Abhilash Pillai, the seasoned director talked to the theatregoers about independence, “Hindutwa” and other issues in the context of his plays “Midnight’s Children” and “Saketam”
National identity and religion — Abhilash Pillai
Natarang Pratishthan over the decades has archived and documented material on Indian theatre practice, apart from presenting programmes to create an interface between practitioners of theatre and the thinking audience.
Abhilash, an educationist, theatre director and curator of theatre festivals, was initiated and exposed to traditional Indian theatre forms from childhood by his father who worked at the Song and Drama Division and also through his travels in the country. Trained at Thrissur School of Drama under the guidance of G. Shankara Pillai and Vyala Vasudevan Pillai, he had a deep interaction with the “Theatre of the Roots” movement and its practitioners. However, at the National School of Drama under the tutelage of Anamika Haksar, Maya Krishna Rao in particular, along with Anuradha Kapur and Kirti Jain, he developed an interest in the non-authoritative, collaborative process of theatre, the foregrounding of fragmented identities and awareness about “self” as a central working material to create theatre pieces. Abhilash started looking at theatre as a continuum of acquiring and disseminating human exchange rather than imagining theatre as an assembly line production. The influence of the workshop by Augusto Boal during his studies at Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London, gave him an impetus to work further on interactivity and community participation in creating theatre.
Abhilash talked elaborately about two of his productions, Salman Rushdie’s, “Midnight’s Children” produced by the National School of Drama (NSD) and “Saketam” by Thrissur School of Drama. The context of the multiplicity of nationalism in the former particularly interested him during his period of study at NSD. . The NSD according to him, is an extension of the Nehruvian dream of creating a national identity and hence producing this particular play in that institution took on an extended meaning in terms of correlation between the performance and its site. Furthermore, the element of bioscope, combining the idea of childhood, voyeurism and sectional representation of history of the novel, got elaborated in the production by transforming the whole performance space on a film screen. Three ideas of Independence Day in the production — the “original” in 1947, “independence day” after the lifting of the general Emergency imposed in 1975 and a few independence days around the year highlighted the meaning and lack of independence in the context of of democracy in our country.
In “Saketam” Abhilash pointed out how he used the opposite gender for the role of the male mythical characters of Rama and Lakshman, thereby moving away from the standard image depicted in the calendars, though the source text of the play was the epic itself. His approach to the performance was to take a relook at a “Hindu” text not from a “Hindutva” point of view but an inclusive personalised image making methodology.
He also delved into his engagement with the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFK). He emphasised on the need for different perception in terms of quality and representation in the context of the smaller, theme-based and focused ITFK and the wider, national, inclusivity of Bharat Rang Mahotsav — having participated in both with varying responsibilities.
While answering questions from the audience he elaborated on how he saw use of technology as an extension of the human body and experience and felt the need for exploring the same in theatre. He also mentioned how the unconventional method of making “Saketam” was received with discomfort and hence trivialised. He concluded with the comment that his concern about the elections and future of democracy in our country had led him to choose “Midnight’s Children” and “Saketam” only from his oeuvre in the last quarter of a century.