International Theatre Festival: ‘So What If I Am Naked?’

Charmy Harikrishnan is a Kerala-based journalist
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The eighth edition of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala was resonant with thought-provoking dialogues and political themes
She stood naked on the stage. All that Mallika Taneja had was a thin hair band around her right wrist. She looked at the audience, and they looked back at her. There were more than 100 people, most of them Malayalee men and some women. Her skin shone under the light. Her hair, straight and brown, reached her shoulders. Her breasts, with large dark brown areolas, heaved down. Her hands fell on the side. Her belly protruded a little. Her hips curved gently. Below that was her black pubic hair, thighs, knees, calves, feet. She looked at the audience on the right. Someone coughed. Coughed again. Her gaze moved to the centre of the stage. Her face was relaxed, her eyes active, observant. There were stoles and dupattas draped over a table, chairs and racks around her. Red, orange, blue, turquoise, red flowers on white. Someone clapped. Someone else shushed. Her gaze slowly travelled left. She then turned right, a profile on fire, the arch of the back, the rise of the butt. She turned again to the audience, smiled, removed the band from her wrist, raised her hands and tied her hair: an everyday gesture. You saw her earrings. She smiled. She laughed a little. Was it five minutes? Was it 10? I, like the others in the audience, had to deposit my phone before entering the theatre and had no way of knowing. But time stretched and collapsed as we, fully clothed, watched Taneja, naked; as her silent question kept ricocheting off the walls of the theatre, off the minds of the viewers: “So what if I am naked?”

She suddenly wrapped a stole around her waist and said in the cheerful Hindi-English sing-song of a goody- goody young Delhi woman: “My father tells me, ‘Beta, be careful. Thoda dhyaan se.’” Smiling still, she began to dutifully tie stoles and dupattas around her body, slip into half a dozen camisoles and shorts and trousers and dresses. “Because you have to be responsible for yourself. Because someone has to take responsibility of responsibility.” She spoke faster, as though there was no time to pause, no time to think, as she put on more and more clothes, wore socks after socks. Finally she draped a dupatta covering her head and face and put a helmet on top. The woman buried under clothes, under a pile of dos and don’ts, under an avalanche of instructions. The invisible woman. The woman who is asked to erase herself to be safe on the street, the woman who is asked to dress, behave, speak, act carefully—so carefully that there is nothing left of her.

Nudity is central to Taneja’s performance, but nudity is not the point. That nudity is not the point is the point of her performance. She counterpoised the loud obedience of the clothed Taneja with the silent rebellion of the bare Taneja. In less than half an hour, she made the most powerful and provocative, political and theatrical statement against those who say that ‘the girl was asking for it’, against those who blame the woman for every act of sexual assault on her.

It was Taneja’s first public performance of Thoda Dhyaan Se in India. And it happened in conservative Thrissur, a town that circumambulates a temple in a rather chauvinistic Kerala. Taneja’s performance was a fitting finale to the eighth edition of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) and got a standing ovation from the crowd. The men applauded; someone cried out “I love you” to Taneja; another said, “It was a slap on the face of victim- blaming.” Has it changed how you think about women, I asked a guy. “I am not sure about that,” he said shyly, “but it was a powerful performance.” The women were visibly moved. “It is what I go through every day, every fucking minute of my life,” a 23-year-old girl told me.

For a week this January, prudery stood outside the gates of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi where ITFoK took place. Instead, politics walked in through the portals and occupied the stage to make it a one-of-a-kind, contemporary, cutting-edge international festival of the performing arts in the country. There were 20 plays, with repeat shows, for which about 13,000 tickets were sold. Eleven were international productions and four were in Malayalam. And they showed how theatre, this ancient form that miraculously transforms a few square feet of space into every place imaginable, that converts the body into the medium, can have a visceral hold on you, even in this age of 3-D Star Wars. It can still jerk your head up and focus your attention on the silence and spectacle of a few people before you, when all that you have been used to is staring at the phone in your palm.

It began with Sharira, Chandralekha’s luminous, numinous masterpiece— the perfect opening piece to a festival themed around ‘Body Political’. As Tishani Doshi, in a superlative performance, and Shaji K John recreated the last choreographed work of Chandralekha to the soaring dhrupad of the Gundecha brothers, it brought together the meditative slowness of yoga and the measured kinesis of kalaripayattu. It deconstructed the body and reconstituted it in what is still, 10 years after Chandralekha passed away, the ultimate celebration of the body on the Indian stage. The forms and shapes it created out of Doshi and John were minutely crafted, infinitesimally perfect and revolutionary.

With the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the much-less funded ITFoK—this edition’s budget was Rs 1.25 crore —Kerala now has a cultural triangle, which is influencing and inspiring artists. A couple of them are creating organic works of high quality, rooted in this land, unlike earlier when artists fled to Mumbai or Delhi or Kolkata or Cholamandal.

If filmmaker Sudevan created a collective in his village in Palakkad to make his award-winning, extraordinary first feature CR No 89, with ordinary people acting in and funding it, Trikaripur, a village in Kasaragod, has come together and pooled in Rs 15 lakh for the stage adaptation of OV Vijayan’s milestone novel Khasakkinte Ithihasam (translated by Vijayan himself into English as The Legends of Khasak). The troupe KMK Smaraka Kalasamithi brought maverick theatre director and scenographer Deepan Sivaraman from his perch at Ambedkar University, Delhi. They practised for five months in and around the paddy fields, houses and ponds of Trikaripur. The villagers spent money again and bought tickets to see the play that they themselves had funded—over 5,000 people watched over eight shows. The performance at ITFoK was the first outside Trikaripur.

Vijayan’s Khasak rose magically from the ground—you tasted it in the sherbet, the water as cool as ice, that the sherbetwallah gave to the hero Ravi and the bemused audience; you saw it in the rice flour that Allah-Pitcha Mollakka used to draw a mosque on the earth; you smelt it in the whiff of the talcum powder and biryani at Maimoona’s wedding; you heard it in the muezzin’s call to prayer. A four-dimensional, multi-sensory experience and an interactive scenographic language are central to Sivaraman’s theatre—and he was at the height of his powers here. Said the 42-year-old from Thrissur: “I first went to Trikaripur to see the place and the people. It was the perfect setting. Like Khasak, it has a great mix of Hindus and Muslims. There, a Muslim cleric will give oil for the theyyam performance. This play could only have been made in Kerala, never in Delhi.” Vijayan’s hero Ravi, however, gets short shrift in the play. Sivaraman defended this decision: “For me, it is not just Ravi’s Khasak. Ravi is incidental, he is just a passer-by. Khasak belongs to the Mollakka and Maimoona, Kunhamina and Kuppu-Acchan and Nizam Ali. I think the 70s’ Malayalee read too much of his existential crisis in Ravi.”

The cultural triangle of the IFFK, IFToK and the biennale is also questioning old notions of the often-befuddled Malayalee about theatre, arts and films. The intellectual Malayalee can be particularly insular when it comes to the contemporary language of visual arts. Having grown up on the verbiage of radio plays, Kathaprasangam (a mixture of song and story presented by one man, which used to be a staple at religious festivals), professional theatre, mimicry (the easiest recourse to satire in the state), the dialogue of Mohanlal and Mammootty, Malayalees are very textual. They need words, a linear narrative. They are easily taken aback by silence and broken images. Which is why some kept asking at the ITFoK, “Where is the drama?” even when there was plenty of good theatre happening all around.

Sankar Venkateswaran, the 36-year-old actor and director who has curated this international festival even as he is creating a theatre space for tribal people in the forest of Attappadi, said, “The Malayalee’s viewing culture is very limited. In fact, the theatre scene in Kerala and the rest of the world are diametrically opposite. While we dramatise, internationally there is a tendency towards minimalism. Just look at Peter Brook. He mounted the most elaborate production ever in The Mahabharata 30 years ago. In Battlefield, his new production based on a section of the epic, there are just four actors, one musician and three bamboo sticks. I want to breach this gap between sensibilities. I want to expose our audience to experimentation in contemporary theatre—and challenge them.”

I am not sure how well they took that challenge. A young Malayalee theatre director said, “I want more plays,” although he changed his opinion that the festival did not rise to his expectations after Taneja’s performance on the last day. He was complaining about the couple of performances of contemporary dance and hybrid theatre forms that were showcased at the festival.

Meanwhile, Lena Kollender, programmer of the Internationales Sommerfestival at Kampnagel in Hamburg, found ITFoK “contemporary, intelligent and brave”.

Baling from Malaysia, for instance, was a documentary play, a genre new to Kerala’s theatre audience. Director Mark Teh, 34, had three actors reading out the transcript of the Baling Talks of 1955, a discussion between Tengku Abdul Rahman, who was chief minister of what was then Federation of Malaya, David Marshall, chief minister of Singapore, and Chin Peng, the communist leader and most wanted man in Malaya in the 1950s. It was interspersed with documentaries and visuals— political theatre at its finest.

“This version of Baling was developed in 2015,” says Teh. It was performed at the opening festival of the gigantic new Asia Cultural Centre Theater in Gwangju, South Korea, in September. “It is an attempt to review and deconstruct how the image and bogey of Chin Peng was created by the British in the 1950s, and how his image continues to ‘haunt’ the Malaysian imagination—a ‘haunting’ that is strategically maintained by the current government.”

At ITFoK, you saw the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach when the play Battle Scene by the Lebanese group Zoukak was staged. They were not playing Aylan. Everyone was a refugee in the play, drowning in the sea and gasping for breath. They kept their heads in vessels of water until they could not hold their breath any longer; they choked and gasped and eventually fell exhausted on stage. They beat themselves and each other with clenched fists and open palms. They buried each other in sand. Director Omar Abi Azar said: “In the theatre we could no longer be innocent witnesses of what was happening on the streets of Lebanon and the shores around us. In this play we are the victims and perpetrators. We suffer and we make others suffer. We can no longer stand aloof.”

Panmai Theatre from Tamil Nadu, arguably the first theatre group founded and managed by trans people in India, staged its powerful play Colour of Trans 2.0. It was a homecoming for Gee Imaan Semmalar, a trans man from Kerala, who is the co-founder of the troupe along with two trans women Living Smile Vidya and Angel Glady. “I have always been a boy. I was a boy in a school skirt,” he says. He studied at Lady Shri Ram College and stayed at Godavari Hostel for women in JNU, Delhi. “Now I am 28. I have fresh surgical scars on my chest and a proud beard,” he says. He also has a new name. “‘Gee’ was part of my mother’s name,” he said, “and I wanted to keep a part of her with me as she has been my biggest support. ‘Imaan’ means faith and it was faith that saw me through. And I wanted a last name that would not have any caste or religious connotations, so I chose ‘Semmalar’.” His mother and brother were there in the audience, watching Gee perform. He later wrote a Facebook post about his mother: ‘As usual, she didn’t let her emotions show. But I went back home after the second show and slept next to her. The way she held me while we slept told me more than words could.’

In Colour of Trans 2.0, Gee, Angel Glady and Vidya told their personal stories to make a political point. Towards the end, Vidya shed her clothes one by one until she was only in her black panties. She removed the plaster from her limbs and chest and stomach. She stood there under the lights and we saw the body of a trans woman and the wounds on it and the triumphant glory of it bared and blazing in the light: the scarred breasts without nipples, the belly with a long horizontal gash. “These are the scars of my struggle, these are the scars of my survival, these are the scars of my strength,” said Vidya.

For Taneja, the question was: ‘So what if I am nude? My body has nothing to do with your crime.’ For Vidya, the statement was: ‘My body is everything. I made my body to be myself. You have to see it to fully know me.’ Both celebrated and took ownership of the body in ennobling, empowering ways.

If this isn’t political theatre, then what is?

ITFoK needs a larger budget, just as IFFK has, and it should give the curator funds and freedom to travel and commission plays from around the world, but the viewers, who eagerly queued up for hours to watch the plays, amid the red of the frangipani flowers and the whiff of fried anchovies from the canteen, need to do what the influential Italian director Eugenio Barba did in 1963 when he spent six months at the Kerala Kalamandalam to research Kathakali. Richard Schechner says in his book Performative Circumstances from the Avant-Garde to Ramlila that Barba brought Kathakali exercises to the influential Polish theatre person Jerzy Grotowski and they formed the ‘core of the plastique and psychophysical exercises’.

Malayalees need to embrace the different languages of theatre, like Barba and Grotowski once did, rather than collectively shake their heads and tsk tsk, “Oh, but where’s the drama?”

(Charmy Harikrishnan is a Kerala-based journalist)