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Theatre in India, a Dilemma
For the Integration of Acting
Theatre In Kerala, With Strong And Steady Steps...


Theatre In Kerala, With Strong And Steady Steps...

by Chandradasan

As anywhere else in India, the theatre of Kerala also is at another crossroads when we are about to move to the next millennium. Many critics and theatre enthusiasts complain that the theatre in not giving a result that they expected and dreamed. There is some confusion in the theater activist also regarding the form and structure of the medium and the nature of the productions. Their overt inclination to do mad experiments had driven some audience away. At the same time, the theatre practitioner of today is aware of the craft and aesthetics of his medium, as his contemporary at any other part of the globe. The lack of finance and material resources creates another peculiar scenario that the theatre worker of Kerala has to leave his vision about a production at a half cooked level. The local and state governments were not theatre friendly and their patronage remains minimal. The state Sangeetha Nataka Academy remains incompetent in planning projects and guiding theater activities, partly due to the minimal funds with which they are operating and partly due to lack of vision. The only incident, with which the academy provided inspiration to the theatre worker of Kerala, was the National Theater festival at Ernakulam in 1977 and now in 2000. Delhi, the central government agencies, and the Kendra Sangeetha Nataka academy have proved to be at a far, faraway distance that even primary contact seems to be impossible. The poverty of theatre and the minimal social acceptance it offers drives a theatre enthusiast either to the film or TV or to other engagements, in his pursuit to earn a livelihood. Adding all these negative factors, people envisage confusion and disillusionment in the theatre of the future. Many complain that the present theater is not addressing to the social and human issues as it did in the past.

However, one should remember that the theatre of Kerala has evolved amidst such confusions and dilemmas. The one hundred years that is passing off have seen drastic changes in the theater of Kerala, both in content and concept, in form and organization. It is in the first twenty-five years of this century that the theatre of Kerala evolved, based on the models of the touring Tamil groups and their song -dramas. In addition, the translation of Sanskrit classics like Sakuntalam and their performances were an early trend that exposed the Keralite to the new medium and its possibilities. Soon the social activists identified the intrinsic potential of this live medium, and a number of progressive dramas such as Ruthumathi (pubert Girl), Adukkalayil Ninnu arangathekku (from the kitchen to the stage), Pattabakki (the remaining lease), and Koottukrishi (collective farming) followed. These dramas identified themselves with civil reformers and their effort to revitalize the society to shed off the irrational and absurd social practices and dogmas. This was a highly fertile period for Malayalam drama that, a good number of these sensible productions, contributed to the formation of the present Keralite identity with a rational and a reasonable social outlook. This trend continued unto the production of Ningalenne Communistakki (You made me a Communist), - by Thoppil Bhasi and performed by KPAC- which, many believe as one of the reasons, for the election of a communist governance in Kerala. However, the form of Kerala theatre remained as a primitive and crude imitation of the Victorian proscenium propagated by the touring Tamil Companies. Of course, the body of the drama was filled with melodrama, with high voltage outbreaks of histrionic explosion and the execution very bungled. The presence of such great actors like V.T.Bhattathirippadu, Sebastian Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, and many others, together with a content that is directly related to the life and problems of the people, made them highly popular and pertinent.
The next fifty years of our theatre tells a different story with multiple streams. The success of the socially progressive plays like Ningalenne Communistakki and the productions of Malabar Kendra Kalasamithi inspired a mainstream theatre culture that gradually fell into the rut of repeated cliches and formulas in content, structure, acting, music and all departments of the production. At the same period playwrights like C.N.Sreekantan Nair and C.J.Thomas have written plays that did not confirm to the run of the mill creations of the period. Still their plays like Lankalakshmi and Aa manushyan nee thanne (That man is you) did not resulted in productions until 1975. After independence, India was familiarizing itself to the theatre awareness that has revolutionized the theatre practices of the world, the new schools and newer trends. Even if a theatre school was started in Kerala only in 1978 at Trichur, theatre education was introduced much before through the Nataka Kalaries (theatre workshops) organised by late G.Sankara Pillai and others. The NSD products including Kumara Varma and S. Ramanujam started doing productions and workshops in various parts of the state. Theatre evolved as an art form, with its own aesthetic standards and one that demanded serious and continuous commitment from the artists. The exploration to evolve a theatre practice rooted in the rich Indian performance tradition was joined by Kavalam Narayana Panikker, G Sankara Pillai, R.Narendra Prasad and others with productions like Avanavan Kadamba (the self-fence), Karimkutty (both by Kavalam Narayana Panikker), Karutha daivathe thedi (In search of the black god) by G.Sankara Pillai, and Souparnnika By R.Narendraprasad, and also with the theoretical comprehension.

It seemed that the late seventies and early eighties are envisaging a quantum jump in the concept and practice of Kerala theatre. The activities of the School of Drama, the productions of Thiruvarangu (now Sopanam), Natyagraham, and young groups like ‘Root’ Trichur come forward with inspiring activities. Even the street plays put up by Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishat has good theatre in it. The productions like Nattugaddika (by K.J.Baby) – performed by the tribals of the Vayanadu district along with the activists of CPI-ML, with a content that is highly political, theme and structure evolved from the tribal myths and rituals, presented in a sort of street corner agit prop theatre, during the period of emergency under strong police vigil and threats of arrest - gave new meanings to the purpose and practice of theatre. This happened to be an alternative search in the practice of the indigenous theatre in form and in content.

The numerous theatre competitions organised in almost every village in Kerala have also been the school for many theatre workers to breed. These rural theater competitions introduced the modern and experimental theater to the people of Kerala. Names like Brecht and Growtowsky were very familiar to the theatre aspirants and even productions of Waiting for Godot was usual in such festivals.
This boom did not last long. In the early 1990 there was despair and confusion Those dreams did not flower in the same dimensions and the audience slowly turned away. Many of the good talents left for films as actors or technicians. The theatre was still going steadily and regularly even at this period. There were good and meaningful productions at different parts of Kerala. The critics who made much noise at the seminars and symposia never came to witness a play. The enmities among the different theatre practitioners often added further fuel to the chaos.

It is at this same time that foreign intervention came to theatre of Kerala with Funds and grants for “specific projects on theatre”, by agencies like Fords Foundation. They succeeded in wooing the talented directors and artists into their trap and very talented and promising directors like Jose Chiramel were the first among the prey. This is an all India phenomena including Bengal (personally, I am very curious to know about the present theatre of Probir Guha who had done very meaningful and relevant theatre in the early nineties.) Those directors and artists wooed and eventually castrated by Ford foundation and other similar agencies were either lost into the hallucinations of a drunkard, with anarchistic wanderings in the fringe territory of theatre. Or they had succeeded in propagating false standards and priorities regarding the form, aesthetics and content and mode of theatre and kidnapped theatre from the real people. They formed a nationwide networking of the fake polished theatre as dictated by western sensibilities and their needs that does not have any living relationship with the people, their history, and realities.

But there are signs that theatre in Kerala is reemerging as a vital form of expression. The theatre activists and the new groups are working slowly and steadily to reestablish the theatre that has been robbed off, from them and the people. These groups are aware of the situation they are in and are willing to fight back, steadily, and systematically against all odds. It is with strong steps that the theatre of Kerala is moving to the next millennium. There are groups working regularly with a clear perspective in training, practice, and organizational fabric, at different parts of Kerala. Groups like Lokadharmi Thrippunithura, Abhinaya Thiruvananthapuram, and Center for performing arts Kollam, Jananayana Vadanappalli, A.S.Smaraka Kalavedi Karalmanna, Desaposhini Kozhikodu, and Annoor peoples arts club Payyannoor are doing effective work with a clear vision against all odds and have come with meaningful productions. The signs these and similar groups are displaying are really inspiring and encouraging. The fact is that many productions of these groups are better in form and in content, than the recent productions by big names in the field of Indian theatre. It is a fact that the freshness and energy of many Malayalam productions are absent in the many of the Nationally acclaimed productions.

The theatre will be better equipped to take up the challenges the future is offering. The social atmosphere of the next century does not seem to be very smooth, with the many problems, tensions, and revolts in the offing, in political, economical and social stratum. The theatre will take up those agonies and anxieties and join to fight the enemy both from outside and within, as a live media that is very close to the people. It is at bad times and against odds that a medium like theater will flourish, as an art form and as a true weapon of the people....

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