Theatre veteran Nilambur Ayisha recalls her tumultuous but triumphant engagement with the stage. Undaunted by travails of any kind, the veteran actor and activist continues to speak her mind on social issues and women’s empowerment.

Ayisha had not realised what hit her until she felt a salty wetness on her lips. Someone had hurled a stone that caught her right between the eyebrows. Nilambur Ayisha continued to say her dialogue, even as blood trickled down in warm, thick drops. “I still remember that taste,” she says.

It was the 1950s, when it was taboo for Muslim girls to appear on stage. And Ayisha was not just a presence. She was a firebrand. By her late teens, she had become a talking point, finding her way into newspaper headlines and contemptuous whispers. In Kochi recently to speak on atrocities against women at a session held as part of the Bob Marley Festival, Ayisha recounts: “It was different those days, theatre was life.”

Ayisha made her stage debut at 16 with playwright E.K. Ayamu’s ‘Ijju Nalloru Manushyan Aavan Nokku’ (1953), a populist play that shook up social sensibilities. While the KPAC (Kerala People’s Arts Club) was creating ripples in the State with its plays, similar movements were gathering steam in small villages in Ernad and Malabar. “A group of spirited individuals discussed themes on social change. Sometimes, these discussions went on till late in the night.” During one such session, Ayamu suggested that they make a play on the issues plaguing the Muslim community. “A man from the crowd shouted at Ayamu: ‘Aadyam Ijju Nalloru Manushyan Aavan Nokku’ (why don’t you try and be a good man first?’ And Ayamu had found the name for his play,” Ayisha recalls.

Performed at over 2,500 stages in various parts of the State and in Bombay and Pune, the play drew huge crowds, including artists, writers and thinkers. Before Ayisha made her debut, men donned women’s roles. E.M.S. Namboodiripad, who reviewed it, suggested that a woman play the female lead. “I remember that day clearly. I was at home, sitting on an easy chair and singing along with a gramophone record. That was when my brother came home with Ayamu. He saw me and asked. ‘Why can’t she act as Jameela?’ I knew nothing about acting. But I loved singing and had a sense of rhythm.”

Hailing from a rich family in Nilambur (Malappuram district) with “lots of servants and an elephant”, Ayisha’s father and brother were interested in the arts. “My father would order all the servants to stop work at 4 p.m. That was the time for them to showcase their talents, be it in music, dance or acting.” Her mother, however, had warned her of dire consequences. The community would ostracise them, she feared. “But I was insistent.”

After her father’s death, Ayisha’s family realised they were broke. It was also the time the Muslim community rose against her theatre activism. Religious fanatics hounded her. She was pelted at several times while on stage, getting hit again on her forehead. “By then, I was determined to do what I believed in,” she says.

Days of hunger and poverty followed. The community had forbidden people to help her. “But good Samaritans such as Kunhi Kuttan Thampan of the royal family of Nilambur and Dr. M. Usman, both social visionaries and patrons of the arts, offered refuge. I got food to eat and I remained alive.” Actor Nilambur Balan too coaxed her out of her hiding place. “He advised me to go from door to door talking to people about theatre.”

Theatre became a fire that burned in her. “We never got paid those days. It was not for money. We went from village to village inviting people to watch our plays, which called for revolution, fighting feudalism.” In ‘Ee Duniyaavil Njan Ottakkanu’ (I’m alone in this world), written by Dr. Usman, she brought her sister Amina to the stage. Opposition continued. Once, she was shot at while performing in one of K.T. Mohammed’s plays in Manjeri. “I suppose it was an air gun. By sheer luck, I escaped.” Another time, while performing at Mannarkad, a man from the audience went up to her and slapped her. “Since then, I have lost my hearing in one ear.”

Ayisha’s first honour came the same year she started acting (1953). “I was called ‘Keralathile Veeraputhri’.” However, what she considers a greater achievement is having been able to work with stalwarts such as K.T. Mohammed, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer, Khan Kavil and P.J. Antony.

The most prominent among the awards she has received are the S.L. Puram State Prize for her overall contribution to theatre and the Kerala State award for the best supporting actress in the children’s film Oomakkuyil Padumbol.

At 76, Ayisha retains the fire within. She attends workshops and debates on social issues and women’s empowerment. “I’ve studied only till class five. But I can speak from my experience,” she says, in a clear, unwavering voice. She is not too enthused about the contemporary theatre, which, she feels, lacks “commitment”. Hence, she does not see herself back on stage. Movies? “Yes”. TV serials? “That would be an emphatic ‘never’,” she says, slinging her cloth bag over her shoulder to catch the bus back to Nilambur.

In the tinsel town

Films presented themselves, too. Ayisha acted in Elephant Queen, the Azad-Helen starrer in Hindi, which was released in 1962. “I don’t remember much except that I had to wear pants and a coat. I was quite excited,” she chuckles. She has acted in about 30 movies including Kandam Vacha Coat, Kuttikuppayam, Olavum Theeravum and the more recent Paleri Manickyam, Kayyoppu, Daivanaamathil, Vilaapangalkkappuram. Shooting for her latest film, Rekha Tharoor Kaanunnathu with Meera Jasmine, has just wrapped up.

In love with theatre

Ayisha nurtured an inner strength that few women during the time possessed. At 13, she was forced into marrying a 47-year-old man. “I don’t clearly remember what happened. I was too young and unwilling to marry someone who was uncouth and did not even wear a shirt. He took a large stick and threatened to beat me.” The marriage lasted five days. “On the fifth day, I asked him to get out,” she says. She mothered a child at the age of 14 and never married again. “There was no time for love. No time to think. I was consumed by theatre.”