In 1995, when Abhilash Pillai joined the National School of Drama (NSD) as a faculty member, his play Island of Blood saw his old teacher at the institute and veteran theatre director Kirti Jain among the audience. When the play began, Jain found herself perplexed. “It was so full of noise I couldn’t hear the actors speaking,” she says. Pillai had turned the hall into an aural chamber, filling it with noise from the streets and railway stations, of riots and the frustrating drip-drip of a tap leaking into a bucket, the clang of a utensil falling on the floor and rolling to a stop and the crying of a child. When Jain later asked Pillai why he had done so, his explanation was simple. “He said that in today’s world there is so much noise around us all the time, we have to make an effort to listen to what we want to hear,” she says.
For Pillai, 45, a play has never been a tool to impress. “Too many people come to watch plays with preconceived notions. I like breaking those ideas, forcing the audience to think. I enjoy conflicts because they almost always lead to a change for the better,” he says. This lateral thinking has brought him to the forefront of a cutting-edge, experimental theatre movement in India. He is credited with introducing video images in theatre while still a student at NSD — in Lanka Lakshmi (1994), he used ad jingles and film music by A.R. Rahman, then a little-known composer, and British singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel, with recorded sounds of riots. In Saketam (1999), Pillai cast two women actors as Ram and Lakshman. In This Man is Yourself (1995), he had actors pour kerosene on books that symbolised holy texts and set them on fire (the play had ended memorably with Pillai walking up to a group of agitated intellectuals in Kerala and declaring, “I am a post-colonial bastard.”)
With his 15 major productions, Pillai, recipient of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award, in 2012, has aimed neither for the head nor the heart; he wants to get under the skin of his audience. Working with a variety of texts, he tries to create a distinct visual and aural language for each, imbuing them with political thought. At present, Pillai is reworking his last year’s play Avudai, with Delhi-based dancer Seema Agarwal, percussionist Jijo K Mathew and actor Dilip Shankar. It is a straightforward story of a woman in 18th century Tamil Nadu, who was married off at five and became a widow at seven. Relegated to the margins of society, Avudai meets a maverick guru, who initiates her into the folds of Vedanta, even though women were barred from learning the shashtras. Later, she becomes a poet-saint.
Pillai’s telling is far from linear. As if dismantling a Rubick’s Cube, Avudai’s life is split between three characters and the audience must, at once, suspend disbelief and be acutely alert if they are not to miss the thread of the story. Events in Avudai’s life are recited in fragments by Agarwal as she dances, by Shankar, the actor who sits on a mound of earth, and by Mathew as he thumps on the mizhavu drum of Kerala.
There is another anomaly that the discerning will notice — the mizhavu drum, considered a Brahmanical instrument, the only one in the world that has a ‘caste’ and gets a burial when no longer in use, is, in Avudai, the property of a Chandal, a man on the last rung of the caste ladder. Pillai has been credited with weaning it out of its Brahmanical moorings in his plays.
Theatre, like all art, carries forward a legacy of tradition so that newer generations do not forget their origins. Pillai has, “always had a problem with art that perpetrates memories — and only certain memories — of the past. The movement, Theatre of Roots, enforced an understanding of culture and region, so that plays had to follow the grammar of traditional forms. When I first applied to the NSD, the panel asked me to demonstrate a step from Kathakali because I was a Malayalee. I didn’t know how to. I had grown up living in various parts of India, been exposed to various art forms, but not to my ‘roots’. I failed the exam,” says Pillai.
At the advice of the panel, he enrolled at the Trichur Drama School and found himself in the thick of the roots practice, but he could never get on board with it. “My father worked in the song and drama division of the central government in the 1960s-70s. His job was to register folk forms of different states and organise programmes so that each state would be familiar with the other’s art. We were the guinea pigs of Jawaharlal Nehru’s nation-making exercise. We travelled continuously and I grew up amidst different artistes. Unlike my classmates, my roots were mismatched,” he says.
A year later, in 1991, he joined NSD, at a time of great change. Jain had taken over as its first woman director, a new syllabus was being drafted and Pillai would meet the teacher who would have a profound influence on him: director Anamika Haksar. She introduced her students to a new theatre idiom she had learnt in Russia. “The new syllabus had a special aspect and that was ‘knowing yourself’. It’s an ocean when you begin to understand yourself. You start reading autobiographies of actors, Russian literature and classics. You start gaining confidence,” he says.
When Pillai looked within, he saw that he was standing, not on a monolith of tradition, but in an estuary where currents of culture cut every way. It was then that he had an epiphany: “I realised I have a very different self. My identity isn’t only my folk art, but also the machines I use and the gadgets I collect.” From then on, Pillai’s theatre began to reinforce not only the past, but also the present through 20th and 21st century Indian pop visuals, video, recorded sound and other technological interventions. Every time he tackled a subject, he fit it with a new technology.
In 1995, a Charles Wallace scholarship took him to London, and the following year, Pillai enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Richard Attenborough was the chairman. Between washing and cleaning offices to earning money, Pillai attended a workshop by Augusto Boal, a pioneer of theatre for social change and his next mentor. “His visual vocabulary was so community-oriented, I realised that it could be part of a larger social and political statement.” He ate once a day and bought all of Boal’s books with his savings.
After returning from London, Pillai created Verdigris (2000), a play on the history of cleaning toilets. Path-breaking in its concept and use of props, it remains one of his major productions. The sets were designed by fellow Kerala scenographer Deepan Sivaraman, using mainly drainage pipes as props. There were video projections and short films. By the end of the play, the stage was full of water and keechar. The seating was replaced and the audience sat on planks. “Art is not about aesthetics alone, it is about the five senses. We did not put in the element of smell, but the audience imagined there was a smell and were uncomfortable about it, which is okay. It was a political statement on art. Audiences must be uncomfortable if the subject is uncomfortable,” says Pillai.
His other triumph is the Midnight’s Children (2005), Salman Rushdie’s book that he first read, and didn’t like, at Trichur, but still carried around, “because Rushdie was a nice name to drop”. It was a difficult adaptation, but Pillai rose to the challenge. He used a number of video screens and music recordings on stage and had 14 Saleem Sinais from different states speaking in Hindi in their own accents.
For all his activism, Pillai is self-effacing and unfailingly polite. At NSD, in his striped shirt, pen tucked in the front shirt pocket and a golden watch, he is nothing like his idiosyncratic colleagues and students. Is he an antithesis to his theatre then? Pillai takes his time before he responds, “As a child, I used to read about Raj Kapoor being a showman and wonder what it was about. His films were there, they were strong, why did he need showmanship? Why do we need both? You don’t have to see the person if the work can say things.”