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How theatre director KP Suveeran’s encounters with social inequalities shapes his award-winning works

Earlier this week, the director of feted plays such as Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum and Ayussinte Pusthakam won the Kerala state's Mullanezhi Award for Lifetime Achievement

A scene from KP Suveeran’s play Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum. (Courtesy: Teamwork Arts)

When one of the country’s prestigious theatre events, the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), returned before a live audience in July, it marked a fightback for the struggling art form. On show were four plays that had been created in the years preceding COVID-19 and had won top honours at META in 2020. Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum, by a maverick theatre director from Kerala, KP Suveeran, was among the selections.

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The play, from 2018, looks at social hierarchies, with the central protagonists being a ruthless landlord, Pattelar, and his obedient servant Thommi. Thommi carries out Pattelar’s orders without asking questions about right and wrong, until his conscience begins to stir and, eventually, pushes him out of his servility. META has described the play as “an inspiring tale of freedom from bondage”. Suveeran won the award for Best Stage Design. The trophy sits alongside four Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi awards (for Udambadikkolam in1997, for Fire and Rain in 2002, for Ayussinte Pustakam in 2008 and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019 ) as well as a National Award (2011) for Byari, Suveeran’s first feature film that he made in a dying language called Beary. Earlier this week, Kerala state’s Mullanezhi Award for Lifetime Achievement was given to Suveeran.

A scene from KP Suveeran’s play Bhaskara Pattelarum Thommiyude Jeevithavum. (Courtesy: Teamwork Arts)

Suveeran’s landscapes are the gritty pits of society, which he brings out through human stories of man-woman relationships. His 2008 play Ayussinte Pusthakam — which was selected for META in 2009 — shows the gender inequity in orthodox religion; Byari is about the suffocating rules of marriage. For 10 years, Suveeran used to dress only in black while he focussed on uncomfortable truths. “You will not see me in a march or a vigil but I am doing theatre about what worries me. I am against all kinds of power that human beings like to exercise over other human beings, whether it is patriarchal dominance over women; racism; or class or caste superiority,” he says.

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Nowadays, though, Suveeran wears all colours. “I, sometimes, wear white also,” he adds. It’s a colour he politicises in Bhaskara Pattelarum — from the clear white of the landlord Pattelar’s clothes to the unbleached colour of Thommi’s costume to the sandalwood shade of the sari that Pattelar gifts Thommi’s wife, Omana, after raping her.

As the youngest of eight children, Suveeran spent his early days in Ayyur near Vadakara, Kozhikode, conscious of hierarchy. He grew up with hand-me-downs as well as lots of books and paint. At 10, Suveeran accidentally came across actors in rehearsal at an arts organisation near his school and, soon, joined them on stage. He won instant appreciation, and threw himself into theatre. By the time Suveeran entered Government College, Madapalli, in 1988, to study Zoology, he was in demand as an actor among amateur and professional groups in town, some of whom also paid him. He was also a member of the Students’ Federation of India, university union councillor and student editor. “Most students reflect deeply about their identities and future at the time of their graduation. I had tried a lot of things but I chose theatre because I found happiness during those times that I was working on plays,” he says.

Suveeran’s father, Kunhiraman Vydier, an Ayurvedic physician, was keen that the children get a good education and have careers. “All the children became engineers, teachers, Ayurvedic physicians, bureaucrats and so on. Only one person went his separate way and that was I,” says Suveeran. “I decided to drop out of BSc and go to School of Drama, Thrissur. My father said, ‘Don’t come back home if you are going for theatre,”’ he says.

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KP Suveeran.

After leaving home, Suveeran made a surprising discovery— that it was possible to pay the bills by being on stage. He worked in plays after classes to earn his college fees, hostel rent and personal expenses. “To this day, it is to theatre that I turn for my livelihood even when I am working in films,” he says.

In class, he was outspoken about social issues. “If he is convinced about a situation, he would speak his heart without bothering about consequences,” says Chandradasan, artistic director of Lokadharmi theatre, Kochi, who was a member of the faculty at School of Drama, Thrissur. Suveeran also read a lot, and it was texts with cultural relevance to people’s lives that fired his dramatic imagination. “He expresses texts not only through dialogues or scenography but through clear images, connected to the daily reality of our lives, on stage. He brings out the best in his actors, so the images come through the actors’ bodies and voices, which are supplemented with the set design, lighting and craft of theatre,” says Chandradasan.

Over the years, Suveeran’s plays have emerged from important books— Bhaskara Pattelarum is a novel by eminent Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia while Ayussinte Pusthakam was based on CV Balakrishnan’s great work. Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), by American playwright Will Eno, forms Suveeran’s new one-man show. After College of Drama, Thrissur, which he attended between 1990 and ’93, and postgraduation in theatre from Pondicherry University from 1993-1995, Suveeran went to the National School of Drama in Delhi in 1997, but was expelled on disciplinary grounds in his third year.

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After a stint in Bollywood, Suveeran was back to making theatre in Kerala. “I have learnt theatre academically for eight years. I could have also gone to a film institute but did not. I am searching for myself in the theatre. When I sleep, I get answers, images and ideas in my dreams. I wake up and write notes. Otherwise, I might forget the ideas in the morning,” he says. It’s how he solved the problem of showing Thommi running long distances on a small stage in Bhaskara Pattelarum by creating a round structure that communicated a sense of space.

The latest version of Bhaskara Pattelarum — he first tackled the play with another group in 1996 and revisited it many times — marks Suveeran’s progression to simple structures and forms. His first major production as director in 1990, playwright G Shankara Pillai’s Bharatha Vakyam, on the other hand, had been a labyrinth of images. “I am thinking about how to make my plays easy and light to lift,” he says. It’s a part of his quest to be a good human being because “in this society, it is not easy to be a good person”. “I want to spend my life doing meaningful work that will help people,” he says.

“Though my father threw me away, I am trying to be like him because he was a good person, who prayed for the wellbeing of everybody, including me. When I got the National Award, I was sad because my father had passed on by then. He did see Bhaskara Pattelarum in 1997,” says Suveeran.

First published on: 16-09-2022 at 09:40:12 am
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