Gandhi thought that without having its moorings in the ethos of its civilisation, India cannot go further in its creativity and imagination. There were others who thought that only if we energise our traditional ways of creating with new imagination that we could achieve something novel and yet vibrating with our collective memory, something unique and rooted in our civilisation. Kavalam Narayan Panikkar, who died on Sunday at his home in Thiruvananthapuram, was one such great master of theatre.
Panikkar wrote plays and poetry, essays and theoretical texts on the music of Kerala called Sopanam. He directed plays and guided Mohiniattam dancers. He also took early steps in reviving the oldest theatre-dance form of India, Kudiyattam. We can go on enumerating the things that great Panikkar did in his life. He produced plays in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Hindi. He was the first theatre director who did Sanskrit plays with such great refinement that it opened the possibility of doing Sanskrit plays for many theatre directors across the country. For him the ancient dramaturgic formulations collected in Bharata’s Natyashastra were not some kind of anthropological material to be kept in museum, but a repertoire of practical possibilities he could play with and which could also serve his unique theatrical imagination. It was the most sensuous theatre done in India for many decades because Panikkar could ‘de-Victorianise’ theatre: He could decolonise his imagination and connect his theatre to the sensuous vibrations of the tradition, which in a sense restated the non-rigid vibrant reality of our traditions, which are being ruthlessly destroyed or standardised to suit political needs. His was the theatre which showed the openness of our traditional imagination. He did his plays with dedicated actors of his repertory, Sopanam, in Thiruvananthapuram. He also produced some of his plays with the National School of Drama (NSD) repertory.
Two years ago, Panikkar produced Kalidasa’s Abhijnan Shakuntalam with the NSD repertory in Delhi, which were very well received. He performed almost all the plays of arguably the first playwrights of Sanskrit, Bhasa, Kalidasa, and one play of Bhavabhooti in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Hindi in many parts of the country including Thiruvananthapuram, Pune, Bhopal, Ujjain, Bhubaneshwar and Mumbai. The Sopanam repertory performed his own texts like Sakshi, Deivattaar, Avanvankadammba, Theyya Theyyam, Kalivesham and so on. He taught Mohiniattam to eminent dancers like Bharathi Shivaji, Jayaprabha Menon and many others. He was the first guru of dance who introduced Kerala’s Sopanam music in the dance form, Mohiniattam. Before his intervention, this dance was mainly performed to Carnatic music, which he thought did not allow the dance form to fully realise its potential. He also wrote a book on the theatrical basis of Sopanam music, which he thought had its roots in the agrarian culture of Kerala.
Panikkar was an innovative, and yet rooted, theatre director. In fact, he was a margi artist. Margi artists are the ones who always try to find new ways, margs, to create. But his way of creating was very special. He would go very deep into folk, deshi forms like Theyyam or Mudiyattam and borrow from that form to make his theatre scintillatingly novel. In short, he would transform a repetitive folk, deshi form into an innovative reflective margi form. Thus he could revitalise the folk performance traditions of Kerala on the one hand and pave the path for young theatre directors to see the creative potential in the folk forms. His theatre exemplified the fact that India is one continuous culture with multiple variations in different regions because his theatre could speak to audiences across the country and, yet, could remain rooted in Kerala. His was a uniquely Kerala theatre and, therefore, a truly national theatre. In India, the “national art” could only be that which is rooted in a particular regional culture in a way that it touches the very continuum that flows across the various cultures of our country, and allow all of us to imagine, without any exterior constraints or impositions of ideas about India. In Panikkar’s theatre we experienced for many decades the potential of our traditions and the risks it allows artistes to take to realise their respective imaginations.
Panikkar’s theatre presents new ways of looking into the ancient texts and understanding the ethos of Indian civilization. His disciples, I am sure, will take forward his unique theatre vision. Artistes like Panikkar are the best gifts a self-doubting civilisation like ours can receive. I only wish this gift too does not go unattended like Gandhi.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Rooted, yet innovative’)