It Takes a Village

In the 1960s, OV Vijayan conjured a land that would become Kerala’s Macondo, in a novel that changed Malayalam literature forever. An audacious theatre production of the work upends all popular interpretations and celebrates a coming together of a people.

Updated: April 17, 2016 1:33 pm

“Innocent wayfarer, what bond of karma brings you here?”
OV Vijayan in The Legends of Khasak

It’s been nearly five decades since OV Vijayan imagined the mythical landscape of Khasak and gave Malayalis a novel to die for. Khasakkinte Ithihasam (The Legends of Khasak) continues to enchant readers with its intense lyricism and seamless weaving of myth and reality. It didn’t spawn imitations because few dared to walk the path of the maestro. Khasak was the Malayali’s Macondo, trespassers could be prosecuted. It is this sacred literary landscape that 40-year-old theatre director, Deepan Sivaraman, entered when he chose to stage a play for KMK Smaraka Kala Samiti, a theatre group in Thrikkaripur, a village in northern Kerala.

The result is an exceptional production that challenges conventional wisdom about Vijayan’s novel and recreates a people and a landscape with potent political meaning. It celebrates the syncretic religious life of Khasak and retrieves the folk-Islam embedded in the novel as a counter-narrative to current perceptions about Muslims. The production of the play has become a cultural event with large public participation, evoking memories of an era when theatre was an integral part of people’s political life.

The monsoon hadn’t arrived when Deepan, who teaches theatre studies at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, joined KMK Smaraka Kala Samiti members to discuss the play last year. Deepan, who trained at the School of Drama in Kerala and Central St Martin’s College of Arts and Design, London, had worked on a screen adaptation of the novel a decade ago. When he reread the novel, he felt it resonated with the community life of Thrikkaripur, located in the heart of the theyyam country.

Murals at Kottapuram market. Murals at Kottapuram market.

Theyyams are local deities and their propitiation through ritualist performances is a part of the people’s cultural life in this region. In Vijayan’s Khasak too, the gods are all insiders, born, buried and reborn in the mind and mythology of the place and its people. Deepan felt that Vijayan’s 1950s’ Khasak was a world gone by, a society of immense, innocent affection, a time when people stayed together and shared happiness, grief and, even, faith. It was a place where Hindus swore by the Holy Sheikh, the mythical saint of Khasak, and Muslims by the pothi (goddess) of the tamarind tree. Faith was an inclusive landscape and rituals were meant to unite people. Retrieving those memories in an age of communal ghettos was a political act. This foregrounded Deepan’s encounter with The Legends of Khasak.

Khasak is no ordinary novel; for generations of Malayalam readers, it was a sculpture in language that Vijayan built with myths and metaphors. A novel, in writer NS Madhavan’s words, that gave a new vocabulary to Malayalam. Its popularity remains undiminished — it has sold over a lakh copies in over 50 editions — and fans continue to make the pilgrimage to Thasarak, a village in Palakkad where Vijayan’s sister taught in a single-teacher school in the mid-1950s and which he recreated in his novel. It is structured as a journey of Ravi, a young man plagued by guilt and uncertainty, who escapes to Khasak. A cartoonist, Vijayan drew a cast of characters, each unique in his/her own way and with a distinct inner life. Even the landscape breathed life: the plant and animal universe throbbed with energy and character.

In Thrikkarippur, the play evolved as the director interacted with amateur artists of the groups and the villagers. “Deepan drew in local residents to participate in the play,” says Chandran, president of the Samiti. “They had not read Vijayan’s novel, but the production process turned them into supporters of the play,” he adds. Rehearsals took place across the village. As the monsoon retreated, the play went on stage. In an arena with galleries raised on three sides, a new The Legends of Khasak was born. As word spread, people from far and wide arrived to watch the play. The ticketed shows on three days were packed. The organisers raised Rs 1.2 lakh from ticket sales though the production cost about Rs 16 lakh.

Murals at the entrance of the school ground where the play was staged. Murals at the entrance of the school ground where the play was staged.

With a cast of over 30, top-class lighting, Chandran Veyyattummal’s remarkable musical score, video screens as props, puppetry, Deepan put up a spectacle rarely experienced by Kerala’s theatregoers. The play opens with its entire cast marching into the dimly-lit sepulchral arena with fire-torches and spotting the audience. Chandran’s pulsating music sets the tone for the action. Puppets are used to journey back in memory. With oracles and preachers in plenty, the three-hour-and-a-half long performance resembles a ritual than a play.

Early this year, Deepan staged Khasak at the annual International Theatre Festival of Kerala in Thrissur, where hundreds watched the performance. In the audience were Anoop Kumaran, a young human rights activist from Kodungallur, a coastal town in central Kerala, and his friends. “We decided that the play had to be brought to Kodungallur,” says Anoop.

The hitch was the cost. The production was expensive by Malayalam theatre standards. Anoop and friends didn’t back off, but sought the help of local worthies, including filmmaker Kamal. Sponsors, including the Kochi Biennale Foundation, offered support. Kodungallur Municipal Corporation exempted ticket sales from tax and offered a school campus as an arena for the performance.

A scene from the spectacular production at Kodungallur. A scene from the spectacular production at Kodungallur.

In the next few weeks, people from many walks of life — traders, teachers, students, gulf Malayalis, public servants — joined the efforts to stage the play. Kodungallur turned into a performance site as the organisers zeroed in on social media and street art to advertise the event. At the ancient Kottapuram market, the dreamy Khasak landscape and its characters, including Allapitcha Mollakka, Ravi, Maimoona and Naijamali were painted in detail. Headload workers at the market requested the artists to paint on the abandoned ticket counter at the old boat jetty. Abdul Salam, who runs an interior design consultancy in neighbouring Ernakulam, spoke about taxi and auto drivers helping the artists to draw and paint at bus stands and public places. “It’s about a people becoming a part of a movement,” says Dr Mohammed Sayed, president of Cheraman Juma Masjid committee. “It is a part of our self-discovery, exploring our identity as citizens of Kodungallur.”

Kodungallur is a place steeped in history. It is believed to be the site of the ancient port of Muziris, where ships from the Roman and Chinese kingdoms docked and traded in spices. It was the capital of the Perumals, the rulers of the ancient Chera empire. Ilango Adigal is believed to have composed Silappadikaram, the Sangam Tamil epic, at Mathilakam in Kodungallur. Some of the oldest churches and mosques of India are in this town. In more recent times, Muhammed Abdur Rahman Sahib, the freedom fighter who fought Muslim conservative politics, was born here. The communist movement has deep roots in the region.

However, the progressive ethos of Kodungallur has been under threat from the Hindu right. The threat of political violence is real in the town, constituted around a temple. For the town’s influential left-wing intelligentsia, Deepan’s Khasak was a political intervention that celebrated cultural diversity and pluralism.

The play now travels to Kozhikode and Bangalore in May, and then to Goa and Kochi in December. The play now travels to Kozhikode and Bangalore in May, and then to Goa and Kochi in December.

The history of theatre in Kerala overlaps with the state’s political trajectory. While cinema was the main vehicle for political propaganda in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, theatre played that role in Kerala. Early plays of modern Malayalam theatre, like VT Bhattathirippad’s Adukkalayil Ninnum Arangathekku, emerged out of the Nambuthiri reform movement in the 1920s. Left politics that came on its own in the 1930s too found theatre a useful ally in politics. Kala samitis that had earlier performed musical dramas now shifted to political plays. Born out of social and political movements, they energetically pushed social reform agendas and political causes. It is this spirit of political theatre intertwined with public action that Deepan’s Khasak resusciates. Its aesthetics and production, of course, reflect the new Kerala, a relatively affluent society but more polarised than ever.

“Because truths are many”

Villagers in The Legends of Khasak
In the mid-1950s, Vijayan was a budding short-story writer and a card-carrying communist. He had planned to write a work of social realism based on the peasant life in Palakkad. But the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the subsequent killing of Imre Nagy, a Marxist who sought to turn his country into a multi-party democracy, caused a crisis of faith. “It blew my mind. I turned away, I began my uncharted journey,” Vijayan was to write later about that period of disillusionment. He abandoned the “revolutionary” novel he had planned and “plumped for plants and flowers, and a place like Khasak”. “Ravi, my protagonist, liberation’s germ-carrier, now came to the village and re-entered his enchanted childhood…He would learn from the stupor at Khasak,” Vijayan wrote in the afterword to his own English translation of Khasak.

The libertarian landscape of Khasak was, perhaps, Vijayan’s statement of protest against the claustrophobia of Soviet communism and its local variants. The men, women and children of Khasak are poor folk. Death is a constant presence in their lives. But they are free souls, living enchanted lives without the burden of sureties imposed by both colonial and Nehruvian modernity. Ravi, the outsider whose paper on Vedanta and astrophysics impresses a visiting American professor, is the only aberration in this landscape. Unable to shed the memory of his “sins”, he has fled “civilisation” to Khasak. His uncertainties resonated with the Malayali youth of the 1960s, who had by then dipped into European existentialists and was disillusioned by post-Nehruvian India. Critics and fans alike read Khasak as existentialist fiction with Ravi as a representative hero of his times. The references in the novel to Vedanta gave him the persona of a man on a spiritual quest, a Meursault-like figure with no attachments. But Vijayan’s irony and his meticulous depiction — and celebration — of the Muslim social life of Khasak was pushed to the background.

Deepan subverts the standard reading of Khasak as existentialist fiction. He refutes the notion that Khasak is Ravi’s story. “I believe that Khasak, the place, defines the book,” he says. “Vijayan drew Ravi as a lustful character. His political positions are problematic. His interest is mainly in sleeping with women. We must be able to recognise the satirist in Vijayan,” he argues. Deepan finds characters like Naijamali, the non-conformist sufi preacher of Khasak, more interesting than Ravi. In Deepan’s hands, The Legends of Khasak is not mere Ravi’s ithihasam (epic) but the epic story of the land called Khasak. “It is not my reading. I genuinely feel that this is what Vijayan has written,” he says. Deepan shifts the gaze to the subaltern characters, who, so far, were deemed peripheral to the “story”. Writer and filmmaker M.A. Rahman calls Deepan’s interpretation a critical counter-text. Expectedly, there has been criticism of the liberties taken with Vijayan’s narration and the near-dismissal of Ravi.

The Legends of Khasak that Deepan creates is a celebration of a place and its rich folk religiosity. The azaan is a recurring part of the musical ensemble Chandran has written for the play and adds a meditative element in an otherwise action-packed performance. Deepan describes the celebration of folk Islamic culture as an act of retrieving the memory of Muslim social life against the demonisation of Islam since 9/11. The smells and sounds of that social space were an integral part of his childhood in Thrissur. Foregrounding the cultural memory, he believes, is part of the politics of his theatre.

Conscious that the community life that Vijayan drew in Khasak has disappeared, Deepan sought a form that made the play a process of excavation. Inspired by Mexican writer Juan Ruolfo’s Pedro Paramofsd, where the narrator arrives at a village where all the people are dead, Deepan constructs his play as an episodic narrative of dead people coming out of their graves to tell their stories. The Khasak fan who seeks a literal interpretation of Vijayan’s novel will be disappointed.

Khasakkinte Ithihasam had a new version when Vijayan transcreated the Malayalam work into English in the 1980s. Deepan’s is the third rendering of the Khasak story. It is, of course, a director’s cut, but the work has the vigour and wonder of the Malayalam orginal, though this version is more a spectacle with rich political undertones than any philosophical meditation. It is a rare homage to a brilliant writer and a powerful cultural intervention.

The play now travels to Kozhikode and Bangalore in May, and then to Goa and Kochi in December.