Interview with the curator, International Theatre Festival of Kerala.
Performers were hit badly during the pandemic; they lost their sites of practice, reflection, and expression. As the curator of the first post-pandemic edition of ITFoK, what were your specific challenges?
We imagined this edition as a site for regathering, setting up a platform for creative, emotional, and intellectual interaction with each other in every sense. This may sound generic, but interaction is precisely what was missed during the pandemic. It reminded us that we are actually nothing when we do not interact with others. Theatre and performance are nothing but interaction and we tried to offer that in this edition.
We felt it was important to make the event grand in scale to attract the maximum number of people and bring the audience back. When we began work, the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi’s permanent venues were not functional; all the venues needed to be renovated in a short time and that was a major task. Another problem was that our permanent venues could not accommodate many people, and we were expecting a big audience this year. We built temporary venues, which was a real challenge but it eventually led to an exciting collaboration with three architects. However, most of the venues were not air-conditioned and were overcrowded, which was uncomfortable for both the artists and the audience. It was an unpleasant situation and it is very important to address this issue in future.
The success of any such festival is because of the hard work of an experienced team, but this year, we had to start from scratch with new people on board. We had only seven months to programme the festival, whereas an international festival should have programming ready at least six months before the opening. The most challenging part was to get confirmations from the international companies we wanted to bring to the festival this year. Due to the delay in contacting them, we lost some major works. I think it is important to have a curatorial team working for up to three years. This will allow them to negotiate with important theatre directors or companies and get their participation confirmed during their tenure.
As an international art event organised in Kerala what do you think should be the vision of a festival like this?
Most festivals in India are now focussed on traditional and nationalist ideas, a vision propagated by the present government. In that context, Kerala has shown the potential to resist such pseudo-nationalist propaganda projects. So, ITFoK has the responsibility to remain a festival of artistic excellence, conveying thoughtful socio-political propositions to citizens.
When we speak of the urgency of protecting and supporting liberal thinking in art-making, we may also have to be mindful that our theatre fraternity and audience need more exposure to top quality international theatre. To my mind, this remains the main and urgent aim of the festival. If we are not educated enough about the effectiveness of the art form, then whatever you do has little meaning. Our understanding of theatre is still premised around old-fashioned linear narratives and dramatic theatre traditions. Therefore, ITFoK should be an avenue where good quality theatre of different kinds can be experienced.
Kerala has a long and rich theatre and performance tradition. How do you think ITFoK can trigger or provoke conversations with these strands to find new forms and address the contemporary world? Is there any curatorial attempt to link the “vernacular” and the global?
I have always wondered why our rich tradition of theatre is hardly reflected in contemporary theatre languages. ITFoK should envisage to be a site that triggers such ideas and discourse. Bringing theatre from many countries that respond to their history and tradition deeply can help generate such discourses in our context too. When I say tradition, it is important not to confuse my proposition with what the “theatre of roots” movement once attempted to do in India, with which I have ideological differences. Borrowing elements from traditional theatre and inserting them into contemporary theatre is like stitching a trouser out of a saree. The challenge is to explore new theatre ideas inspired by the language, spatiality, vocabulary, and materiality to create powerful forms. I think ITFoK should be more courageous in bringing shows that can offer more provocative theatre experiences. Romeo Castelluci’s Third Reich in this edition is an attempt in that direction.
How have theatre communities in Kerala and India responded to ITFoK through the years? What are the lessons—aesthetic, organisational, curatorial—learned and unlearned?
We used to get little chance to see good international theatre in Kerala. Without seeing more of the art you practise, how do we expect to develop new sensibilities? Our exposure to theatre was primarily commercial theatre, text-based speech dramas, and small-scale amateur theatre that used very few innovative elements. ITFoK has certainly brought new possibilities and viewing experiences that have helped the theatre fraternity immensely.
We now know that without a permanent organisation, it is impossible to curate a festival effectively. We cannot work with a temporary team put together a few months before the festival. We need a more experienced technical team and organisational mechanism to pull off such a large event.
It was great that we managed to get a decent budget from the Ministry but the delay in cash flows put us in many difficult situations. Since the entire programme is the outcome of curatorial vision, it is important to have more say on such matters, otherwise the smooth running of the festival becomes difficult.
Unlike previous years, I felt a positive change this year in the attitude of the administrative staff from the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, which was highly motivating and heartening.
- “We imagined this edition of ITFoK as a site for regathering, setting up a platform for creative, emotional, and intellectual interaction with each other in every sense.”
- “ITFoK has the responsibility to remain a festival of artistic excellence, conveying thoughtful socio-political propositions to citizens.”
- “I have always wondered why our rich tradition of theatre is hardly reflected in contemporary theatre languages. ITFoK should envisage to be a site that triggers such ideas and discourse.”
- ITFoK has certainly brought new possibilities and viewing experiences that have helped the theatre fraternity immensely.