THRISSUR, the cultural capital of Kerala, has been the venue of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFOK) for the past seven years. In this short span, it has made its mark as the pre-eminent theatre festival of India, attracting diverse theatre groups from across the country and the world to perform to an extremely discerning and receptive audience. The event, organised by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, is usually held for eight days in December-January.
The curation of the performances has been based on a particular theme. Its first edition in 2008 focussed on Asian theatre and opened with a spectacular show on Chinese opera. Troupes from Pakistan and Iran also performed. In 2009, the event included groups from Africa as well and attracted some of the best theatre groups in India. The 2010 edition had contemporary theatre groups from Chile, Brazil, Columbia and Bolivia in South America.
The 2012 event had 16 productions representing the best of global theatre. With a special focus on masters of the past and present, the event saw the participation of groups from Poland, Italy, Lithuania and England in addition to some of the best productions from India. The fifth ITFOK focussed on “contemporary theatre from Europe” and had special solo productions. The sixth edition, held in early 2014, had “Transition” as its theme. With many reports of gender violence making the headlines before this event, there was a series of productions that dealt with the gender issue.
This year’s event was held between January 10 and 17, and the plays were curated by a team led by the talented theatre director and actor Sankar Venkateswaran (who was also the Artistic Director of ITFOK 2015). The four separate stages on the premises of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi reflected the range of plays that were performed. While the traditional proscenium theatre was packed every evening, plays were also held at an open theatre, a tent theatre and in open spaces, providing the audience a well-rounded experience of the various forms of theatre. The theme for this year was “Resistance”.
In his curatorial note where he discusses the theme of “Resistance”, Venkateswaran writes: “Over the years while meeting artists from various contexts and viewing theatre performances and video recordings, what awes me is the multitude of ways in which the theme of ‘resistance’ is felt and expressed as an impulse to create theatres, performances and even societies. Resistance towards authoritarian models of governance, religion, society, theatre, resistance towards occupation, resistance towards caste system and rigid social and moral structures, racial intolerance, fascism, fundamentalism, gender inequality, social inequality, the epic resistance for righteousness; resistance is the fundamental impulse for the body in dance, the voice in speech, the word in text and for the mind in ritual.”
With such a clear exposition of the year’s theme, it was fitting that the inaugural play was by a Lebanese group (called Zoukak). Its Lucena/Obedience Training thoroughly exemplified the potential of various resistances that could be expressed and enacted on stage. Zoukak was the critical as well as popular favourite at ITFOK 2015. With a total of four plays in eight days, Zoukak’s performances were masterful portrayals on the theme of resistance. Lucena was broadly based on Henrik Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean , but it was not merely a re-enactment of this popular play by the 19th century Norwegian playwright but a play within a play. Ibsen’s play calls upon the Roman Emperor Julian, who in turn calls upon the gods and philosophers of ancient Greece, declaring the freedom of belief and the plurality of deities. As Zoukak enacted certain scenes from the play, the actors were constantly rebelling against the dictatorial tendencies of the director who sought to control the fate of the play. Thus, it was a satire on control in theatre and a strong one at that.
While being deeply philosophical, the lively manner and the admixture of abstractness with wittiness kept Zoukak’s plays deeply entertaining and educational at the same time. Long lines of patient theatre-goers began to form on the days that Zoukak performed, and its second play, He Who Saw Everything, a devised performance on the Epic of Gilgamesh, was used as a commentary on death in the politically charged region of West Asia.
The theme of death continued to be explored by the group in its third play, called Death Comes Through the Eyes , a succinct commentary on the fetish that the media have made of death. The performance was built around an exploration of the grisly and famous photograph taken by Kevin Carter of a vulture waiting for a young girl to die in famine-stricken Sudan in 1993. Ibsen’s plays Enemy of the People and Pillars of Society formed the basis for the last play by Zoukak, which was performed at the closing ceremony of ITFOK 2015. Called I Hate Theatre, I Love Pornography , the irreverent play was a fitting finale to the theatre festival.
The theme of “Resistance” was perhaps best exemplified by the Palestinian theatre group The Freedom Theatre, which performed a play called The Island . It is interesting that the Palestinian performers, who are part of a community-based theatre and cultural centre based in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, chose a play from the apartheid era set in an unnamed prison (clearly based on South Africa’s Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years). It focusses on two cellmates—one whose release draws near and the other serving a life sentence. While spending the daytime doing hard physical labour, in the evenings they prepare for a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone . Drawing an analogy from the lives of Palestinian political prisoners, the play explores how confinement psychologically sears the prisoners.
Among other popular plays at the event was the performance of the Mahabharata by the playwright Hiroshi Koike. The Japanese Bridge Project is an ambitious international collaboration which intends to perform his unique and florid interpretation of the Mahabharata in four parts. The second part of this grandiose project premiered at ITFOK 2015 and started from the events surrounding the “game of dice” in the grand epic. The performance brought together butoh dancers from Malaysia, Balinese mask dancers from Indonesia apart from dancers from Japan, Thailand and India, providing a rare visual and aural treat.
Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Happy Days was brought alive on stage by another group from Japan, Arica. With a fascinating set design, the almost-solo act brought to life the existential concerns of a lonely middle-aged woman. The massive mound of garbage and debris from which the woman’s torso protrudes as she has a conversation with her largely, silent and invisible husband gradually swallows up the woman as the performance progresses. A metaphor for her dreary life, the woman sinks lower into the mound as she maintains a constant dialogue with her patient and non-committal husband.
Made in Bangladesh , a performance that examined the dismal and monotonous lives of workers in Bangladesh’s garment factories, was also popular. Using Kathak as a medium to enact their dreary lives and to portray the wage inequality where Bangladeshi garment workers are paid a negligible fraction of the money that is made by the eventual retailers in Europe, the performance had a mesmerising feel to it. The dancers, who come from Bangladesh, provided a magnificent display of their abilities under the directorship of Helena Waldmann, a Berlin-based choreographer. Other international productions included performances by troupes from Denmark, Singapore, Egypt and Sri Lanka.
Among Indian plays at the event was Avudai , based on events from the life of Avudai Akkal, an 18th century woman saint from Tirunelveli in southern Tamil Nadu. Avudai’s actions, for a child widow from that period, were radical and scandalised the Brahmin community. Her acceptance and initiation into advaita by a learned sage form part of the powerful performance by the theatre group Ardha Mitra.
Other Indian performances at the event included About Ram , an experimental theatre piece told through animation, projected images, dance, masks and puppets. Kaumudi , written and directed by the Bangalore-based playwright Abhishek Majumdar, also picked on a theme from the Mahabharata, but contemporised.
Malayalam plays were also wildly popular at the event. Silencer , a play directed by K.V. Ganesh about the desolateness of old age; Njayarazhcha , directed by Shaiju Anthikkad, about a nun who was excommunicated by the Church after she was gang-raped and became pregnant; and Moment Just Before Death directed by the young playwright Liju Krishna, an abstract rendition of the alienation that a man suffers before his death, were some of them.
The sheer variety of plays and methodology of theatre performance that the audience was exposed to made ITFOK 2015 an education in theatre studies.