Delhi-based theatre director Deepan Sivaraman prefers not to work with professional actors, for their bodies come encumbered with the baggage of previous roles. When he decided to take up OV Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihasam, a text that is considered a Bible in Malayalam literature, Sivaraman drew from untrained performers from around Trikaripur, a village in north Kerala. The play travels north for the first time and will be staged at the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur as part of Navras Festival on March 25 and 26 at 6.30 pm.
Vijayan’s Khasak is a village near Palakkad where “red tiles gleamed through dense greenery”. The people of Khasak, Hindus and Muslims, consider themselves descendants of the 1,000 horsemen who had come in times past, led by Sayed Mian Sheikh. A young man called Ravi arrives here, fleeing his demons, and to start a single-teacher school. Khasak has a rich cast of characters, and a landscape ordered by spirits, myths and religions. Sivaraman’s retelling has the quality of a ritual that drives a point about co-existence and inclusivity, not only between Hindus and Muslims but also people and nature. Around three-and-a-half-hour-long, without interval, The Legends of Khasak is a theatre experience that reaches out even to audiences who have not read the text. It is marked by ambitious lighting, musical scores and scenography as well as powerful performances. A look at the actors who became the characters of Khasak:
An electrician, Manoj plays the shaman, Kuttadan Poosari, straddling Khasak’s metaphysical worlds of spirits and deities with human realities. His role becomes important during a festival in which people drink adulterated alcohol and begin to suffer dysentry, dirtying the temple complex itself. Interestingly, Manoj belongs to a family that observes theyyam and his shaman borrows many of the movements from the ritual performances. Manoj also plays a potter who lifts the box of Ravi to an old Muslim man.
A house painter by profession, Sunil plays one of the most important protagonists of the Malayalam psyche, Ravi. Sunil has been acting for 20 years in amateur productions, his performances are exaggerated and melodramatic. But in this play, his portrayal of the character is more realistic and engaging. “I got into the skin of the character because I felt I was close to Ravi. When I read Vijayan’s novel as an undergraduate in 1993, I realised that every youngster has a ‘Ravi Syndrome’,” says Sunil. Ravi runs away from home after a sexual relationship with his stepmother and retains the sense of guilt. “I had planned to run away from my village after matriculation. A group of friends and I planned to go to Mumbai, and we stole coconuts and kept them in an abandoned house to sell and raise money for the trip. But, rats ate the coconuts and we could not leave,” says Sunil. He does not get into close relationships, like Ravi, and is unemotional by nature. “Vijayan’s Ravi is free-flowing like the wind which enters everywhere but belongs to no place. My Ravi is very much a part of Khasak but his outsider identity is alive,” says Sunil.
The beautiful Maimoona, the “houri of Khasak”, is caught in the tug-of-war between the male egos of her father Allapitcha Mollakka and her lover Nizam Ali. Until one day, the wind carries the stunning news through Khasak — Maimoona is to be married off to the knock-kneed diver Chhukru. Tharimma KL, who plays Maimoona, brings freshness to the role. A doctor of naturopathy and yoga, she comes from a culturally-rich family but has never acted before. “I found Maimoona to be liberal thinking and a normal girl to whom a lot of things happen. After her forced marriage to Chhukru, she partly succeeds in pursuing her own way of life but I feel she turns a little mean towards the end. I don’t sympathise with her, but I do admire her in her teenage years,” says Tharima.
Rajeevan leads a double life — as a health inspector for the government of Kerala and as Nizam Ali, who wears garish silk, transparent shirts and sandals on his feet, runs a factory and loves Maimoona, and finally turns into a sorcerer. “Nizam Ali is an experimentalist, he breaks social structures, while I am conservative and like things to be orderly,” says Rajeevan, one of the most powerful performers of the play. Rajeevan educated himself in keeping with social parameters and wants to “satisfy society and his family”. “At the same time, I wonder that there are layers in my character that are as wild as Nizam Ali’s,” he says.
Mollaka Allah-pitcha, the mullah, teaches the children of Muslims in a madrassa and looks upon the school started by Ravi as act of blasphemy, which will teach children kafir knowledge. He begins as a negative character and develops into a tragic one. “He is a main of faith but not a terrorist. In one scene, he gets a young girl to pledge that she won’t attend Ravi’s school. The pledge is made in the name of a Hindu goddess,” says Sudheer, who is a house painter and a visual artist. His Mollaka is based on the mullahs that the actor saw in the village. Sudheer transformed into Mollaka in real life during the making of the play. His hair and beard, his walk and talk changed. “I started to stride with an umbrella like Mollaka,” he says.
Rajesh Karyath Kuttan
A house painter, the 37-year-old plays the 67-year-old toddy tapper and village gossip Kuppu-Acchan. Kuttan read the novel only for the play and related to the character who likes fishing and climbing coconut palms. Kuppu-Acchan loses his eyes to an epidemic of small pox in the village and Kuttan brings alive his movements in the play. “Once, Deepan told me to go cross a paddy field near the rehearsal ground without using my eyes. It took me many hours, I fell many times in the mud but I found the character as well as a way of walking,” he says.
A schoolteacher, who also heads an activist theatre group made of working women, Balamani plays two contradictory roles. As Maimoona’s mother, Thithi Bi Umma, who has an opinion but no voice, even when Maimoona is married off to Chhukru. Balamani is also the erudite and intelligent Padma, the beloved of Ravi, who convinces him to leave Khasak. “When I read the novel, I felt there was a bit of patriarchy in the role of women as serving characters to women. The play focuses on togetherness among Hindus, Muslims, men and women. In this setting, Padma is a sustaining force who has decision-making powers and the ability to inspire Ravi,” says Balamani.
The only one in the cast with an acting career, Ashwathi turns a small role into one that engages the audience emotionally. She plays young helpless Muslim girl, Abhitha. “When her father, Chhukru, marries Maimoon, she has nowhere to go,” says Ashwathi. On the other end of the spectrum is Narayani, an angry woman who opposes her husband, Sivaraman Nayar’s decision to start a school. “The two layers of vulnerability and anger are already present in me so, when I became attached to these two characters,” says Ashwathi.