Stages of Resistance and Re-connections: Unfolding Story of a Third World Theatre Festival

Renu Ramanath*


The International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), organized by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, the apex body for performing art forms under the Department of Culture, Government of Kerala, India, offers an important space for dialogue and free expression in a country where niches for free speech and expression are increasingly becoming curtailed. The festival also occupies a special place in theatre history with Kerala’s background as a valuable “source” for many international masters who had started exploring the region from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.

Keywords: Theatre Festivals, interculturalism, resistance, India

If conducting a theatre festival could be called an act of resistance, then, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala is that resistance. Organized by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, the apex body for performing art forms under the Department of Culture in the South Indian State of Kerala, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala or ITFoK, as its acronym goes, assumes an unprecedented significance in the light of the contemporary social, political and economical scenario of India.

In a country where cultural and academic institutions are undergoing a relentless process of silent Saffronisation, where the ideologies of hatred and aesthetics that reflect it are subtly being infused into the whole system, where history is getting inverted and replaced with myths, fables, and fibs or just gets wiped off the whole system and even the curricula, cultural festivals that offer a free space for dialogue and debate need to survive, somehow or other.

Festival Poster of its latest edition. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

“In this age of political polarisations and ruptures, we need a site where people can gather without fear. And Kerala is the only place that offers a space for dialogue and cultural intervention,” says Deepan Sivaraman, theatremaker and one of the three curators of the recently concluded 13th Edition of ITFoK, the other two being Dr. Anuradha Kapur, former Director of the prestigious National School of Drama, New Delhi and Dr. B. Ananthakrishnan, professor and Head of Department of Theatre Arts at S. N. School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad.

Sivaraman believes that they are “curating the consciousness of India, in a larger context.” He points out that hardly any space for liberal thinking exists at the national level with all the political polarisations happening around. “We have to write the history. That’s our responsibility in the present times. Decades later, when the future generations raise questions as to, what we were doing at this historical juncture of the country, we should be able to give them an answer.”

“In a world increasingly ruled by hatred and bigotry, where inclusivity and diversity are getting supplanted by exclusivity and prejudice, where othering of individuals and communities take place every day, theatre has the responsibility to fight for Humanity,” says Karivellur Murali, Kerala’s renowned poet, singer and theatre activist who now leads the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi as secretary.

The crisp and beautiful slogan – Humanity Must Unite – put forward by the curators of the 13th ITFoK, happening after the two years of Covid 19 and the lockdown, while aptly reflecting the intense yearnings of a post-Covid (or, is it too soon for that term ?) world, also encompasses the desperate needs of a world torn asunder by deprivations and violations of every basic human right. 

Being together, and holding hands together was the only answer, the slogan seemed to tell us. As Sivaraman points out, theatre offers and should offer a secure space not only for theatre activists, but people from all walks of creativity like visual artists, philosophers, writers, thinkers, scholars, journalists, and all sorts of artists to come together and share their thoughts and ideas without fear. 

Logo of ITFoK. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

ITFoK has always offered such a safe haven for artists from all over India and different parts of the world, which is very important in our times of social, political, and economic turmoil. Ever since its inception in 2008, the ITFoK has offered a space for theatre from the trouble-torn areas of the world, that represent the voices of the oppressed and the struggling people from various continents and nations, be it Africa, Latin America, East Europe or West Asia. And ITFoK has always offered a space for artists without the constraints of societal, moral or legal censorship, which is increasingly becoming rare in many parts of the world and even India itself. 

Brett Bailey, the celebrated South African playwright and director whose stunning music-theatre production Samson opened the International Section of ITFoK 23 puts it succinctly when he says, “ITFoK strikes me as a bastion of free-thinking and tolerance in India, and an enterprise to be protected at all costs.” Quite awed by the overwhelming appreciation for Samson on the opening night as thunderous applause rose from the packed audience, Bailey pointed out that it gave him a sense of “how important the arts were in this region, and how much safe-guarding they require in a country where State censorship and the stifling of alternative views appear to be the order of the day.” 

From Samson. Dir. Brett Bailey, Third World Bunfight, South Africa. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

That the ITFoK is being conducted by the Department of Culture of one of the smallest States of India itself is a pointer to the deep reverence that the people of this State hold for theatre, along with the political will of the successive State Governments to continue the festival despite several odds.

The ITFoK kicked off in 2008 when the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi was headed by Murali, a celebrated film / stage actor. Murali, known by his first name as is the case with most of Kerala’s film actors, was a protégé of the late thespian Kavalam Narayana Paniker, one of the important masters of Kerala theatre scene and a major proponent for the Theatre of Roots movement of the Sixties. Bringing the best of world theatre to the Kerala audience was Murali’s dream. Starting off as an Asian Theatre Festival in 2008, ITFoK moved on to Asian-African Theatre the next year.

Unfortunately, on August 6, 2009, Murali passed away, leaving the fate of the festival hanging in balance for some time. It did survive and the Afro-Asian Edition was a huge success. And the 3rd Edition, focusing on Latin America, included ten plays from various Latin American countries, launched ITFoK as a mega event in Kerala, the State that already has an undying obsession with Latin American literature. With that edition, ITFoK started to draw the attention of theatre companies from different countries. 

The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi conducts the ITFoK at its sprawling campus in the heart of Thrissur, a compact city which has a unique design, having been built around a 65-acre wide gently sloping hillock that houses an ancient temple right in the middle. The town, home to all three Akademis under the Department of Culture of the Government of Kerala – the Kerala Sahithya Akademi (for Literature), Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi (for Theatre, Dance, Music and Other Performing Art forms) and Kerala Lalithakala Akademi (for Visual Arts) – is aptly nicknamed as the “Cultural Capital of Kerala.”

The School of Drama and Fine Arts, located in the western part of the city, is Kerala’s premier institution of theatre education. Founded in 1978, the School of Drama and Fine Arts has a long line of illustrious theatre and film personalities among its alumni, including Dr. Abhilash Pillai (who is the current Director of the institution), Deepan Sivaraman and Sankar Venkateswaran. Thrissur provided the perfect ambiance for hosting an international theatre festival. 

From the inaugural function held at Pavillion (FAOS), another temporary space. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

However, Kerala’s connection with the international theatre scene does not begin with the ITFoK. It could be traced back to the second half of the 20th century, even to the early decades of that century when the Swiss artist and Indologist Alice Boner traveled to Kerala to “discover” Kathakali and met the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, who was laying the foundation for Kerala Kalamandalam. Boner’s enthusiasm for Kathakali led a large number of scholars and artists to Kerala and to Kalamandalam, the institute established in 1930 for promoting and sustaining Kerala’s traditional art forms. According to Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, the “first wave interculturalists” right from Alice Boner in the 1930s, Clifford R Jones and Betty True Jones in the 1950s, Eugenio Barba and Milena Salvini in the 1960s, Jerzy Grotowski, Farley Richmond, Richard Schechner and Phillip Zarrilli in the 1970s and Peter Brook in the 1980s, were among the many artists and scholars from Europe and the USA who had arrived in Kerala for that “first hand” experience with the traditional performing art forms. Many of these visiting scholars and artists took the initiative for tours of Kathakali troupes in Europe, often followed by workshops. During the 1970s, V. N. Krishnan Namboothiri, a Kathakali performer who was also working with the Indian dancer Uday Shankar, started associating with Grotowski. He was one of the international artists who attended the International Symposium titled “Szutka debuitanta” (the debutant’s art) held in Warsaw and Grzegorzewice, Poland during 4 – 7, June 1978.[2] Incidentally, it was at this symposium that Grotowski first revealed his project, “Theatre of Sources.”

A few months after this Symposium, in September, 1978, Krishnan Namboothiri, who hailed from Palakkad district of Kerala, joined as a lecturer in Kathakali at the newly opened Calicut University’s School of Drama, which was a dream project of its founder-director Prof. G. Sankara Pillai, who ushered in the age of modernity in Kerala’s theatre scene. Krishnan Namboothiri, with his experience of traveling and working abroad, was instrumental in introducing the classical art form to the students of modern theatre. 

In 1980, Maya Tangberg-Grischin, a Swiss theatre person who had worked with Grotowski, reached Thrissur and started to conduct workshops in the School of Drama. Tangberg-Grischin, who was trained under Jacque Lecoq in Paris, had moved to Sweden in 1970 after marrying Peter Tangberg, an art restorer. “By the time I was working in Sweden, the official cultural troupes from India had started doing rounds in European countries, as part of the Festivals of India, and there were a lot of Kathakali performances coming to Europe,” she told me during an interview conducted in Kerala on March 1, 2014. “That’s how I met Krishnan Namboothiri, who was a dancer in Uday Shankar’s troupe. In 1977, he conducted a two-weeks Kathakali workshop in Stockholm, which I attended.”

Arriving in India for a seminar on Indian Culture organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) in 1980, she traveled down south, to Kerala, and reached the School of Drama, where Krishnan Namboothiri was teaching. That was the beginning of her long relationship with the School of Drama and the Kerala theatre scene. From 1987 to 1992 she directed five major productions for the School of Drama and had been instrumental in molding many of Kerala’s leading theatremakers. 

Eugenio Barba’s first visit to Kerala was in 1963. During the following decades, Barba and Julia Varley visited Kerala regularly, as did Schechner and Zarrilli. Having started his training in Kalarippayattu in 1977 at C.V.N. Kalari, Thiruvananthapuram, Zarrilli became the first foreigner to start teaching the martial art form outside Kerala. 

However, even with all these intercultural explorations and interactions, the theatre audience in Kerala, along with the local theatre practitioners, had not got a chance to watch the contemporary theatre practices that were developed abroad, till the ITFoK happened. Till then, Kerala had remained “The Source.” That mysterious and exotic cradle of pristine knowledge, which needed to be tapped, processed and transformed into academically and practically applicable material. No one bothered about taking the “result” back to the “source.”

Meanwhile, the theatre scene of Kerala kept developing in its own unique way, deeply influenced by the social, political and economic milieu of the region. Originating from the centuries-old classical and folk traditions, Kerala’s theatre developed almost in quantum leaps through the influences of British colonialism, then the Independence Movement of India, the Communist Movement that grew alongside the Freedom Struggle and the political and economic developments of the post-Independent India. Of course, it was also deeply influenced by the West. As Zarrilli pointed out in an interview during his last visit to Kerala in January, 2020, shortly before his death, “Contemporary theatre in Kerala or in India came about via an encounter with the West. So, it is intercultural on one hand or growing up with its own rootedness in India, with a history of its own.”[3]

Being a State where the rural-urban divide is quite marginal, Kerala’s theatre scene, or audience, had never been urban-centric. Theatre audience came from all walks of life. Thanks to Kerala’s high literacy rates, wide network of local library-reading rooms and arts-and-sports-clubs and passion for literature, and thanks to the relentless efforts of the generations of theatre practitioners, the local “amateur” theatre scene is quite dynamic here, creating the much-needed audience base for a festival like the ITFoK.

Right from its beginning in 2008, ITFoK has attracted a huge number of spectators. The practice of ticketing was introduced a few years later, mainly with the aim of crowd control. Even now, controlling the crowd remains the major concern of the organizers of ITFoK, a scenario that might be unfamiliar to most of international theatre groups. Likewise, it is not a “polished” audience that one would encounter at more “polished” venues. If they do not like the play, they would just walk out. There is no way to stop them. And if they like, thunderous applause would rise at the end. Language used to be a barrier in the early years of the ITFoK as Kerala audiences are comfortable only with Malayalam or English. Not even Hindi, the national language of India, is not easily understood here. However, the language barrier has been overcome in the last couple of years with the introduction of bi-lingual surtitles, both in English and Malayalam.

From Told By My Mother. Dir. Ali Chahrour / Lebanon. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi 

Coming back to the 13th ITFoK, diversity could well be the major hallmark of the entire festival. It was a ten-day festival, spread over five venues within and outside the KSNA campus, with three permanent and two temporary venues. There were ten international plays, 14 Indian plays including four from Kerala, four Indian musical bands (the first time in an Indian theatre festival), a seven-day series of Masterclasses in theatre for women, a five-day-long International Festival of Theatre Schools that preceded the main festival, a month-long Street Art Festival conducted by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, five colloquiums and three public lectures, and around 4000 plus audience every day. It was a grand spread. 

From the inaugural function held at Pavillion (FAOS). Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

Besides Brett Bailey’s Samson, the international fare included Tempest Project, the last production of the late master Peter Brook with Marie-Helene Estienne presented by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, Ave Maria, a solo performance by Julia Varley, directed by Eugenio Barba for Odin Teatret as a homage to the Chilean actress Maria Canepa, Third Reich, the performative video installation from the Italian master, Romeo Castellucci, Hash solo performance directed by the Palestinian playwright and director, Bashar Murkus for Khasahabi Theatre, Haifa, Told By My Mother, a dance performance from the Lebanese dancer-choreographer Ali Chahrour, Anti-Gone a retake on the Sophocles’s classic by the prominent Central Asian theatre director Ovlyakuli Khodzhakuli and written by Evgeniya Palekhova for Xameleon Theatre, K A F K A, an Interdisciplinary Choreographic Performance directed and performed by Mehdi Farajpour, the Iranian conceptual performance artist based in Paris, for ORIANTHEATRE Dance Company, Hero Beauty, a Taiwanese Opera performance from Ming Hwa Yuan Arts and Cultural Group from Taiwan, directed by Shu Chui Fung and Don’t Believe Me If I Talk To You of War, a poetry-performance by the Palestinian poet Asmaa Azaizeh based in Haifa.

From Anti-gone Dir. Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli / Xameleon Theatre, UK. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

The Indian plays included performances from the country’s major groups and theatre makers as well as emerging young talents – Black Hole, in English and Hindi, from the Mumbai-based performer Jyoti Dogra, Daklakatha Devikavya, a Kannada play directed by the young director K.P. Lakshmana for Jangama Collective, Bangalore, based on the Kannada Dalit poet K.B. Siddhaiah’s poems, Pi Thodai, a Manipuri play directed by Heisnam Tomba, son of the late iconic master Heisnam Kanhailal, for the 54 year old theatre group, Kalakshetra; Flying Chariot(s), directed by Koumarane Valavane for Indianostrum Theatre, based in Pondicherry; For the Record, a Hindi play directed by Nikhil Mehta for Black Box Okhla, a relatively new collective of young theatremakers in Delhi; Taking Sides, an English play directed by the Mumbai-based theatre maker, Atul Kumar, for his group, The Company Theatre; Foul Play, directed by Randhir Kumar, for Raaga Repertory, a theatre group based in Patna, Bihar; Idakini Kathayaaratham, a Tamil play directed by Murugaboopathi, for Manalmagudi Theatre Land, a rural theatre group working out of Kovilpatty, a remote village in Tamil Nadu; Rather Rashi, a play from the Rabha tribal community in Assam directed by the late theatremaker Sukracharya Rabha for Badungaduppa Kalakendra, a theatre group functioning out of a village located in the dense forests of Lower Assam and Maya Bazaar, a resplendent remnant of a dazzling touring theatre tradition that dates back to 133 years, performed by Sri Venkateswara Surabhi Theatre, a single joint family who live, travel and perform together based in Andhra Pradesh.

From Hero Beauty – Taiwanese Opera. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

The plays from Kerala included Nilavilikal, Marmarangal, Akroshangal, directed by K.S. Prathapan inspired by the Ingmar Bergman classic, Cries and Whispers; Soviet Station Kadavu, directed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based director, Hazim Amaravila, Arctic, written and directed by K.R. Ramesh and Kakkukali, a play that raised voice against the malpractices and corruption that has grown within the Church. Incidentally, a little while after the ITFoK, the Church rose against the play, calling for its ban and staging protests.

The 13th edition of ITFoK could go down in the festival history as the one which presented the biggest, the most ambitious line-up of master theatre makers from the global arena, which is quite a rare happening for any theatre festival and the Kerala audience relished the fare eagerly. “We felt bringing these masters to Kerala, including the last production of Peter Brook, was quite important as we hardly get to watch the work of the great masters of theatre here unlike cinema,” says Sivaraman. 

Interestingly, with this edition of ITFoK, almost all of the “first wave” interculturalists have come back to Kerala with their works. Richard Schechner’s Imagining O was staged in 2012, at the 4th Edition of ITFoK and Phillip Zarrilli’s Told by the Wind, in 2020. Now, with Peter Brook’s Tempest Project, and Eugenio Barba’s Ave Maria, it was as if the wheel had come full circle. However, while the Masters’ works were accepted with all due awe and admiration, the plays that won the hearts of the audience were probably two – Brett Bailey’s Samson, and Told By My Mother, the dance performance from the Lebanese dancer-choreographer, Ali Chahrour. While Samson captivated and overwhelmed the audience with its musical score marked by classical opera and the scintillating live electronic score by Shane Cooper, one of South Africa’s leading musicians and magnificent video scenography that compress multiple layers of meaning, Ali Chahrour’s Told By My Mother, left the audience speechless with its dark, minimal and heartrending tone. Though a brilliant blend of lyrical poetry and down-to-earth dialogue to the audience, Ali Chahrour and the musicians of the band, Two or The Dragon (Ali Hout and Abed Kobeissy) along with soulful renderings of Hala Omran and Laila Chahrour, led the audience into the atomizing world of mothers mourning for their children, or fighting to bring them back from death. Maybe, it was the power of the music, maybe, it was the power of the indigenous body languages or that of the underlying political messages, that made both Samson, and Told By My Mother endearing to the Kerala audience.

From Told By My Mother – Dir. Ali Chahrour / Lebanon. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

While both these plays touched the hearts, Romeo Castellucci’s Third Reich, managed to challenge the heads of the Kerala audience. The performative video installation that literally pounded the sensibilities of the audience sparked widespread discussions, both offline and online. While many people just hated it, there were many who regarded Third Reich as the most worthwhile show of the festival. 

The 13th ITFoK was marked by multiplicity not just in content, form and character of the theatre performances, but that of allied events as well. In another first, music received a centrestage at ITFoK with musical events dominating the opening and closing evenings – Indian Ocean, the Indian rock band on the opening night and Manganiyar Seduction, an incredible ensemble of around 40 Rajastani folk musicians thundering over the closing night, under the masterful design of Roysten Abel. Avial, Kerala’s own alternative rock band also drew a huge crowd of youngsters who were stepping into a theatre festival zone for the first time. 

The concluding concert, Manganiyar Seduction, at Pavillion. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

Then, a concert by Susmit Bose, Indian urban folk singer-songwriter, who speaks about human rights and social issues, and a vocal-sarod duo by Kolkata-based singers, Moumita Mitra and Sayak Barua, supported on tabla by Ratnasree Iyer, one of India’s rare female tabla players added more zest.

Crowd attending the concluding concert, Manganiyar Seduction, at Pavillion. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

Poetry was not left out, with Insurrection Ensemble, “a poetry-music collaboration or a Musical Dialogue between Indian and South African poets and musicians” led by the South African poet Ari Sitas and Indian musician Sumangala Damodaran enthralling the audience. This was in addition to the unique audio-visual presentation of poems by the Palestinian poet Asmaa Azaizeh, whose poems including ‘Do Not Believe Me If I Talk To You About War,’ were presented to the audience to the accompaniment of stunning visual imagery put together by Adam Zuabi, film maker / painter.

The poetry performance of Palestinian poet Asmaa Azaizeh at FAOS. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

That was not all. Women empowerment formed a big part of the festival, with Kudumbasree Mission, the women empowerment and poverty eradication programme launched by the Kerala State Government as a community network of women at the local level. As part of ITFoK 23, a theatre workshop for women was conducted in association with Kudumbasree Mission, benefitting its members mainly. The classes were led by senior theatre practitioners from India. The Kudumbasree Mission also ran a Food Court at the festival, with a large number of food stalls offering a range of cuisines from different parts of India.

Inaugural function of Women’s Theatre Workshop. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

The International Festival of Theatre Schools (IFTS), conducted by the School of Drama and Fine Arts, prior to ITFoK, marked another unique event. Conceived as a festival of Theatre Pedagogy, IFTS was the first one of its kind in India. The visual artists joined the team, with a month-long Street Art Festival, aptly titled, Theruvara (a literal translation of Street Art with “Theru” = Street and “Vara” = drawing) conducted as an auxiliary event by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, the apex body for visual arts, with artists from all over India making street art all over Thrissur.

Finally, it was all about creating a space for performance – both the metaphorical space, as well as the physical one. The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi has only one ‘proper’ theatre space – the K.T. Muhamed Theatre which can seat around 700 people. Add to it, the Murali Theatre, which was a semi-open air space with gallery seating and a rudimentary Black Box. In addition to these, temporary theatre spaces are constructed every year in the KSNA premises as well as in the other available spaces in the town. And this year, a new temporary space almost magically, emerged out of the charred remains of a burnt-down building next to the Akademi campus. The overgrown area was cleared, cleaned, and made into an open-air performance space with the apt name, ‘From Ashes to Open Skies’ (FAOS).

The temporary performance space, FAOS. From Ashes to Open Skies. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

The Akademi wants to bring theatre that reflects the changing global political equations and the struggles of people for their rights but the immediate need was space. “Altogether, we can accommodate only around 3500 people at a time, while double that number seek tickets everyday,” says the KSNA secretary Karivellur Murali. “So, our biggest need, and priority, is to create more performance spaces and accommodate more audience, as we believe in the democratic nature of theatre, and the need to take it to more and more people. We’re dreaming of a large theatre complex that can offer multiple spaces to accommodate the large number of audience,” he says.

Taiwanese team raising a banner with greetings to the Theatre Festival. Photo: Courtesy of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi

Certainly, somewhat a wild dream for a cash-strapped smallish State in a country busy battling its own demons. But, that is the stuff that dreams are made of, and for a festival that rose out of nothingness, only the wildest of dreams could help forge a way ahead.

Photographers: O. Ajithkumar / Rajesh Edachery.


[1] See here.

[2] See here.

[3] See here. 

*Renu Ramanath is an independent journalist and columnist focussing on theatre and performing arts based in Kerala, India. She has been associated in co-ordinating major theatre festivals of Kerala including the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) organized by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi and National Theatre Festival organized by the Dept. of Information & Public Relations, Govt. of Kerala. At present she is the Executive Committee member of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi and Director Board Member of Kerala Cultural Activists Welfare Fund Board.

Copyright © 2023 Renu Ramanath
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