Manoj Narayanan, chosen the best director for the third straight time by the Sangeeta Nataka Akademi, deconstructs the pulse of his theatre

Theatre is his route to pure joy. The channels to this joy are many for Manoj Narayanan. It can be the innocence of amateur theatre, the inquisitiveness of children’s theatre or the popularity of professional theatre. Amateur theatre is all heart, he says. He understands it well, having created productions in villages with actors with no training and tons of passion. That is people’s theatre, says Manoj. “These productions are about casting right. From school children to those in their 70s will be part of it. The villagers have certain innocence and an intense desire to be part of a play. Their happiness is the rehearsals and the time spent around the play. I have seen a lot of good actors there,” says Manoj.

Children’s theatre is his life’s investment. Round the year, Manoj hops from school to school from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod making productions, conducting workshops and just getting children to know theatre. “Only they can let theatre grow. Children are the ones we need to talk to and are worth talking to,” he says. Manoj firmly believes that once woken up to theatre, children will remain loyal to it. “Some of my earliest students have ventured into theatre and a few even when they are pursuing Medicine, continue to keep a niche for theatre within them.”

Life and livelihood

“When it comes to professional theatre, it is life and livelihood for many. This is the kind of theatre that lot of people tend to see,” he says. Manoj’s 18-year-old theatre career is peppered with plays of all kinds — about 100 plays for children, over 75 amateur plays and 35 professional plays. He won the Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award announced this month for Kuriyedath Thathri based on a sensational ‘smartavicharam’ (excommunication) case in the Malabar. Manoj often leans back on history and myth, fleshes out strong women characters and gives them a contemporary reading. “Kuriyedath Thathri was written by Hemant Kumar who is from the region and performed by Kalamandalam Sandhya Murugesh who got everything right, beginning with the slang,” says Manoj. It is his pride that along with him, his lead actors of Kuriyedath Thathri, Sandhya and Murugesh too won the award this time. In fact, Manoj’s women actors have a long link with recognition, be it Nilambur Aisha for Karimkurangan, Usha Chandrababu for Varthamanathilekku Oru Kannaki and Kadathanattamma, Jaya Noushad for Nellu, Rajani Melur for Kadathanattamma and Ratnamma Madhavan for Kadavathil.

After Kannaki, Kadathanattamma and Kuriyedath Thathri, Manoj is again immersed in plays centred on women. At a theatre camp in Kochi he and his team are finding new layers to the mythological character Hidumbi for a new production. Among the different plays he is working on is a modern take on Sita and her agnipareeksha. “It is always the women who have to prove their purity with a test of fire,” Manoj gives hints about the play’s direction. “We also plan to do a play on Thumbol Archa,” he says.

Contemporary treatment

Even when he works with established texts, the stress is always on issues that are contemporary. “We have to apply the theatre language to the written text. Even when we did Anand’s Govardhanante Yathrakal on stage, K.S. Vimal’s script concentrated on the journey part in the novel,” recollects Manoj. In Kuriyedath Thathri, a play pitched around women and the difficult politics they have to navigate, Manoj made hijaras the narrators who give a third-person view of the happenings.

Virtues of a village

The 37-year-old was charmed by theatre even as a young boy growing up in Vilyapalli near Vatakara. “Even when I was in the U.P. school at Karthikapally and heard teachers tell stories, I would translate those words into visuals,” he says. Growing up in a village with steady cultural influences was a big boon. “It was a space that was rich in local, cultural collectives. We had a couple of Kathakali yogams. On the other hand, there was folk music — ‘Vadakkan pattu’ and ‘Nadodi pattu.’ You soaked in all these from the environment,” he adds. Putting together plays was something he did wholeheartedly in school and college. And these influences resting in his subconscious found hearty representation in his plays.

It is this culturally rich environment he aims to recreate when he engages with children. “When I am doing a workshop and there are 300 children, I make a production including everyone. I do not believe in picking and choosing,” he says. Manoj says the impetus is on children learning without realising so. “A lot depends on your interaction with the children, the positive energy you generate and creating the feel of a family. With children you are creating a future audience for theatre,” he adds. This engagement with children has translated into a wide repertoire of plays. In his kitty are science plays, maths plays, environment plays and a lot more. If a maths play arouses curiosity, he explains, “It can be a simple play on the value of zero.”

With no professional degree in theatre, Manoj hinges his art on life experiences. “My theatre is based on trial and error,” he says. “I wanted to break away from learning first to how to make a play and then make one accordingly.” Quite a few of his plays are still alive and have been performed on about 1,000 stages. “My theatre is for the people.”