The theme of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) this year was “Humanity Must Unite”, and its curatorial note ended with these words paraphrasing Brecht, “Sometimes a ‘foreign’ body must enter the playing space to convert the comfortably knowable into something perplexing. This foreign body, he [Brecht] says, can be new devices of seeing, storytelling, and enacting that seek to achieve complex seeing; which in itself is about contrasting perspectives on plot, story and character that help estimate what is ordinary and what is extraordinary; what is familiar and what is unfamiliar. So that the ordinary becomes strange and the extraordinary becomes jolting because it is shockingly familiar.”
This encapsulated the curatorial intent and spelt out what this international cultural event aimed at being and ought to be. The intention is to introduce something new or foreign into the playing space, thus unsettling comfort zones, the known and the knowable, through new and complex modes of seeing and narrating: something that expands the horizons of experience and complicates one’s relationship with oneself and the world. Through the last 15 years of its existence, ITFoK, despite limitations of geographical remoteness and finance (it is funded by the State government), has carved a niche for itself in the Asian theatre circuit.
Like earlier editions, this latest chapter succeeded in making a global statement of sorts as to what art, and especially theatre, can do in these troubled times. ITFoK 2023 showcased a range of contemporary theatre practices from around the world, which were essentially cries of anguish about the state of the world conveyed through diverse voices of dissent, something that is becoming more and more difficult and even dangerous in our times.
This year saw some legends of global theatre represented, such as the late Peter Brook (Tempest Project), as well as contemporary masters such as Eugenio Barba (Ave Maria), Romeo Castellucci (Third Reich), Bashar Murkus (Hash), and Brett Bailey (Samson). Productions from India included Taking Sides (Atul Kumar/English), Foul Play (Randhir Kumar/Hindi), Black Hole (Jyoti Dogra/English & Hindi), Nilavilikal, Marmarangal, Akroshangal (Prathapan K.S./Malayalam), Arctic (K.R. Ramesh/Malayalam), Kakkukali (Job Madathil/Malayalam), For the Record (Nikhil Mehta/Hindi), Idakini Kathaayaaratham (Murugaboopathy/Tamil), Pi Thadoi (Heissnam Tomba Singh/Manipuri & English), Flying Chariot(s) (Koumarane Valavane/English, Marathi, Hindi & Tamil), Daklakatha Devikavya (Lakshmana K.P./Kannada), Rather Rashi (Sukracharjya Rabha/Rabha), and Soviet Station Kadavu (Hazim Amaravila/Malayalam).
Apart from these, there were two special performances: Hero Beauty, a Taiwanese opera by the Ming Hwa Yuan Arts & Culture Group, and Maya Bazar by Telangana’s Sri Venkateswara Surabhi Theatre.
The impact and relevance of a cultural event draws from its content, organisation, and participation. It is curatorial energy and intent that determines the tone and tenor in addition to the quality and politics of the content. In this edition, the curatorial team of Anuradha Kapur, Deepan Sivaraman and B. Ananthakrishnan was able to draw together performances that were remarkable for their thematic range, experimental vigour, and political energy.
In form, the plays ranged from spectacular mass entertainers such as the Taiwanese opera and Maya Bazar to abstract and hard-hitting political video works such as Third Reich. There were reflective and nuanced reprises of classic texts in Tempest Project, intense solo performances in Black Hole, and emotionally charged audio-visual poetry recitals by Asmaa Azaizeh.
All the performances, in one way or other, were animated by the urgent questions that humanity is grappling with, both as a society and as self-reflexive individuals. Certain themes surfaced repeatedly, like the agony of exile and displacement; violence relating to gender, race, and religion; the demonic manifestations of power; and the ecological doom that looms over the earth.
Three solo shows were significant and contemporary in their dramatic intensity, experimental vigour, and technical innovation. Jyoti Dogra’s Black Hole was an intense emotional and intellectual experience that drew upon the idea of the black hole to talk of the micro and macro dimensions of life and death, cosmology and psychology, and self and the universe, using extremely minimal methods.
Bashar Murkus’ Hash (Palestine) was a dark and disturbing play about a man immobilised in a small room doing nothing while his body grows larger and larger. The play was about what happens to the self—to memories, experiences, dreams, and expectations—when one is trapped and weighed down by inertia and self-imprisonment.
Eugenio Barba’s Ave Maria also dealt with death and solitude. It took the form of an actress (Julia Varley) paying homage to the memory and life of another, the renowned Chilean actress Maria Canepa, in and through theatre; a homage that transforms into a celebration of life, friendship, and art over death and oblivion.
Challenging and hard-hitting
One of the most challenging and hard-hitting works this year was Romeo Castellucci’s Third Reich, a video installation/performance that projected all the nouns in the Italian dictionary on a big screen: a “spectral representation of all names”. Each word was accompanied by the sound of a thud or a shot, composed by Scott Gibbons using compressed sounds of animate and inanimate objects from nature. The cadence rose and fell according to the length of the words. What viewers experienced was a barrage of words, some registered, others flickered, and most just flashed by. The bombardment continued unabated for 50 minutes, numbing mind, intellect, and body.
To quote Castellucci, “It lays down the law, with its unconditional way of occupying every possible space for reflection and eliminating any critical distance between one word and another.” In such a confrontation with the “pure quantity” of words devoid of the pauses and silences required for meaning, we experience the monotony of our times ruled by the dictatorship of one-way communication.
Asmaa Azaizeh’s (Palestine) poetry performance and Ali Chahrour’s (Lebanon) play, Told by My Mother, both placed women at the centre to talk of violence and war-torn lives: both narratives spoke of the trauma of violence that throws people into deep, inconsolable despair and loneliness. It is only through mourning and remembrance, litanies and wailing that one keeps memories alive. It is a rite of remembrance and reminding, of digging deep into oneself and the world to find the salt of life and love.
At the other end of the conceptual and abstract were the carnivalesque spectacular/operatic performances of the Taiwanese opera and the Telugu mythological. Between these two ends of the spectrum, one could place Peter Brook’s Tempest Project (with Marie-Helene Estienne), which is theatre at its most basic: one that excavates the nuances of the Shakespearean text through intense performance, with minimal props, using only bodies, movements, gestures, and voices.
Another set of plays played with the negative—in the social, political, and ecological realms—to probe the roots of liberation: some looked back at dark moments in history (Taking Sides; Nilavilikal, Marmarangal, Akroshangal); some invoked myths and reinvented epics to illuminate the present (Samson by Brett Bailey, Antigone by Ovlyakuli Khodzhakuli); and others pondered “heritage” and its majoritarian, statist appropriations (For the Record).
ITFoK also showcased music, workshops, seminars, master classes and lectures by iconic figures such as Naseeruddin Shah, M.K. Raina, Prakash Raj, Sundar Sarukkai, K. Satchidanandan, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, and Ari Sitas.
The scale and intensity of participation at ITFoK has consistently increased over the years. The challenge it faces now is to live up to the increasing expectations and the all-too realistic demands of the theatre lovers who throng the event. Of course, the festival consistently offers the best of theatre onstage, but are its offstage facilities as congenial and physically comfortable as they deserve to be? The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi is clearly stretching its resources—physical, human, financial, and the social capital it has accrued over the years—to mount an event of such proportions. It is imperative that both the Akademi and ITFoK address these challenges with a long-term perspective if this festival is to retain and expand its reputation.
The question to ask now is whether one should cut the event to fit the bill or find other means to sustain growth? Are outside partnerships or sponsorships viable options? Will they limit the freedom of the curators and thus dilute content? Is it possible to find international partners? As for scale, should ITFoK be contained to a local and manageable affair or pitched as a major cultural event on the international cultural tourism circuit. And if it is the latter, will the event lose its local flavour and participatory spirit as it turns more professional and larger?
Finally, one must take stock of a cultural event like this in terms of its impact on the local cultural economy and ecosystem. While ITFoK brings the best of world theatre to Kerala, what is its role in taking Malayalam theatre to the world? Has ITFoK stimulated and enriched the quality and content as well as the pedagogy and practice of theatre in Kerala? Does the event enrich internal critical discourses on theatre and enable creative conversations and engagements? Has ITFoK triggered forms of experimentation? And, importantly, has it succeeded in archiving and accumulating its curatorial efforts, technical knowledge, and organisational skills gained over the years? Has ITFoK succeeded in deepening and widening the engagement with theatre? These are just some questions that must be addressed to keep the idea of the event alive.
And ITFoK staying alive is important—not only is it dear to theatre lovers but it is also a necessity in the cultural environment we are in today. In the post-truth world, it is physical, public, and live art forms like theatre that can capture the poignancy and charming playfulness of life with all its foibles and uncertainties. By summoning buried ghosts on the stage, giving voice to silence and the silenced, and plucking moments and experiences from the relentless flow of our media-anaesthetised life, only theatre has the visceral power to mock and tear apart the drama of lies that engulf us. As Shiv Visvanathan said at one session, “Theatre... teaches democracy the literacy of emotion. The myth of theatre and its sense of craft skills must impregnate the still life called Indian democracy.”
- The theme of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) this year was “Humanity Must Unite”, and this latest chapter succeeded in making a global statement of sorts as to what art, and especially theatre, can do in troubled times.
- ITFoK 2023 showcased a range of contemporary theatre practices from around the world, which were essentially cries of anguish about the state of the world conveyed through diverse voices of dissent, something that is becoming more and more difficult and even dangerous in our times.
- The question to ask now is whether one should cut the event to fit the bill or find other means to sustain growth? Are outside partnerships or sponsorships viable options?
- And ITFoK staying alive is important—not only is it dear to theatre lovers but it is also a necessity in the cultural environment we are in today.