The ‘week-day drama’ festival started by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi is an attempt to promote regional theatre in the State

It is 7 p.m. and the lights are dimmed at the Kerala Fine Arts Hall. The first bell announcing the evening’s play rings out. Audience settle in their seats unhurriedly and by the third bell, the hall has filled to capacity. “Kathapathrangalum Pankeduthavarum,” a voice booms and the whispers in the hall die down. The curtain rolls up and the play begins.

Fifteen minutes earlier, the director of the play, Vilappil Madhu, is sitting in the adjoining room at the entrance of the hall, clad in a green lungi. He is busy making calls, but indicates with a nod of his head that he can spare a few minutes to talk. “We are a bunch of Malayalis settled in Mumbai. We are not professional actors or directors. We do theatre because we are passionate about it. It is our way of escaping the monotonous routine of life in Mumbai,” he says. The play, scripted and directed by Madhu, is woven around the inexplicable relationship between drama and real life. It won the second place in the ‘Pravasi Amateur Theatre Festival’ conducted by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi last month.

New initiative

When the Akademi’s new initiative, the ‘week-day drama’ festival, opened to a full house in Kochi last Thursday, Madhu’s play brought back the quintessential theatre experience in its entirety. There was jarring music typical of old-world drama, spirited histrionics and a well-intentioned story. “That is the appeal of theatre. Though hours of rehearsal go into a play, the challenge lies in its spontaneity. It is not the same experience when you watch a film or a teleserial,” Madhu says.

This was the first in the line-up of plays that would be staged every Thursday at the Fine Arts Hall in Ernakulam all through the year. A novel concept introduced by the Akademi to bring back the love for theatre, the festival will include a variety of Malayalam plays from different genres. “The idea, simply put, is to revive people’s interest in regional theatre,” says T.M. Abraham, the vice-chairman of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi. “In these times of the television, it is a challenge to lure people out of their homes. This is an attempt to revive the culture of theatre appreciation in Kerala. There are so many experimentations taking place in contemporary Malayalam theatre and a festival such as this would help take them to a larger audience.”

Regional theatre has suffered a decline in terms of a significant drop in the number of viewers in Kerala. Especially in the last 20 years, as the fascination with the celluloid deepened, actors and even directors began to migrate to cinema and television. However, even as professional drama troupes were pushed to the fringes, amateur attempts have met with success. Contemporary experimental plays in Malayalam have won appreciation at the national level. Script-writer John Paul, who inaugurated the festival in Ernakulam, puts the onus on the viewer. “Viewers need to participate in the process of theatre. Once, it was a director’s medium, then an actor’s, but now, it is the viewer’s. We need to awaken theatre in ourselves first,” he says.

Support for theatre

With the State Government’s grant of Rs. 50 lakh earmarked for the festival, the Akademi hopes to support and offer encouragement to theatre troupes to perfect their craft. “We also want to urge people to buy tickets to watch the plays. The tickets to the plays have been priced at a nominal Rs. 20. The collection would go directly to the troupe,” he says. “Regional drama, somehow, never gained the status of an art form that needs to be paid for to be watched,” Abraham says.

The plays chosen for the festival are those that have won prizes or have made it to the final shortlist in the theatre competitions conducted by the Akademi. Spread out over the State with permanent venues in Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam, Kochi and Thrissur, the initiative aims at encouraging more people to get involved in theatre and creating a climate for healthy theatre activism. While a play will be performed on Tuesdays in Thiruvananthapuram, the same will be staged on Wednesdays in Kottayam, Thursdays in Ernakulam and Fridays in Thrissur. “The best thing about the festival is that these works get a wider platform. More often than not, they get stuck in the competition circuit and do not get a chance to go down to the public,” says Mohan G. Venpuzhassery, an executive member of the Akademi.

While ten plays have been selected from the “professional theatre” category in the competition conducted by the Akademi, six plays selected are from the “amateur” section. Twelve plays have been chosen from the new “short play” genre, too.

In the hall, the curtains fall on Kathapathrangalum Pankeduthavarum to steady applause. Walking out, one hopes, as Madhu’s characters repeatedly proclaim throughout the play, “the show must go on”.

Thursday's play:

Vaidehi Parayunnathu, a play presented by Dhrishti Amateur Natakavedi, Kozhikode, will be staged at the Kerala Fine Arts Hall on April 11 at 6.45 p.m. The 45-minute play has been written by Vinod Mekoth and directed by K.K. Purushothaman. The play is a take on a woman’s role in the institution of marriage. The female protagonist is made to go through a situation similar to Sita’s in the ‘Ramayana’ by her suspicious husband. Ticket fee is Rs. 20.