International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK)
- Padma Jayaraj
Photos courtesy: ITFoK

March 23, 2017

Conceived during the chairmanship of late actor Bharath Murali (2008), Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi initiated an annual theatre festival for independent, experimental and contemporary theatre groups from across the world. Today ITFoK is a major cultural event of international appeal and repute. Spanning eight days (20 - 28 February 2017) the premises of the Akademi at Thrissur, became a festival ground. The 9th edition of ITFoK launched, “Variousness of languages of theatre to variousness of space.”

Lost wheels of Time
The 9th edition evoking Kerala's Sanskrit classical theatre, Koodiyattam began with 9 drums (mizhavu) sounding the clarion call. Performances showcased Kerala's traditional theatre and contemporary practices. Street performances were the highlight with smoldering social and political activism. The contemporary performance practices are undergoing multifaceted challenges. ITFoK 2017 charted its course of adventure by opting for different genres, cutting across the boundaries of artistic expressions that explore and reinvent new languages and crossovers.

ITFoK 2017 curated different genres of theatre. Multiple venues sprang up in unlikely places, ranging from town hall to swimming pool, to host spectacles from around the world. It opened a window on dramaturgy: to scrutinize narrative strategies, how to use cross-cultural signs and references, learn the use of multiple venues, media and genre, to critique ideological approach, gender roles etc. The students of theater got enlightened in Performance Installation and Theatre Pedagogy of a different kind.

ITFok 2017 started with a unique show (25 minutes) in the court yard of the Akademi , a non-verbal presentation of three solo performances linked by the aesthetics of the body suggesting its politics. A cobbler, a creative artist destroyed machine, human evolution, not confused with 'progress', migration as a pattern of life are the themes presented by three actors almost simultaneously, challenging theater conventions of space, time and unity. A production of Theatre Roots and Wings, the show, like a puzzle, provoked to think and re-evaluate existing notions. Like abstract art, it teases our imagination and scribbles the signature of ITFoK's 9th edition.

LOST WHEELS OF TIME, an outdoor visual clown show, is conceived as street theater. The play (Adam Reed & Fyodor Makarov of Germany & Israel) is powerful with a foreboding sense of warning. The play begins with a clown interacting with the audience in gibberish. A long curtain with pictures of wheels forms the locale. When the curtain is raised we see a landscape of wheels where carrots and flower pots relieve monotony. The backdrop comes alive as a landscape of time-machines: a panorama that looks like an installation. The clown using the metaphor of 'Alice in Wonderland' moves back in time following a rabbit.

Time travel harps back to the theme of human relationship with the fauna and flora. The rabbit behaves like a monkey, a dog, and finally the Huggy, today's playmate of children. The carrot grows in size, so huge that it is not edible any more, as a parallel. In between, the tennis pantomime brings in the theme, war-mongering with political underpinnings. The use of sound and music is incredible.

The venue paints a collage of multiple ideas more implicit and evocative than explicit. It makes use of visual clowning, sound and smoke effect for Time travel. Cartoon like characters introduce elements of animation. Humor and surrealism convey underlying themes. The attempt to go back resonates with the attempt in modern laboratories where experiments are going on to retain youth. The play ends with the wheels going crazy while Time moves on inexorably, producing an array of Frankensteins that threaten human existence. However as a street theater, audience participation, strong in the beginning does not last throughout.

Dohri Zindagi
DOHRI ZINDAGI (Dual Life) scripted by Vijaydaan Detha and directed by Gurleen Judge, a conventional production on stage, questions the traditional notions of love, bonding and relationships imposed by patriarchy in the Indian context. Rajasthani folk music booms to create the ambience even before the play starts. We find two women seated on the doorstep gossiping, a traditional sight in a village. Steeped in folk traditions the stage comes alive in rural charm. The drama begins as two women take up different roles as man and woman using head-dress as props.

The story starts with the birth of two girls in neighboring villages of Rajasthan. They are bound by marriage by their fathers even before they are born. One of them because of greed for dowry brings up his daughter as a boy. In patriarchal Rajasthan the anxieties of women are suppressed although sex charts its own course at times. On the wedding night the bride finds out the truth about her husband. The couple, after the initial shock, rises from the sacrificial fire like the mythical phoenix. They leave their home and move to the wild to start a new life that shocks the society. The themes of lesbian love, female bonding, and a life of sharing are cast against Rajasthani paintings that depict traditional life in villages.

Traditional dance, music, costume, painting, body language and stage props highlight the modern concept in contrasting colors. The haunting presence of bisexual relationship presented as a boon from a Bhootha is a master stroke that throws light on love for pleasure and companionship, not for progeny and oppression. Intimate scenes on stage are daring attempts that do not cross the line of decency. Erratic video clippings did not help to cross language barrier, although evocative nuances made up for the lapses .Not a superb play, yet aesthetically satisfying.

QUIJOTE by Bambalina Theatre Practicable (France) and directed by Carles Alfaro staged a stunning performance of puppetry with theater magic. The play is based on Don Quixote immortalized by Cervantes who represents a universal phenomenon. The madness of Don Quixote becomes a synonym for any obsession: computer addiction, theatre, travel, the charms of life, any passion that makes you crazy.

For an hour, spectators witness the fascination of Quixote, the masterpiece by Bambalina. Two clerics dressed in black, a table, a set of lights and shadows, precise gestures and harmonized music come together to create a mute and yet eloquent Quixote. The puppet with the face of a mouse stand for each one of us hooked on to the computer. As if cartoon figures come alive the puppets start communicating in their body language. The play begins with Quixote alone in a room obsessively reading all types of books until he is driven mad, which in turn demonstrates his mad love for his ideal woman, and his special relationship with Sancho. The charging of wind mills (an umbrella here) and the puppeteers within a puppet theatre that introduce other characters of the novel are brilliant . Quixote mixes reality and fiction until he is finally humiliated by those who surround him, by his own demons.

Puppet Theatre is an age-old tradition in India kept alive in streets, carried by wandering artists, from home to home, from village to village. Here we encounter Quijote, a visitor from a different world with whom we identify ourselves.



The Strings Theatre Company presented a collaborative project with local actors, playwright and directors: Mbalou Arnould / Nella Turkki raise art to philosophy in their non-verbal show under a spanning tree in the campus.

STRINGS is a visual theatre performance, suitable for both street and stage. The play takes place on a street where a violinist is playing for the public as they pass by. One among them, a dancer, irresistibly drawn by the music from the strings, dances towards the musician. Soon the attraction deepens into a friendship and gets entangled into a physical relationship. The invisible strings of mutual passion tangle into knots as the two are connected with others in the web of life. With the string between them both struggle on their own paths. Out of curiosity, the dancer finds out that there is a way of moving the violinist like a little puppet on a string. The strings of connection weave a trap. And they start trying to keep the connection by manipulating the other, unable to listen to what is good for them as individuals.

The entire installation, with some strings in the hands of the audience becomes the human world twisted and confused in a mesh of bonds that imprison them. Is there a way out from the strings that gag you. No..!!. If you try you feel drained of life. With the tools of live music, theatre, dance, and theater props, the play makes the connection visible between each other. Life cannot exist without connections, we just need to appreciate and foster the many of those strings which are not so often consciously taken care of. The non-verbal play showed the valiant efforts of local artists to learn an unfamiliar theater language from contemporary West

Kaali Natakam
Directed by Chandradas of Lokadharmi, Kochi, KAALI NATAKAM (Malayalam) is cast, incorporating elements of classical Greek theatre, ritual performance of Kerala, and conventional stage practices. The play harps on social injustice. The entire village is gearing up for the ritualistic Kaali Natakam after five decades. The actor Kaali killed the actor Darikan, the demon king, fifty one years ago and the ritual came to an end. Now the past remains past, times have changed. Social dynamics have reached a new level. Yet, unexpectedly the past is repeated again. Kaali, played by a woman belonging to a low caste and a subject of many injustices, kills Rama Kurup, who plays Darikan.

At this point, the ritual enters a new phase. The devotees see the incident as Goddess Kaali restoring justice to the world; the police smell an act of crime; for the media it is a moment for sensational reporting. In the melee, the real issue raised by Kaali, the actor, goes unnoticed. She, along with her sidekick Kooli, sets out to charter their own path. The temple stands a mere structure, a store house of arms, a brewery of communal and gender politics, pointing fingers to real issues in India.

Lighting and colourful ritual arts create a new stage craft. The technique of juxtaposition, both in words and dramatic action, introduce the contrasting themes of religious sanctity and social reality of modern times. The climatic action of murder happens not on the stage but reported keeps the play serene and holistic.

FREEDOM THE MOST EXPENSIVE CAPITALIST WORD (Bitef Theatre, Serbia, directed and played by Maja Pelvic & Olga Dimitrijevic) makes use of multi media. Integrating audience participation, video-clippings and stage techniques, the play raises the question of freedom and non freedom determined by socio-cultural context and governed by politics. Poised in an ironic stance, it affirms the maturity of a social community to question itself and progress through artistic freedom.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
Steeped in irony, the play weaves two strands - one obvious, the other subtle. North Korea, a remnant of the cold war, under a visible cult personality, is placed side by side with the so-called developed democratic world where market forces unleash the forces of neo-liberalism. Two women who have just returned from a tour to North Korea share their experiences like any traveller. The ironic vein starting from the very beginning underscores the hidden, but obvious dimension. The video gives a unique chance of a touristic tour where propaganda handles the key.

The play was well received because of its political overtones similar to the notions of Keralites disillusioned by both socialism and capitalism despite the barrier of Serbian language and subtitles.

NOT OUR BUSINESS is a collaborative effort between Poland (Jaroslaw Siejkowski) and Kerala (Theatre Connect). Set in a conflict zone, the performance area becomes a theatre for activism. 'Hunger' is taken up as the specific theme, which evolved from the experience of a group, sensitive to discriminations and wrongs. “Every image is rooted in personal experience shared by participants, collected and composed for an outdoor performance,” says the director.

Indeed the play begins by one of the actors narrating his experience of how he watched an invalid and his old mother who came for food driven out from the scene of a lavish marriage feast! The play searches for the causes of hunger and poverty. The natives of Western Ghats nurtured the wild. Kerala, once a rich bio-diversity hotspot, has lost its greenery, its forest cover, and water resources. The play points to the reasons rooted in appropriating tribal lands, ill-treating them, going against their age old wisdom to foster greed initiated by free market theories. It is time to realise that the mirage of “happiness and other hollow promises of neo-liberalism destroy a land and its people. It is our business to set right the wrongs done.”

The genre of horror and fantasy in the modern sense is new for the lay audience in Thrissur. The stage show THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (English, directed by Deepan Sivaraman), by Performance Studies Collective, Delhi, is a contemporary theatrical adaptation of the 1920 German Expressionistic cinema (silent horror). The story of a somnambulist who commits murders until contained in a hospital for the insane is a dark thriller.

The stage setting in minimal art evokes the images associated with Dracula. Old, dilapidated rooms with dark corridors, symbolise the deep unfathomable deranged mind of the protagonist. The expressionist idiom in dark and deep colours creates a magic to heighten the eerie. The use of the video to show the fantasy while the stage enacted the reality on a parallel stream is a brilliant move to unfold the theme of multiple layers of the visual drama. The expressionist streak added to stage effect. The stage proved too monstrous for such a drama where sound plays a major role. Indian actors with their accent were a bit jarring. More practice will definitely improve the show.

Pool Play

POOL PLAY (This Is Not a Theatre Company, USA) is a musical play set to water ballet and contemporary dance numbers. The play begins with the five actors enjoying playing in waters. The young couple in each corner recounts the story of the evolution of swimming pools in America. They were built for immigrants to bathe, to exercise and to have fun. The original pools were segregated by gender, later by race. Then it entered the private backyards of the wealthy. Children played, youth loved, and it became the arena of water sports. The pond becomes the symbol of water bodies home to fish, birds; its intimacy with human life is poetic and beautiful.

The theatre has moved on to waters now. It might definitely inspire future directors to move to non–conventional theatre spaces. In Indian context, the Pool Play stirs up kumbhamela, Ganga arati. Kerala enriched by rivers, ponds and backwaters has its own body of songs, sports and stories. Theatre lovers experienced new aesthetic sensibilities, which is bound to promote innovative experiments, facilitating capacity building and stimulating critical appreciation of theatre and performing arts in general. The festival opened distant horizons to people involved in theatre.

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