Abhilash Pillai had been a “very special student” at the National School of Drama (NSD), so when he staged his play Island of Blood in 2002, she was present in the audience. “It was so full of noise that I couldn’t hear the actors speaking,” says Jain, a veteran theatre director and senior faculty member at NSD.
Pillai, obsessed with the idea of sound and silence, had turned the hall into an aural gas 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. “So, I rang him up and asked why he had put so much sound?” says Jain, “Pillai’s explanation really set me thinking about the language of theatre. He said that in today’s world there is so much noise around us all the time. We have to make a lot of effort to listen to what we want to hear. For him, theatre was about capturing reality – good and bad- and converting it into a theatrical experience.” Even as a student — a backbencher who was not good in studies and had many complexes about girls — Pillai had made one decision – he would never make plays to impress. Not even when the audience comprised his teachers.
“Too many people come to watch plays with preconceived notions of how it will be or how theatre should be. I like breaking these ideas, challenging the audience and forcing them to think. I enjoy conflicts because they almost always lead to a change for the better,” says Pillai, 45.
This raison de etre 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 — Lanka Lakshmi in 1994 in which he used ad jingles and film music by AR Rahman, then a little-known composer, and Peter Gabriel, a singer-songwriter from England, with recorded sounds of riots. In Saketam (1999), Pillai cast two women actors as the mythological heroes Ram and Lakshman. In 1995’s This Man is Yourself, he had actors pour kerosene on black 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, “Yes, I am a post-colonial bastard.”)
With his 15 major productions, Pillai has aimed neither for the head nor the heart; he wants to get under the skin. Jain says, “Abhilash has taken a large variety of texts in different forms and tried to search, evolve and create a distinct visual and aural language for each of these. He is also deeply political and committed and is also exploring the politics through the aesthetic language. As far as I know, he is considered a role model for a large number of young theatre practitioners as he has opened up new areas of experimentation in theatre.” A Sanskriti Award and a Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award are among the few that have recognised Pillai’s contributions.
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 straight-enough plot of a woman in 18th century Tamil Nadu, who was married off at five and became a widow at seven. Confined to the margins of society after the death of her husband, Avudai meets, by chance, a maverick guru called Shridhara Venkatesa Ayyawal. Though women were barred from learning the shashtra, Ayyawal initiates Avudai into the folds of Vedanta and guides her through a greater understanding of spirituality until she becomes a poet-saint in her own right. “I don’t get spirituality, the audience does not have to get it either as long as they can feel the oneness of the universe that the text talks about,” says Pillai.
The story is linear but not its telling. As if dismantling a Rubick’s Cube, Pillai has taken it apart column by column. Events in Avudai’s life are recited in fragments by Agarwal as she dances, by Shankar, the actor who sits in a mound of earth, and by Mathew as he thumps on the mizhavu drum of Kerala. 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. All the while, visual images of flames cover the floor and that of water fills the backstage.
People from Kerala and music lovers will notice another anomaly—the mizhavu drum, considered a Brahmanical instrument, the only one in the world that has a caste and which gets a burial when no longer in use, is, in Avudai, the property of Chandal, a man hanging from the last rung of the caste ladder. Pillai has been credited with bringing the mizhavu out of its Brahmanical moorings with Saketam (an adaptation of an episode from the Ramayana in which a tribal man plays the mizhavu) and then in 2007-08 with Helen (a retelling of the Greek myth in which Paris, prince of Troy, plays the drum and Helen dances atop it). In this case, he is using the rare panchamukha mizhavu, an earlier form of the instrument. “With Avudai, I should say something new. I feel limited, we have already extracted the mizhavu from the Brahmins so I want to move ahead. Let’s see,” says Pillai.
Theatre, like all art, carries forward a legacy of culture and tradition so that new 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 NSD and the panel asked me to demonstrate a step from Kathakali, a dance form of Kerala, because I was a Malayalee. I didn’t know because I had grown up all over India, exposed to various art forms but not my ‘roots’. I failed that exam and I remember how upset I was that evening and for many evenings after that,” says Pillai.
At the advice of the NSD panel, he enrolled at the Trichur Drama School and found himself in the thick of the Roots practice. “My problem with Roots started in Trichur though I had no confidence to say it aloud. Unlike my rooted class-mates, I had mismatched roots. When I watched a Kathakali performance wearing a watch, I would wonder what was true to my identity – the folk dance or the technology in my watch. If both were true, why didn’t theatre reflect the reality?” he says.
A year later, in 1991, he joined NSD, and it was a time of great change. Jain had taken over as the first woman director of the institute, a new syllabus was being created for students and Pillai would meet his most important teacher, theatre director Anamika Haksar. Haksar, herself an NSDian, had learnt a new theatre language during her stay in Russia and she introduced the students into this. “Suddenly, it wasn’t about Roots. It became about the Self. The new syllabus had a very special aspect and that was ‘Knowing Yourself’. In the first year, it was not about how you perform but how you understand yourself. It’s an ocean when you start understanding yourself. You start reading autobiographies of great actors, you start decoding classics, you have Russian literature coming in. Then, you start getting confidence,” recalls Pillai.
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 through every way. “My father worked in the Song and Drama Division of the Central government in the 1960s and 70s and we were the guinea pigs of Jawaharlal Nehru’s nation-making exercise. My father’s job was to register folk forms of different states and organise programmes so that each state would be familiar with another’s art. We were continuously travelling and I grew up in this environment, with all different kinds of artistes and singers and programmes,” he says.
As he worked with Haksar on student productions, Pillai had a life-changing epiphany, “I realised, ‘So, this is what my Self is. I have a very different Self. I have a variety of backgrounds. If you don’t know Kathakali, you can’t be a Mallu is not the right way of quoting an identity. A Malayalee not knowing Kathakali can also be a Malayalee,” he says, “Most importantly, 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 India’s motifs of pop visuals, video, recorded sound and other technological interventions, so that his audiences don’t watch the theatre that their grandfathers did.
Pillai made his voice heard with his diploma production, Lanka Lakshmi in 1994. The Babri Masjid had been demolished two years before and he had responded with a Malayalam text that told Ravana’s story. His patchwork production had an actor standing up in chhau style and walking in yakshagana. When audiences come into a theatre, in the first few minutes, they develop an understanding of the kind of the production they are watching – classical, folk, horror, mythology, comedy and so on. With Lanka Lakshmi, they were never quite sure, they could not settle down with a clear definition. “It was a mismatch and I was a bit worried. We wanted to decode what could be Theatre of Roots and how it could come out of the clutches of purity. I could see audience reactions and there were some strong reactions that aisey natak nahin hona chahiye but most took it nicely,” says Pillai.
NSD was followed by a Charles Wallace scholarship to London for a month in 1995 and the following year, Pillai enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where Richard Attenborough was the chairman. Between jobs washing and cleaning offices to earn money, Pillai attended a workshop by Augusto Boal, a pioneer of theatre for social change and Pillai’s next great teacher. “His visual vocabulary was so community oriented, and I realised that every gesture does not have to make a meaning but it could be a part of a larger scenario of 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. “From the palaces of Kanya Kumari, where the rajah would defecate into a hole in a bridge and scavengers would sit below with pails to collect the droppings to the politics of cleaning five-star hotels, an encyclopedia on the subject was on stage,” he says. MG Jyotish (this year’s META winner) was an actor and assistant director in the play and he came up to Pillai and asked, “You are a Pillai, you have never had the life of a scavenger, why are you making this play?” Pillai had replied, “When I went to London, I understood what racism is.” Jyotish had a nice smile on his face when he said, “All the way to London, you had to go to feel this pain and we here feel this every day. That’s why we are do theatre because theatre does not have these differences.”
Verdigris would be one of Pillai’s major productions. Its storyline is split into two – before interval, it is the story of a scavenger in the 1940s who wants his son to study and find a different job. “After the interval, the play becomes a satire in which we show this play, Verdigris, being honoured by ministers and the government, winning awards and being sent to festivals abroad. Of course, we knew that such a subject would never be sent to festivals,” says Pillai. The sets were designed by fellow Kerala scenographer Deepan Sivaraman, with plants and flowers and props made from drainage pipes. “All painted curtains had video projections, there were films of 15 minutes made of the history of toilet cleaning which we had shot. There were lots of visuals of shit. By the end of the play, the stage would be full of water and keechar,” says Pillai.
In theatre halls, seats were removed and audiences sat on planks. “This play was very disturbing. Some people walked out. Art is not about aesthetics and beauty, it is about the five senses and you hardly engage with smells and only theatre can do that. We did not put smell but the audience imagined there was a smell of shit and they were not comfortable about that, which is okay. It was a political statement on art and culture. Audiences must be uncomfortable if the subject is uncomfortable. That is also art,” says Pillai.
Verdigris travelled to Portugal and Pillai’s other plays have been staged in Japan Germany, Russia, Korea and China among others. Verdigris and Saketam were also significant because a lot of major young directors came out of it. Shankar Venkateshwaran, the percussionist who persuaded Pillai to bring the mizhavu on the theatre stage in Saketam, Sivaraman and Jyotish, who have chiselled out what is known as contemporary Kerala theatre, worked with Pillai on these plays.
Yet, it is Midnight’s Children (2005) that most theare goers remember Pillai by. Salman Rushdie’s book that Pillai first read—and didn’t like – at Trichur Drama School but still carried around “because it was thick and Rushdie was a nice name to drop” was considered impossible by theatre goers. DR Ankur, a senior theatre director, who does not approve of Pillai’s style of theatre and calls it Theatre of Installation (“Where is the actor in these plays? The actor is relegated to the background and technology designers take over,” he says.) however, singles out Midnight’s Children for its careful balance of technology and live acting. A huge number of video screens and music recordings were complemented by Pillai’s multiple Saleem Sinais, Rushdie’s central protagonist. “We had 14 Saleems from different states, all talking Hindi in their own accents, as he becomes the protagonist to whom all of India connects,” says Pillai.
Every time Pillai has tackled a subject, he has fit it with a new technology. He interpreted the first Iraq war with Helen, juxtaposing the beautiful Helen (played by the powerful actor Harish Khanna), who is attached to oil tubes as in a petrol pump, with the Helen that Greek mythology never talks about – raped and abused after the war. Performed by Pillai’s wife Jhilmil Hajarika, the ugly Helen wears a gown made of tubes that bulge, inflating her steadily as the play progresses. “The costume was designed by Vishal K Dar, an artist, and my wife would grumble that the inflated tubes would press suffocatingly against her heart and stomach,” says Pillai. The play ends with the beautiful Helen going under water, into an aquarium floating with dead baby figures, while the ugly Helen, bloated with oil and greed is hauled up until she soars like a Mother Goddess.
For a person obsessed with the un-, anti-, dys- and dis- in his theatre, Pillai is self-effacing and unfailingly polite. At NSD, where even students wear their attitude in male ponytails or payals with sneakers, Pillai, in his striped shirt, pen tucked in the front shirt pocket and a golden watch, fades into the background. Is he an antithesis to his theatre, crafted as diligently as his narratives? Pillai is silent for a very long time before responding, “As a child, I used to read that Raj Kapoor was a big showman and wonder, ‘what is this showmanship? His films are there, his films are so strong, why is showmanship needed? I could never bring these two things together. Why do we need both? You don’t have to see the person if the work can say things. You could be driving force in academics, you could inspire the younger lot, you don’t always have to be seen, you can be the inspirer,” he says.
A still from Verdigris
A still from Midnight’s Children
Pillai at NSD