ITFoK 2016
- Padma Jayaraj

January 26, 2016

The International Theatre Fest organized by Kerala Sangeet Nataka Akademi reached the 8th milestone in its onward journey. This edition showed 20 plays from different parts of the world from Jan 10 to 16, 2016. Each year the fest dwells on a special theme. ‘Body Political’ was this year’s theme. Body is the medium both for the actor and dancer, on stage. Today, we witness how bodies are controlled by various powers that constantly regulate, oppose and restrict the possibilities of how human bodies can exist in their chosen space.

“ITFok this year brings together tales of our bodies that wage and witness wars, bodies that are waiting, seeking refuge, bodies that are excluded, suffocated,  burnt alive, bodies that do not fit in the bounds of caste, race, color and gender,” explained Sankar Venkitesan, the director of the festival.

Sharira by the Chennai-based Chandralekha Group proved a befitting choice for the inaugural function.  Sharira choreographed by the legendary Chandralekha, its founder director, is a powerful portrayal of human body, an exclusive Indian theatrical performance that harks back to the classical traditions of India in craft and in theme. Shaji, a kalaripayattu artiste and Tishani Joshi, a yoga practitioner, have come together to perform Sharira, the final part of a trilogy. The duo has performed in different parts of the world for the past 10 years. Sharira, the Body, as the title suggests is an exploration to understand the male and the female aspects. It is difficult to point to the 1% difference that defies the definition.

The craft, angika, is an alchemy of movements, an abstract vehicle to present a subtle theme in a harmonious combination of yogic postures, Bharatanatyam mudras and poses, and a slow-moving version of kalari - feats that showcase intimate gestures. The dividing line gets blurred as the two energies twist and twirl as in a helix. The dance of the limbs reminds you of the mating dance of birds and aquatic creatures. And harmony prevails as its soul and spirit, as the nucleus of changing triangles and cubes of Bharatanatyam format. The creative forces fuse in creation: Siva-Sakti, a reiterated theme in Indian arts and philosophy. Janani...jwalamukhi...’ the refrain cast a spell as the Gundecha brothers mesmerized in Dhrupad style of singing.  The live orchestra added to a fine collaboration.  Lighting (Sadanand Menon) heightened its abstraction.

The performance brings to light the aesthetics of the body and its infinite possibilities in sensual, sexual and spiritual dimensions. The empathy quite palpable between the actors and the audience, an empathy felt in breath control, filled the atmosphere with a rare energy flowing from the actors to the audience.

The Legends of Khasak
A unique novel in Malayalam by a genius, O.V. Vijayan is the inspiration for Deepan  Sivaraman’s play, ‘The Legends of Khasak.’ To do justice to a spectacular dramatic version, it   needs to be analyzed from different perspectives. To restrict to the theme of ‘Body Political,’ the play can be examined from its sensual angle.
Khasak, a sleepy hamlet caught within the folds of Western Ghats, is a true representation of any village in Kerala. Old timers hark back to their childhood memories in such a village. In that sense the play has an allegorical dimension showcasing an era in its social history.  We encounter Khasak with Ravi, the outsider who gets sucked into its sensuality. The complex text unravels through episodic- multiple narrative pattern that in turn reveals the complex layers of life in its mythical and folk memories; in its mystical and ritualistic traditions; in its sensuality and sexuality that weave the web of its tragi-comic  realities.

The stage surrounded by gallery on three sides reminds you of ancient Greek theatre. The arena is ringed by walkways that bound the village of Khasak. Beyond its realistic limits the screen is large enough to capture its backdrop and links in the story line in impressive visuals. Aided by technology, spotted by lighting, caught within the resonance of songs and music of the times, men and women in befitting costume enact a period of Kerala’s story. Within its magical space the drama of life blooms from birth to death and beyond. Each of the 23 characters has a story to tell that enriches the enigma of life. Here nomads have settled down; social changes erect milestones. Amidst poverty, life is cast in its own terms: egos clash, the mystery of rebellion and vengeance works through sexuality. Body postures of characters mark passing of years. Coexistence is natural in spite of patriarchal bias and feudalistic notions. Nature intervenes with checks and balances. But, here life moves on connected to its dead. Ravi in his wandering reached Khasak to be part of its story.  Between fire and rain, the story of life is told; its songs are sung; its excitement dramatized. Partaking of the theatrical experience was cathartic.
Silk Thread
A Lebanese play directed by Maya Zbib of Zoukak Theatre Company critiques the cultural notions of ‘Body Political’ in her ‘Silk Thread.’ The title suggests how the golden thread weaves a pattern to beautify a fabric. Here, irony forms the hidden thread to string the stories of the collective memory of a land in the Middle East. The actors bring to light its myths, legends and present day events that shatter the lives of its people. By association we tend to recall similar stories in almost all cultures. And the performance reveals how mythologies, fairy tales, modern legends and actual events proselytize our social structures. 

The backyard of an old palace, its corridors and rooms upstairs is the theatrical space through which you move on. The story telling mode of narration is used as if to explain museum pieces to tourists. Three nuns dry their innerwear in the backyard. Smiling in a reassuring manner they greet the puzzled audience with home-made chocolates on a tray decorated with a skull: a metaphor for the play. Two men at the threshold start telling the story of the ‘Village of Idiots.’ The men of the village raped an idiot-girl in all manners that we have heard of in human history. But their women defended their men. Finally, the girl took a knife and killed the men one by one. Mime is the method of acting. They show you the scars on her body, the gifts she received, the knife she used as if anxious to establish its authenticity.

Then you reach a bazaar where you hear people gossiping of what happened. The silk thread starts weaving a macabre pattern. You become part of the gossip as you sip your coffee offered. Hospitality leaves a bitter taste with its saga. Then they lead you to another room with a statue. Like Penelope of the Greek myth, the woman turned into a stone waiting for her warrior. We are reminded of the many that wait for their displaced men. Similarly, the myths of the spider and tortoise are the stories of women who met with unforgettable tragedies. And some men have raped the buried.

Men too are not spared from such losses. You reach another room where the actors enact the story of a Prince who dug out bodies of 40 women, draped them like princesses and kept them in his palace. Yes, you see them as wax figures in a museum. And somewhere such women, mummified in scalding experience walk the streets of war-torn lands of the world.

Red cherries, red apples, red slippers, rock salt spread over coffin-like boxes, skulls with golden hair, are the grim reminders of losses that are arranged like souvenirs.  Whether a war is lost or won the sum total is the same. You feel like a traveler reaching the heart of a land through its by-lanes. Somewhere you goggle your mind to get the forgotten Silk Route of historical times. The Silk Thread is a parallel stream that paints different lands on its bank, of different peoples that tell of tales whose existence is ruptured. The language barrier and the lines flashing on TV screen robbed the intensity of the drama for foreign viewers.

Battle Scene
‘Battle Scene’ by the same group prompts to look inward: to see where we position ourselves, what role we play. As ordinary citizens we too contribute to the insensitivity of a battle scarred era. The play begins with a group of men and women starting their day with the daily rituals of life; taking a bath, cleaning up, and exercising - the daily relaxed work-a-day world, enjoying the beauty of an evening and the inevitable coupling. In between, there is news of the ongoing battles between groups, between peoples for different issues. And we take sides provoked by prejudices or led by social stereotypes. It is one way of getting involved and promoting evil.

Body movements create the battle scene. ‘Guernica,’ the famous painting of Picasso flashes in memory.  The play analyses the reasons that promote jingoism. Aggressive posture is essentially macho, working against humanity. Unwittingly you become part of the political. The message is loud and clear. The panacea lies in consciously promoting positive, inclusive values as civil rights to make the world a better place.

Color of Trans 2.0
Chennai based Penmai Theatre is an activist group founded by transgendered people to fight for their rights. Though slowly coming to limelight, social awareness is necessary for establishing their social and political legitimacy. If body is the criterion to determine gender, where do they stand? Neither male nor female, they are humans. The docu-drama brings to light their physical and psychological needs, anxieties, traumas and travails in the highly hierarchical Indian society.
Co-authored by Living Smile Vidya, Gee Imaan Semnlar, and Angel Glady, they enact sifting  myth from reality in a mix of cabaret dance, clown theatre, monologue, film, and theatre. Poignantly presented it is a smothered whimper that comes from deep within.

Born out of the situation of waiting of asylum seekers, by Mokhallad Rasem and Bassim Altayeb, themselves Iraqi refugees, have cast waiting as a film in expressionist technique. It does not fall into the category of theatrical experience, but documenting the pain of waiting moves from mundane to spiritual level.
For 30 minutes we watch visuals of faces fragmented. Like uncut gems they present various phases.  For 30 minutes, on three screens held in an artful manner, splintered psyches unleash their experience. The theme of waiting emerges in various hues searching for a meaning in the existential angst called life. Waiting is part of the odyssey of life. Waiting is different for different people; different from time to time; different from situation to situation. But, it is linked to hope, even in desperate situations in alien lands, far from home. It is hope that colors waiting.  Cracked and broken, the kaleidoscopic pieces jumble to give an abstract lyrical design.  That it is a spiritual value emerges in a beautiful manner from the fragmented human faces makes it aesthetically authentic.

The International drama festival is a venue to sample theatre abroad and compare it with national and regional theatre of India. The young that throng the place to watch different art forms from folk to classical, from native to foreign, instills hope in these days of films and TV.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer on the arts. She is a regular contributor to