaches Anna that her daughter is in the hospital. At the hospital a closed box is handed over to her with the strict instruction not to open it. The coffin moves on to the cemetery under the eyes of the priest. The distraught mother questions her guardian angel. In the twilight realm of grief where rationality is at a discount, the mother holds on to a moment of epiphany. And the martyred souls lead her through the by lanes of crime and anguish. In a surreal mode the stories of missing people, hospitals that sell organs, sex rackets that kidnap children and AIDS that kill both men and women flit like phantoms.

Embryo: Women centered themes are gaining momentum in the performing arts of Kerala. NANMA, Kozhikode, puts forward an unusual theme. With a depth of insight, the play introduces an unconventional love story wrought with psychological, emotional and ethical dimensions. Set in a problematic situation two young women embark on an odyssey in search of true love only to find it transcends the borderline of gender. And as a value, love demands a great deal of sacrifice.

Immath and Ansara, two young married women live in an apartment caught between the land and the sky. Their intimacy started in their college days and they contrived to marry brothers. Estranged from their families, visited by husbands who come as migratory birds from the Middle East, they live together in comparative affluence. They spent time shopping, making merry, and reading as the wealthy young tend to do. Kahlil Gibran, the famous Persian poet is their favorite. Singing of Sufi love, they live and love in a rarified land far above the mundane. Maternal instinct is a natural urge that both of them have. Possessive to the core, the stormy yet intimate relationship moves around Embryo, pregnancy both real and imaginary.
For each one of them their very survival rests on becoming a mother. In fact, Ansara’s husband has given her the ultimatum that to be childless can end in divorce. For Immath, to be the mother of a child is one way of controlling its father, her perennial source of livelihood. Alone in their homeland, at odds with their families, they dream of flying to their husbands who work in the Middle East. The palm tree that decorates their living room is the symbol of their aspirations. Yet both of them are upset whenever they hear the sound of a helicopter. Such nuances mark the contours of their complex liaison. And both of them yearn for a child.

Fate decides Immath to be pregnant. The primary test they conduct at home proves it.  She loves Ansara so much that she does not have the heart to tell her friend the truth. Instead, she declares Ansara is going to be a mother. Overjoyed, Ansara wants to convey the news to her husband, wants to go home to be reunited with her family, the natural and cultural practices that conformists do. Immath just delays the decision which clouds their understanding. Confusion leads to quarrel and to parting. Finally, Immath is forced to confess the truth; forced to prove her love…. by destroying the embryo to the pain and dismay of her companion. The play ends with the two lines of Kahlil Gibran echoing of soulful love beyond the mundane.  

Manjulan Perunthata who won the award for best director has done good job in dramatizing the story of women living beyond the heterosexual framework in orthodox Muslim background. The problem of female sexuality is implied even when companionship and loneliness are the unambiguous issues. That diversity is the signature of nature where deviants and mutants are the norm in her order is another message the play delivers. Persian strains highlight the culture of the women who enjoy Khalil Gibran. Arab music reverberate their dream of reaching the land of Arabia. Lighting reaches the level of fine art in its lyrical charm. The pastel blue of moonlit desert nights of their dream, contrasts with the nightmares that haunt them in dark shades and bloody scene of forced abortion swathed in red, mark different dimensions of the play. Stage setting enhances the theme of interiority, alienation. The play is set truly on the mental landscape. Acting is in sync with the theme of the turbulent yet close bonding, as sacred as of married partners. The script catches the nuances of the background in its associated lingo, concepts and imagery set in contemporary social reality of Kerala. H. Kabani won the second Best Actress award for her role as Immath.

Ocha (The Voice): Clay Play House & Performing Study Center, Malappuram, presented a political play. Conceived as a play within the play, Ocha lends voice to the silenced. Using mime, masque and the grammar of modern dance for its stylized movements the play is a stunning performance that shocks our sensibilities. It is a dead woman’s narrative. Her spirit liberated by death, narrates the harrowing tale to an actor about to perform. Born in a poor Muslim family, she was forced to struggle against poverty after her father’s death. She struggled against all odds to take care of a sick mother and a rebellious younger brother. Her chance acquaintance with a writer landed her in trouble. She was arrested, tortured, raped, killed. Not knowing what her tormenters wanted she succumbed to the hurt and harm. After killing her, the brother was hounded. The story ended as a fake encounter. During the postmortem the inner organs were removed.

Considering what happens under the shadow of terrorism in India, the play is a daring reality check that questions the politics of violence in the name of nationalism. Atrocities against women and suspicions based on religion, echo through the play. The rape scene is reminiscent of the gang rape that sent shock waves recently. And the fake encounter is another incident that haunts the public conscience of India.
Characters and representations move around as dramatic personae. Stylized body movements enhance masquerading. Lighting is used as a tool to spotlight, highlight and to project. And recorded music culled from different sources paint the canvass of an intriguing collage. Conceived and directed by Riyaz, The Voice is a startling presentation of the gruesome reality with which we compromise. Riyaz was named the second Best Playwright.

Bhumiyude Avakasikal (Owners of the Earth) produced by Actors Theatre, Kochi, was adjudged as the Second Best Play. Directed by James Elia, the play is a free adaptation of the story of Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, a doyen in Malayalam literature. In the original story, Kesavan Nair and Saramma who belonged to two different religions chose to live together. The old world broadmindedness and humanity forms the foil for modern day greed, land grabbing, marital discord, incest and sexual violence, and cruelty to animals and birds. All the contemporary issues fit in like a collage. We watch a realistic presentation where the farcical and the scandalous are the ingredients.

Bhumiyude Avakasikal


Matthi: Malayala Kalanilayam, Kannur, staged an impressive performance that won the State Award for the Best Amateur Drama for 2013. Matthi is the local name for sardines in Kannur, in northern Kerala. It is the most nutritious food of the poor who inhabit the coastal plains. Realism, tableau, and chorus fuse and blend to give a seamless narrative of a region through changing times. The celebration of life in the lower segment of society with the flavor of the local dialect is realistically represented with the Matthi knitting each event, be it day to day life, rehearsal of dramas, political upsurge or romance.

The road is the locale. At the symbolic level it stands for the journey of life and of passing time. Houses face the road. The entire village move to and fro through this road carrying on the business of their life. And the local venue where people gather to discuss anything under the sun opens on to the road. Food is prepared in a corner where Matthi forms the main item for village events like drama practice, political protest or support. Of all the fish, Matthi dominates the life of the village community. As if the locality is personified, we hear its voice forming part of the dialogue. From an unknown source it commands the people and guides the central character, the fish vendor Matthi Rafeek. He is proud of his title and waxes eloquence over the Matthi, its peculiar stench that permeates his sweat. It is his little sister who prepares fried fish for community events. It is here the romance between him and his neighbor Sheeba blooms.

The street and the folk that fill it is the protagonist of the play. The first half of the play is a loud picture of folk that rejoice in life. It traces its history - how cultural and political movements brought socialism to the fore, how literacy came to the doorstep of women. The story of Kannur is the social history of Kerala in a nutshell.

In the second half, change sets a different pattern - the folk disintegrate, they migrate in search of new pastures. Railways and trains chug in bringing changes. People from other states are the new migrants who fill the vacuum. Political support is drummed up by paying money. Matthi is now exported to make fish oil and manure. Ever since Sheeba left for a job in Orissa, ever since Mangalore sardine replaced local Matthi, Rafeek lost his heart. Burdened by grief over losses, he commits suicide. The village poet wanders like a lost calf. All is changed save the sea with its perennial waves dashing at the land. The music of the sea fills the sky. The play ends as the orchestra evokes the nostalgic past against the backdrop of the sea. The ingenuous use of the stage props was commendable. Conceived and directed by Rino Joseph, the play celebrates life. And the author got the award for the Best Playwright.

Section 302 Murder by Manjari Theatre studies, Thiruvananthapuram, highlights another social problem that besets Kerala today. The collapse of joint families coupled with the greed for money has sidelined the old. They are left to fend for themselves. The son who manipulates to lock away his parents in an apartment to grab their landed property is outwitted by his father in desperation. Natural death saves the mother from the sufferings of old age. The father tries to reach their children in vain for they lead self-centered lives beyond his realm. To escape from the greed of his son, the father claims that he had murdered his wife so that he can live the rest of his life in prison with people around him even if they are jail birds. And he hands over the land to the government to house old people in their twilight years as per the cherished wish of his dead wife. The slow paced realistic rendering and the acting made the play memorable.  Rajesh Sharma and Usha were named the Best Actor and Best Actress for their performance in the play.

Art is for life’s sake is the philosophy that the amateur theatre competition propounds. All the social evils and problems that beset Kerala today were brought to the fore in an engaging manner. The use of lighting is gaining prominence as an art. The changing profile of theatre is a promise to move on.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the Arts and travel and is a regular contributor to