Stage of transition

Print edition : April 18, 2014

"Satyashodhak" was performed by safai karmacharis of the Pune Mahanagarapalika Kamgar Union. Photo: By Special Arrangement

From the festival's opening play, Roysten Abel's "The Kitchen" (Can & Abel Theatre, India). Photo: K.K. NAJEEB

Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" performed by Janakaraliya (theatre of the people), Sri Lanka. Photo: By Special Arrangement

M.D. Pallavi in her cutting solo performance "C Sharp C Blunt" (Flinntheatre and M.D. Pallavi, Germany and India). Photo: By Special Arrangement

"Revolutionary Messages" (Grusomhetens Theatre, Norway) blurred the lines between theatre and dance. Photo: By Special Arrangement

"Transfiguration" (Olivier de Sagazan, France). Photo: By Special Arrangement

International Theatre Festival of Kerala 2014 made possible a platform where different kinds of concerns on the range of subjects that constitute theatre could be articulated.

WHEN Mohan Rakesh wrote Aashad Ka Ek Din, he was trying to “re-image history in terms of the present”; by extricating history from its space and recasting it into the present as a work criss-crossing questions of literature and theatre, he had rendered history fictional. Rakesh also went on to say that his Hindi drama was not linked to any theatrical tradition. Aashad Ka Ek Din was for Rakesh, which he said in a later response, clearly a search for new theatrical possibilities.

Theatre, like any other performance art, has tried from time to time to redefine what it constitutes in terms of its language and narrative. Aashad Ka Ek Din, mentioned here as a case in point, uses history to speak of its departure from it. Constantly interrogating its relationship with tradition, theatre—as both written and performance texts—has wondered what the nature of its connection with the past should be, what the breakaway point is, and what the contemporary needs of theatre and society are. Theatre today is exploring new spaces and new modes of articulation. In this exploration one sees a conglomeration of ideas and narratives waiting to be crystallised into mature expressions. Having disbanded Western notions of stage, theatre looks for different possibilities, closer to the lived experiences of today.

What is transition, or change, in theatre? Is modern contemporary? If contemporary theatre captures today’s experience and is therefore authentic, does then one understand that tradition is past and hence irrelevant to contemporary experience? In post-Independence India, modern theatre, or “theatre of the roots” as it was called, was that which forged “new” connections with the ancient. This was born in an attempt to reject the Eurocentric idioms of theatre that were prevalent during the British Raj. We, in this present moment, are talking of yet another modernity, one that wants to shed the baggage of the past to evolve contemporary theatre practices. It seeks to break away from the idea of performing spaces, and get down to the nitty-gritty, to methods of storytelling.

The sixth edition of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) was held from January 27 to February 3 in Thrissur and had “transition” as its theme. The huge turnout each day to this festival of inspiring dynamism was proof of the Malayali’s quintessential love for theatre going. Through plays, seminars and discussions, the ITFoK brought to the fore theatre in the process of being redefined as an experience that was more directly linked to the here and now, establishing its connections with the sociopolitical, erasing boundaries between theatre and other performing arts, and privileging interdisciplinary ideas and freedom of narrative over adherence to the disciplines of form or content. The curatorial team said ITFoK 2014 would be a curtain-raiser to welcome 21st century world theatre where the strict boundaries of theatre and visual art were slowly fading, and a new form of post-dramatic theatre was emerging. It certainly challenged spectatorship and on how theatre was viewed and experienced.


For the director Atul Pethe, transition was more a systemic issue. Evolving a new aesthetic with his cast and its suppressed folk music traditions, Pethe in his play Satyashodhak stressed the power of theatre to bring about social change. The work, based on G.P. Deshpande’s play on the life of Jyotiba Phule, the revolutionary reformist of Maharashtra, reinterprets the reformer’s vision in the modern context. The play was originally performed nearly 20 years ago by the Jana Natya Manch, and now Pethe’s production is being performed to an overwhelming response from audiences across States. It all began for him with a film he made on sewage and sanitary workers, The Garbage Trap. Working on it was an eye-opener to their appalling living conditions: “Social change hadn’t reached them. Doing proscenium theatre and addressing middle-class angst seemed so superficial. I wanted to create awareness and change the perceptions of people more than make something beautiful,” explained Pethe of his inner stirrings. Although the play was written when the country was burning with the agitations over Mandal Commission report, it gains many more dimensions in the light of contemporary politics.

Speaking about his political plays, G.P. Deshpande himself said that it was important to look at the political culturally. For him, transition was not something that absolved itself from history or the past. It was primarily a look at the political process. “I wanted to question and attack our too unambiguous, too uncomplicated view of history as a grand, well-defined story. The fresh look at history amounts to coming to terms with one’s own surroundings, with one’s own errors and mistakes because someone like me has come through very different kinds of ideological and political positions, and been tormented in the process. My third objective, of course, is the retrieval of the language.”

Satyashodhak does not seek to radically change the narrative style or alter established theatrical processes. The fact that it is performed by safai karmacharis of the Pune Mahanagarapalika Kamgar Union is revolutionary and the telling gains an unusual authenticity. “They are illiterate, but very sharp. They understand politics far better than the educated middle class,” said Pethe. The film and the play have been getting an immense public response, so much so that the government has released 80,000 job opportunities for the members of the safai karmachari community. Excellent performances and the remarkable musical abilities of the safai karmacharis make Satyashodhak a moving piece of theatre.

‘The Kitchen’

The festival’s inaugural play was the ceremonial, grand production of Roysten Abel’s The Kitchen. Encapsulating “transition” in stage language, the play juxtaposed two very different things. A one-line story of a couple, traditional payasam makers, who get into a fight as the payasam gets cooked. It is set against the ritualistic mizhavu drumming, an accompaniment for the traditional koothu and koodiyattam performances of Kerala. The play references Rumi’s kitchen in Turkey, not only in trying to forge a connection between food and spirituality but also in the manner in which the play is laid out —it is said that Rumi sat to meditate on a raised platform, with the cooks on a level below that. The extraordinary mizhavu players from Kalamandalam occupy tiny chambers in a huge structure that resembles the mizhavu itself and the couple occupy the front of the stage. As they embark on the elaborate procedure of making the payasam, a raging fight ensues between them: as the payasam gets cooked, the audience, too, gets cooked in their rage. The stunning scenography, the aesthetic and visual grandeur keeps one engaged with the happenings on the stage. However, the performance leaves one with disjointed, fragmented experiences. There is no moment of dialogue between the mizhavu players and the couple, and everything remains as disparate as it is in the beginning. In this wordless play with striking visual qualities, even the drama that the act of making the payasam invokes becomes a part of the design, failing to transcend into a metaphysical experience. The deeply spiritual nature of the mizhavu remains haunting, independent of everything else. In all, the philosophy of the play remains a statement and not an enactment. The Kitchen is fraught with the danger of privileging aesthetics over actual theatre.

‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’

The reasons for Janakaraliya moving away from the audience-goes-to-the-theatre convention were completely social. This Sri Lankan mobile cultural group takes theatre to the people: it moves from one place to the other within the country holding performances in the huge tents it carries along with it. For the director, Parakrama Niriella, the journey of the multi-ethnic Janakaraliya into the interiors of Sri Lanka is with the intention of creating bridges between communities and taking the message of peace. This practice, known as “applied theatre”, seeks to socially mobilise underprivileged rural communities and help war-torn Sri Lanka surmount its difficulties culturally.

Janakaraliya’s tent was packed for the lively and engaging performance of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The play, which in many ways reflects the lives of the Sinhalese, is about how civil war and political upheaval can turn lives upside down. Although it is unusual for a Brechtian play to be kind to the human lot, The Caucasian Chalk Circle upholds the resolute spirit of mankind. With the ring of the tent transforming into its performance space, Janakaraliya struck an instant chord with the audience, who gradually became a part of the goings-on.

The festival brought into focus many dimensions of the question of transition. Transition meant different things to different practitioners, local and international. If for some depiction in terms of language and scenography was crucial, for others it was intent. Quoting Elizabeth Le Compte of the Wooster Group, Noel Witts, in his lecture on shifts in the language of European theatre, said: “My meaning is in the piece itself.” Witts said that performance material could be representative of a country or a choreographer or a director’s personal concerns. “It could be a collective solution or an attitude to space or an acknowledgement of the need of new and younger audiences.”

Not only about stage

Theatre is not only about stage, said Bartosz Szydłowski, the Polish director of Bath New Theatre. With the belief that theatre was also about building a commune, he started the biggest project of his life eight years ago in the neglected Nowa Huta post-industrial district of Krakow. This was his return to “old-fashioned” concepts such as community and social responsibility, taking the route of sustainability. It seemed that he could renew the perception of a modern society. “When we started our Laznia Nowa Theatre in an old factory and in a place that was deserted, with media support we told people to come, discuss and chat with us. Not just about theatre, but to bring objects from their homes and tell us stories.” Even as Szydłowski triggered the community’s imagination with his project, he realised that it was possible to practise good theatre without giving up one’s dreams.

This model of publicly funded institution has strengthened the bonds of the community, and theatre has become an organic part of the life of people in this marginalised district. Nowa Huta now occupies an important place in the map of theatre and its festival is now one of the most sought after in Europe.

Found theatre, said Prof. Susie Tharu, was thinking of theatre as the staging or framing, in other words, a reflection and analysis, of events that were actually taking place in real life. This, in a way, extended the thoughts of many practitioners. But apart from transition, since the discussion was also around gender and violence, basing her analysis on the campus broadsheet of the English and Foreign Languages University, she said even though many of the writings were based on gender issues, they marked a major shift in thinking about gender. It is a breakaway from yesterday’s engagement with sexual violence, including the tools and concepts that were developed. However, gender discourses in university spaces were more inclusive to issues, she felt.

‘The Walk’

The actor, director and theatre teacher Maya Rao’s performance The Walk, in response to the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape incident, seemed to say that methods of violence against women may have changed, but the body bore a historical memory, and hence it was a matter of continuity. A performance that has stirred and motivated audiences at universities, on the streets, on formal stages and several other venues recognised that there were hardly any de-gendered spaces for a woman. Wondering if in the actual sense of the term she was a mere “performer” in The Walk, she said: “ The Walk is not just about the freedom to walk the street at any hour of day or night without fear; it’s about taking hold of the night to think, reflect, talk to each other.”

There was certainly a great element of the personal for M.D. Pallavi in her cutting solo performance in C Sharp C Blunt. Have things changed for the woman operating in the modern, technology-driven world or have forms of violence just grown sharper and more nuanced? Playing with language, the performance brought into sharp focus the altered methods of commodification of the woman; while she continues to be a sexually loaded object, she is now also a user-friendly app.

In contrast to the seemingly sophisticated modern world are societies like those in Africa, where violence lives in its blatant forms. “Homosexuality is seen as going against African spirituality by men and women in African society. Their method to set lesbians straight is something called corrective rape,” explains Sara Matchett, who teaches at the Department of Drama, University of Cape Town. The overwhelming civil response in India to the horrific gang rape in Delhi shook South Africans, at least momentarily, surprising in a society which has no space for gender imbalances in most of its struggles. “In South Africa, a woman gets raped every 26 seconds.”

The issues of transition and gender have from time to time been addressed by theatre. In the light of sociopolitical transformations, they acquire new dimensions, which could be in experimenting with form, language, stage design, and so on. To sum it up, Anuradha Kapoor, former director, National School of Drama, said: “Through an aggregation of productions made largely by women directors, the 1980s saw a body of work that signalled realities that were on a register different from the one dominantly inscribed in the field. Women directors devised, improvised, reinterpreted given texts, and repurposed classical narratives. They also sought to open up questions of gender, subjectivities and identities in ways that were new. These jolted the spectator out of a moral complacency. The generation of theatre makers now appear to be the affiliates. These are lateral ties spreading on the ground.”

ITFoK 2014 made possible a platform where different kinds of concerns on the range of subjects that constitute theatre could be articulated. It brought together ideas and ideologies of what “transition” meant to practitioners, local and international. Avant-garde performances like Mephisto Waltz, Transfiguration, and Revolutionary Messages, which blurred the lines between theatre and dance, opened a window to changing theatre practices in the rest of the world. The audience, going by its reaction, certainly remained amazed by what the human body could achieve. Nevertheless, theatre is more important for what it says and disseminates than for the material it brings together. Whether one remains with history and tradition or moves away from it, whether theatre is playwright-centric or director-centric, whether it employs a new language and new dynamics, theatre is a lot about a story told effectively, stories that have the power to change society. The ITFoK set in motion a meaningful debate.

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