Two seemingly minor incidents proved prescient in a major way for Samkutty Pattomkary as he was growing up in a politically turbulent Kerala in the 1970s. When he was five years old, a “local cultural group” visited his village, Kannara in Kerala. “They wanted a child actor for some scenes. That’s how I got attracted to theatre. Nobody is into theatre in my family,” says Pattomkary. And, in 1977, his father was standing for elections for the agricultural labour union, when a painter came by to paint a billboard. Pattomkary was fascinated but he couldn’t afford a brush. So the painter gave him a discarded brush, and that’s when Pattomkary’s painting began.
The 49-year-old is now a veteran of more than 75 productions, mostly in Malayalam, but also in English, Hindi and Kannada — making him one of the most prolific theatre artists in the country. He searches for protagonists on the margins and traces their struggles with conflicts of caste, class, gender or their own animal selves. In March this year, Pattomkary won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for playwriting for his script, Lalla: The Great Winter Cart, based on the inner conflicts of one of the earliest Indian feminists, the Kashmiri mystic poet, Lalleshwari or Lal Ded. In April, he won the O Madhavan Award for his entire body of work in theatre. A script he wrote on the dark side of the family, Aatmam, won the Pravasi Kerala Sangeeth Naatak Akademy Award in 2017. Between 2014 and 2017, he won the Pravasi Kerala Sangeeth Naatak Akademy Award every year — in categories ranging from best production and best script to best director. And he’s still a painter. He has had 10 solo exhibitions of paintings across Kerala but has vowed never to sell his art.
Pattomkary’s works occupy the limelight but he doesn’t. “I am a social activist. The theatre is a part of my social activism,” he says. In the script of Lalla, Lal Ded’s path to enlightenment passes through a number of colourful forests. The first chapter, titled Red Forest, is marked by the primal savagery that she must conquer in order to experience ananda. The Orange Forest is where she defeats sexual yearnings, the Yellow Forest marks her dialogue with Buddhist renunciation philosophy and, in the Green and Pink forests, she achieves a Christ-like power, transforming into a symbol of endurance.
It is always the unsaid that make Pattomkary’s theatre rich literature. Adhika Nazhika Ghatikaaram, for instance, is based on a gang-rape incident in Rajasthan. The play first staged in 2017 in Delhi, starts with a monkey taking a bloodbath, and there are bodies that allude to the Dadri killings. Pattomkary showed how realpolitik subtly plays out in his adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, performed at arguably the most pro-establishment theatre festival in India, Bharat Rang Mahotsav, organised by the National School of Drama in Delhi, in 2014. Pattomkary designed a set in which the floor and the stage backdrop resembled a chessboard, with little squares opening like windows and doors to represent the game of “State-craft”. “None of the theatres I ever do follows a straight line. There is always a parallel narrative. You have an audience not just to be entertained but also to ask questions,” he says.
Caste and class are strong leitmotifs of oppression in his theatre. And as Pattomkary opens up about one of the most painful and defining phases of his life, one begins to understand how the personal has bled into the political for the artist. “My sister died when I was about three or four. She was just a year old, and she crawled to the paddy fields and drowned in the water,” he says. The fields belonged to upper caste people and Pattomkary’s father was not allowed to go across it to give the baby a proper cremation. Finally, she was abandoned in a church cemetery.
One of Pattomkary’s most famous plays, Bheemaparvam gives a Dalit perspective to the story of the Mahabharata. “A house of lacquer was built to kill Kunti and the five Pandavas but they escaped. Instead, another woman and her five sons were burnt alive. Who were they? They were a group of poor folk performers,” says Pattomkary. The plays uses the idiom of Theyyam to show the six murdered innocents transformed into gods who haunt the guilt-ridden Bheema. It was staged in 2011 at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts’ festival on the Mahabharata, Jaya Utsav. “He used to explain things so well that we actors could understand every expression. One other thing I have noticed is that he uses a lot of props and elaborate set design because he believes that theatre is not only about acting but also design,” says Tarique Hameed of Delhi-based Wings Cultural Society who has acted in Bheemaparvam.
Born in Kuttanad, Kerala, Pattomkary always had a proclivity for the arts. One of the first major scale recognitions came in class X when he won the All Kerala State School Festival for his sculpture that showcased Kerala through representational motifs such as elephants. During his graduation at the School of Drama, Calicut, he chose to recreate Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me A Communist), the iconic political play in Kerala that shaped communist politics in the state, originally developed by the Kerala People’s Arts Club in the 1950s. “I asked myself, ‘When theatre says it is telling the story of the proletariat, is it?’” says Pattomkary. Ningalenne Communistakki ends with the hero, an upper caste man with left leanings, getting married. In Pattomkary’s retelling, the hero arrives dressed in red, driving a red car and carrying a red garland, to symbolise his Communist leanings. “But, the wedding is taking place in a temple. The proletariat guy in this play was marginalised even in the script,” says Pattomkary.
Despite a strong body of work, Pattomkary has never created a permanent theatre group, and works with most companies that invite him to direct or design. Though, says Tara, member of Janasamskriti, a Malayali organisation in Delhi which has collaborated many times with Pattomkary, “Nothing is done because somebody has paid him. You call him and if something sparks his creative imagination, he does it.”
Tara also played the lead in Adhika Nazhika Ghadhikaram. “Samkutty works with only amateurs with little or no theatre experience. Before he starts a play, he devises a definite structure and plans every nook and corner of it. The whole play always remains in his mind. He introduces improvisations in the scripts to boost the actor’s caliber and presence accordingly. When you act with him, you don’t realise you are actually acting. It could be just the way you are sitting and he could tell you to turn at an angle or to sit straight up if you are drooping your shoulders. As an actor, I didn’t even realise when he does that,” she says.
Pattomkary’s creativity extends to every aspect of a production including the physicality of the theatre experience. For Oru Sankeerthanam Pole, based on the life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, he built an elevated circular stage which was 3,000 ft in length, and seated the audience in the pit. It was an unusual theatre experience for the audiences. For Mudrarakshasha, he built a triangular space that combined several types of theatre concepts — arena, proscenium and sandwich — and filled the background with huge burning rings to signify the death of the Nanda dynasty.
Pattomkary’s next project is unplanned, though he says he is writing a screenplay based on a historical period. “He wanders about the interiors of Kerala. People, especially the oppressed, are drawn to him like a magnet, attracted by his warmth. Their struggles are reflected in his theatre,” says Tara.