Last year, traffic had to be diverted in Thrissur, Kerala, as a theatre festival took to the streets. Among the performers was activist Ramachandran Mokeri, dressed like a rock star and strumming a guitar, walking among the common people who had, a few minutes ago, watched a faux cow being slaughtered and been offered its meat. Mokeri’s piece, Untouchable: I am Rohith Vemula, was an expression of the Dalit angst as the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), literally, took on right-wing politics.
In another instance, it was the corpse of a woman that silenced a thoroughfare. The crowd in a working-class area parted to make way as the body was carried through, her head shielded by a golden umbrella. Titled Sari Rosa, Alejandro Cofre’s piece was an attempt to draw awareness to the rights of women across the world. One of the most radical and experimental theatre festivals in the country, ITFoK has, since its beginning in 2008, pushed out theatre that evolves in the crevices of sociocultural systems.
As it starts a new decade on January 20, former artistic director of ITFoK, Abhilash Pillai, says, “We tried to sculpt ITFoK in such a way that it would grow into an event like any cultural or religious festival in India where the police and municipality is involved and the entire city is involved.”
View From The Other Side
This year, the festival is themed around “Theatre of the Marginalised: Reclaiming the Margins” and features 16 international and 16 Indian plays over 10 days. “We began to ask ourselves, ‘Where do the new ideas come from? Where are the new struggles? Where are the people, who don’t get mainstream auditoriums to do their work? The margins are full of voices that are relevant and asking for a change, identity and space in the mainstream,” says MK Raina, Festival Director
Not a Pretty Picture
The opening play, Palestine, Year Zero, by Israeli director Einat Weitzman, was deemed so dangerous that Israel’s culture minister ordered it to be vetted in 2016, before it could be staged the Festival of Alternative Theater in Acre. Immediately, all other festival participants declared they would leave the festival if Palestine, Year Zero was not allowed. The “subversive” plot deals with an old building assessor surveying the destroyed houses in Palestine and documenting the stories of the families who lived in them. Among the foreign plays, Voicelessness, from Iran, revolves around a young woman in the year 2070, struggling to discover the truth about the mysterious disappearance of her grandfather. From the UK, My Body Welsh investigates the role storytelling plays in constructing national identity.
Drama from India
The Supreme Court decision to review Section 377 and reconsider its 2013 decision to criminalise sexual acts “against the order of nature” lends an extra edge to Mandeep Raikhy’s choreography, Queen Size, in which two men perform on and around a charpoy while the audience is invited — like voyeurs — to sit around and watch or look through windows. The layered articulation of the public interventions in the private behaviour of individuals is heightened by the freedom of choice — the audience is free to enter and leave at will. The audience at ITFoK will see a more refined version of the 2016 performance. “Performatively, the piece has grown quite a bit because the performers have begun to own it and it has become more theirs than the choreographer’s. We have also had a spatial rethink. During the premier, everything was very central. The bed was at the centre and we began to pull the piece apart a little, so now the bed begins to shift in the space,” says Raikhy. The Dalit voice, this time, is through the play, Outcaste, based on the autobiography of Sharankumar Limbale, which depicts the struggle against deprivation, discrimination and violence, and the dehumanising impact of caste oppression. Red Light Express, performed by daughters of sex workers, attempts to change how human trafficking is perceived. Adishakti’s Nidravathwam revolves around the politics of sleep through the mythological story of two brothers, Laxman and Kumbhakaran. The former has a boon that allows him to stay awake for the 14 years of exile while the latter is granted the gift to alternate between continuous sleep and wakefulness for six months in a year.
Apart from Plays
Workshops, seminars on subjects such as ‘Theatre of Resistance’, artistic dialogues and a retrospective of photographs on the milestones of ITFoK over the past decade are part of the schedule.