The evening light was slowly disappearing, turning audience members into silhouettes. At the centre of the performance space shone a circular doorway covered with a colourful curtain made of knotted sheets. The promise of the set was of kitschy local entertainment that recalled an era of street performers, wandering magicians and hereditary acrobats. Charithra Pusthakathilekku Oredu (A Page for the Annals of History) was Kerala-based director Jose Koshy’s ode to a form of entertainment that was common during his childhood. The play was held on the open lawns of the National School of Drama in Delhi for the annual theatre festival, Bharat Rang Mahotsav.
“The first 38 minutes are completely autobiographical,” says the director. During a plane journey, he had read a short story, Upanyasam, by TV Kochubava, about nomadic performers. “It struck me that I am facing a crisis and my friends in theatre are facing a crisis. Where is theatre going? We don’t have any industry, enough space, money, teachers or spectators. There is crisis, crisis, crisis,” he says.
Into the story of a cycle circus, called Cycle Yajnam, run by Kochanthony and his group, Koshy and the actors of Invisible Lighting Solutions wove the larger concerns of theatre. The play was devised, with actor James Elia making the final script. “We decided that we will be silent and express the crisis through the dying art of cycle circus. They will work for us, talk for us,” says Koshy.
The production of almost two hours included stunts, such as a lamp beginning to shine when connected to a performer’s body parts. “I have watched a man who was unaffected by 11 kilo watts. He could act as an insulator. There was another person, who could act as a conductor between a light switch and a lamp. In my life, I have watched them,” says Koshy, 42. The bioscope, a vendor, performers holding out cans for money from the front rows (that sat on the ground touching the performance space), as well as cycle riders played out their personal and professional dramas — creating ample space for Koshy’s sociopolitical comments.
The play takes potshots at the importance of the Gulf in Kerala (“the only place, where Malayalees work hard”), Indira Gandhi (“who gifted us the Emergency”) and Mumbai (“where Kerala youth, fresh from typing schools, look for jobs”). The play also satirises performers and acting styles and positions indigenous art against classical norms propounded by the Natyashashtra, a Sanskrit text on performance arts. Once, a paralysed character, of a performer, has a sickle fixed to his immobile fist with a hammer. “This is how the Left manipulated artistes and theatre to spread communism in Kerala. I am not a person to promote any party, be it communist, the Congress or the BJP. None of them helped theatre. My politics is different,” says Koshy.
He talks with intense focus, his voice often dropping to conspiratorial whispers. He is always serious, he jokes. “I was a serious child. I was happier with machines than with people. Sometimes, I consider humans also as machines. Now, I make machines for plays,” he says. He grew up in Thrissur, which is home to several institutes of art and music and the Sangeet Natak Akademi and is considered the cultural capital of Kerala. His parents were theatre regulars and he was transfixed by a world that was different to his own. “The interval is always planned in the middle of a conflict and I would go to the side of the stage and peep from behind the curtains. It looked different from the front of the stage. This was before I learnt the word ‘magic’. Gradually, I began to understand that this was theatre,” he says.
It was also the time that Koshy began to be fascinated by light and shadows, with the steam from his mother’s cooking rising towards the sunlight at the window and mingling with dust particles. Today, Koshy is better known as a master of lighting. He won the Best Light Designer Award at Mahindra Excellence of Theatre Awards 2010 for the Deepan Sivaraman-directed Spinal Cord. His collaboration with Sivaraman extends to plays such as Peer Gynt and 2016’s biggest production, Legends of Khasak.
Koshy turned director with Rashomon: A Memory in which the bandit protagonist lashes out at society: “You say that I am a bandit and that I raped a woman. What about yourself? You are also killing people, not physically but in many ways, with your money, greed and power. This part is not in the movie made by Akira Kurosawa. For this part, I made Rashomon, to express how a person transforms into a bandit or a thief. Fifty per cent is society’s fault,” he says.
Charithra Pusthakathilekku Oredu ends with a symbolic death, which is the fate of many art forms in India. Every play, says Koshy, requires a leap of faith. “Below, there may be marsh, fire or land. We don’t know. We jump,” he adds. Charithra Pusthakathilekku Oredu will travel to
the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, which being held in Thrissur between February 20 and 28 .