Renu Ramanath [1]

A brief background to theatre in Kerala

The State of Kerala holds a unique place in the social, cultural, political and economic map of India. Formed in 1956, nine years after India’s independence, by merging Travancore and Cochin, the erstwhile princely states, with the Malabar region, which were under direct British rule, Kerala contains a complex diversity of culture and language, thickly packed within its comparatively small geographical outline that is locked between the Arabian Sea and the mountain range of the Western Ghats. With the first Government of the unified State becoming the first elected Communist Government in the world, Kerala has been lauded for its high literacy rate, especially among women, for its basic health care and higher standard of living compared to many other Indian states.

Kerala has a rich legacy of traditional and folk performing art forms. This history can be traced back centuries, evidenced by the living tradition of the classical theatre forms such as Kathakali and Kutiyattam. These art forms also played a major role in Kerala’s social and political life during the twentieth century. Theatre has been at the forefront in Kerala. It has been a tool for social emancipation and for spreading political messages. Adukkalayil Ninnu Arangathekku (From the Kitchen to the Arena), written by the social reformer V. T. Bhattathirippad and performed for the first time in 1929, could be seen as the harbinger of this movement. Many plays carrying strong social and political messages followed shortly, including K. Damodaran’s Pattabaakki (Rental Arrears / 1936), Nammalonnu (We Are United / 1946), written by the writer Cherukadu, and Koottukrishi (Joint Farming / 1948) written by Edassery Govindan Nair. These plays were widely performed throughout Kerala.

C.N. Sreekantan Nair--playwright, author and political leader instrumental in forming the modernity of Kerala's theatre scene, and in the first Nataka Kalari, along with Sankara Pillai
C.N. Sreekantan Nair–playwright, author and political leader instrumental in forming the modernity of Kerala’s theatre scene, and in the first Nataka Kalari, along with Sankara Pillai

Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC), a theatre group formed by the Communist Party of India in the 1950s for spreading ideological awareness and messages of social emancipation, has played a significant role in Kerala’s theatre history. KPAC’s plays created a profound influence in the then existing theatre scenario of Kerala, which was more or less commercial in character. One interesting aspect of theatre in Kerala is the general tendency to label the commercial theatre as “professional,” while all non-commercial theatre activities are branded as “amateur.”

Logo of KPAC (Kerala People's Arts Club)
Logo of KPAC (Kerala People’s Arts Club)

The advent of a modern sensibility in theatre happened around four decades ago, mainly through the efforts of a group of dedicated personalities, including the visionary and pedagogue, the late Prof. G. Sankara Pillai (1930 – 1989). He was also the major force behind the State’s first theatre school, the Calicut University School of Drama and Fine Arts. The school has significantly contributed to the creation of the present theatre scene. The Nataka Kalari Movement, heralded in 1967, under the initiative of Sankara Pillai and the author, playwright and political leader C.N. Sreekandan Nair (1928 – 1976) among many others, introduced the concept of theatre as a subject that requires academic and systematic training. The fountainhead behind these movements was the writer and cultural activist M. Govindan (1919 – 1989), who could be described as one of the greatest intellectuals born in Kerala.

Prof. G. Sankara Pillai, founder director of School of Drama, Thrissur
Prof. G. Sankara Pillai, founder director of School of Drama, Thrissur

The later growth of theatre in Kerala has followed the directions set by the Nataka Kalari Movement. The discussions about the Theatre of Roots that had started during the 1960s led Kavalam Narayana Panicker to create his own specific idiom with Sanskrit plays. At the same time, the School of Drama, under the stewardship of Prof. G. Sankara Pillai and later, Dr. Vayala Vasudevan Pillai, opened up another direction that left a deep influence throughout Kerala. The institution, even though suffering from a gamut of limitations resulting from bureaucratic neglect and financial constrictions, has managed to produce an array of theatrepersons who have made a mark not only in Kerala but at the national level also. The late theatreperson Jos Chirammel (1953 – 2006), who belonged to the first batch of the school, gave another whole new direction to Kerala’s theatrescape through the rural level theatre activities conducted by his group, Root, founded in the 1980s. The impact left by these activities in Kerala’s theatre scene was far-reaching, as a good number of Kerala’s leading theatre actors were actually trained by him.

Almost all young theatremakers who rose to prominence in Kerala’s theatre scene in the late 1990s and post 2000 have been trained in this institution, including contemporary theatremakers, Abhilash Pillai, Deepan Sivaraman, M.G. Jyothish, Sankar Venkateswararan and Martin John, among others.

By the end of the 1990s, Kerala’s theatre had got out of the text-dominated age. The foundation for this transition was in fact laid during the 1980s, which was further developed in the 1990s, and the experiments continue. It could be said that post 2000, there has been considerable progress in the development of the actor and the audience, and in the dynamics shared by the author-actor-audience trio.

Jose Chiramel--reputed theatreperson, first batch of School of Drama, who played a big role in spreading the awareness of modern theatre throughout Kerala
Jose Chiramel–reputed theatreperson, first batch of School of Drama, who played a big role in spreading the awareness of modern theatre throughout Kerala

Experiments for creating visual language, a visual sub-text on stage, started in this period. With new avenues in lighting, sound and video projection being explored, the technical aspects of theatre have made headway, led by experts such as Jose Koshy (Thrissur) and Sreekanth (Thiruvananthapuram). They are the leading light designers today who have been keenly following the technological developments and are introducing viable solutions for the local scene.

The new theatre scene in Kerala post 2000

Water Station, Sankar Venkateswaran, Theatre Roots and Wings, Thrissur 2011, venue unknown
Water Station, Sankar Venkateswaran, Theatre Roots and Wings, Thrissur 2011, venue unknown

The post-2000 theatre scene in Kerala has been marked by the arrival of a crop of young theatre people who are trying to create a new sensibility—one that is deeply influenced by visual imagery and light and sound. Unconventional plays such as Quick Death (Sankar Venkateswaran / 2008), Spinal Cord (Deepan Sivaraman / 2009), Sahyante Makan, (Sankar Venkateswaran / 2009), Peer Gynt (Deepan Sivaraman / 2010) and Water Station (Sankar Venkateswaran / 2011), are some examples of this new wave of theatre in Kerala. The attempt has been to introduce a new visual sensibility and to discard conventional notions of theatricality. Sankar Venkateswaran, for instance, used fireworks (Sahyante Makan – An Elephant Project). In Quick Death and Water Station, he does away with dialogue and focuses on exploring an extremely slow pace. Deepan Sivaraman prefers the non-proscenium space because of its proximity to the audience (Spinal Cord and Peer Gynt). A post-graduate M.A. in Scenography from Central Saint Martin’s in London, Deepan Sivaraman experimented with property in terms of size and material, and used video projection. The play won seven out of the thirteen awards at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) festival in Delhi in 2010.

Spinal Cord, Deepan Sivaraman, Oxygen Theatre Company, Thrissur 2009, venue unknown
Spinal Cord, Deepan Sivaraman, Oxygen Theatre Company, Thrissur 2009, venue unknown

M. G. Jyothish, who has had a long-term association with Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, also experimented with pace and technology in Sagara Kanyaka (based on Henrik Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea) in which a constantly moving video projection of the sea, forms the main backdrop. In his Macbeth, his actors hold huge mirrors.

Sagara Kanyaka, M.G Jyothish, Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, 2010, venue unknown
Sagara Kanyaka, M.G Jyothish, Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, 2010, venue unknown

Martin John, who has worked in Kerala and in Chile since 2001, has staged another bold experiment by procuring a public transport bus that has been converted into a performance space, introducing a wholly new dimension to the concepts of performance space itself. The idea was inspired by the use of a public transport bus in Las Indias, the concluding performance of the Third ITFoK (International Theatre Festival of Kerala) in 2010 directed by Chilean theatre person Elias Cohen. The idea is to take the bus along villages and towns in Kerala, presenting performances along the route. The project is not yet fully implemented, mainly due to technical and legal hassles related to the operation of the bus. However, it was formally launched in September 2013 and was followed by five performances at local venues that were well received by the audience.

Abhilash Pillai, who is presently an Assistant Professor at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, has been a model of inspiration for young theatre people in Kerala. His productions Aa Manushyan Nee Thanne (1994), Verdigris (based on Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel, ‘Thottiyude Makan’ / 2000) and Saketham (C. N. Sreekandan Nair / 2001) were much discussed. These plays inspired many of his juniors. Abhilash Pillai incorporates technology, using video projection and innovative light and sound designs. Palm Grove Tales, his interpretation of O. V. Vijayan’s novel, Khasakkinte Ithihasam, presented in collaboration with the School of Drama, Thrissur and Central St. Martin’s of UK in 2004 was performed amidst the palm groves at the School of Drama premises in Thrissur, converting the entire area into the performance space with galleried seating arrangement.

The shift in the twenty-first century is nonetheless preceded by the hard work put in by earlier generations of theatre people who struggled to keep theatre alive during the 1980s and 1990s, which was a lean period mainly due to financial constraints and the added crisis created by the advent of the television era. D. Reghoothaman, with Abhinaya at Thiruvananthapuram, P. J. Unnikrishnan, with Prakash Kala Kendra, Kollam, Chandradasan, with his group Lokadharmi in Ernakulam, Narippatta Raju, working from Palakkad district, Rathnakaran, working with Deshaposhini Kala Samithi in Kozhikode and Jayaprakash Kuloor, also based in Kozhikode, have worked hard to keep theatre going.

The changes that happened in the telecommunication sector in India since the late 1990s have had a deep impact in the theatre scenario of Kerala in that it made the international interaction faster and smoother, which in turn made education abroad more common than it used to be. Most of the present generation Malayali theatremakers have received training abroad, including Abhilash Pillai (from RADA), Deepan Sivaraman (Central St. Martin’s, London), Sankar Venkateswaran (ITI, and later at TTRP in Singapore), Prabhath Bhaskaran (Japan) and Martin Chalissery, from Chile. While Martin had been working between Chile and Kerala since 2001, Prabhath Bhaskaran went to Japan to learn Noh from the traditional schools. Sreejith Remanan, Noushad and Jyothirmayi Kurup are also among the alumni of ITI.

The 2000s also saw an increased amount of international exposure for theatre and theatrepersons from Kerala, even though many artists from Kerala, including Narippatta Raju, Muralee Menon, Cuckoo Parameswaran and Chandran Veyyattummel had already been travelling and performing abroad during the 1980s. While they were mainly working with groups from abroad, during the 2000s, the international festival circuit and other events started to provide platforms for plays from Kerala. In 1999, Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre, Thiruvananthapuram had its first performance abroad, with Abhilash Pillai’s Vedrigris, which was staged at Lisbon Festival. In 2001, his production Saketham travelled to Japan. Later, Abhinaya Theatre was also invited to perform at the Avignon Festival with the play, Siddhartha, based on Herman Hesse’s novel, directed by M. G. Jyothish. Jyothish’s Sagara Kanyaka was also staged in Australia.

The introduction of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), organised by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, in 2008, has been a major factor in influencing the theatre scenario of Kerala. The National Theatre Festival organised by the Dept. of Information and Public Relations of the State Government, has re-opened, becoming an annual event showcasing some of the best plays from all over India. From last year, a national theatre festival, targetting young theatre people, has also been initiated by Abhimanyu Vinayakumar. Called the Janabheri National Theatre Festival, it has presented seven plays from various States. In 2011, Natyasastra, a rural theatre group based in Katampazhippuram, a village in Palakkad district, hosted a national theatre festival. Exposure to these festivals is causing considerable change in the attitude of the audience. These festivals have also created opportunities for the audience to view plays in a variety of spaces outside the proscenium theatre.

1st Janabheri National Theatre Festival 2013 entrance, venue Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi premises at Thrissur organised by Janabheri, Thrissur
1st Janabheri National Theatre Festival 2013 entrance, venue Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi premises at Thrissur organised by Janabheri, Thrissur

The presence of women in theatre still remains rather marginal in Kerala. However, individuals, including Sudhi C.V., Rajarajeswari, Sreeja Arangottukara, Sailaja Ambu are working actively in different parts of the State. The history of women’s theatre activities in Kerala, which had started during the 1980s with groups like “Manushi,” led by the writer Prof. Sara Joseph and Samatha, led by Prof. Ushakumari, is yet to be explored in detail. History of Women in Malayalam Theatre, a survey of the presence of women in the history of theatre in Kerala, has been written by Sajitha Madathil, and was published in 2010.

Another important development for the theatre scene of Kerala is that more and more groups have started to create their own rehearsal and performance spaces. The Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre at Thiruvananthapuram has its own rehearsal space. They nurture an ambitious plan for creating a “Theatre Village” that will include performance and rehearsal spaces alongwith other facilities. Natyasastra has their own space at Katambazhippuram, a village in Palakkad district. Sankar Venkateswaran is building his own space, and Martin John C., already has his own rehearsal space in a village near Thrissur. Likewise, Nireeksha, a women’s theatre group, led by Sudhi C.V. and Rajarajeswari, also have created their own space in Thiruvanathapuram. Chandradasan, who leads his theatre group Lokadharmi in Ernakulam, is also working in his own space outside the city of Kochi. Yet, the best theatre facilities are still rare to find in Kerala.

Talking of Kerala’s cultural scenario, there is a certain “pecking order” here, especially among the media and general public. Literature is given the highest seat, followed by cinema. Then comes theatre, and visual arts are at the lowest rung! Likewise, theatre criticism has never been strong in Kerala even though the State boasts of a great tradition of literature and journalism. None of the mainstream newspapers in Malayalam give any space to theatre criticism as such, except for the routine reports of festivals or announcements of performances or the rare review that appears on feature pages. Some English newspapers, especially The Hindu through its weekly supplement, “Friday Review” (earlier Friday Features), give space for reviews of plays being performed in the important centres in the State such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Thrissur or Kozhikode. Writers such as Sreevaraham Balakrishnan, G. S. Paul and I have been regularly contributing to The Hindu since the 1990s.

Apart from the known names, there are several other people in Kerala who engage in diverse forms of theatre activity in their own localities. They play a big role in keeping theatre alive through all times. The new theatremakers in Kerala attempting to create different theatre experiences have not always been accepted. Their experiments have been faced by the quintessential question, “is this theatre?” Modes of viewing have also been influenced by the political consciousness that is omnipresent in Kerala and which has been formulated by a certain framework for aesthetic discourse. This framework, while it encourages a certain degree of social responsibility from the artist, can also become a great impediment for creative impulse. A new generation of directors is trying to find a balance between tradition and modernity, each in their own unique way. It remains to be seen how far this generation of theatremakers in Kerala is able to travel without succumbing to the pressures from within and without.

Renu Ramnath's second photo

[1] Renu Ramanath is an independent journalist and columnist focusing on visual and performing arts based in Kochi. Former Staff Reporter of The Hindu (1996 – 2007), she has been writing on art and culture, visual arts, film, architecture, theatre, music, dance and other classical performing arts since 1992. Recipient of the Senior Fellowship in Theatre, given by Ministry of Culture, New Delhi in 2013, she has been associated in co-coordinating major theatre festivals of Kerala. She is a member of the Indian National section of the IATC.

Copyright © 2015 Renu Ramanath
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Changing Scenario: Transitions in 21st Century Theatre in Kerala