Award-winning play ‘Mathi’ plumbs the depths of social and economic change in Kerala.

‘Mathi’ was an intriguing title for a play, and therefore the apprehension about what awaits us at the Vyloppilly Samskriti Bhavan, where it was staged as part of the Ninth Ajayan Memorial Theatre Festival, was justified.

There was a reversal of the space within the koothambalam: the usual stage had become the seating area and the sets had been put in place in what is commonly used for the audience. Jino Joseph, the director, introduced ‘Mathi’ with the tagline, ‘Tasty, Healthy and Economic’, and an alert, ‘This is not a play. It is life itself’.

‘Mathi’ becomes the metaphor for a host of things – societal mores, class consciousness, shifting ideologies, migrant labour and social harmony. Through the quotidian existence of ‘Mathi’ Rafeeq (Ranji Kankol) and his neighbourhood, the director weaves an identifiable social fabric, which is filled with camaraderie and the unity of the working class unsullied by man-made discriminatory attitudes.

Here was a play that made the ‘reek’ of the mathi (sardines) into a drooling experience. The mouth watering brought on by thoughts of mathi curry and rice, the overpowering aroma of pepper in a mathi fry, the lure of mathi fry as it wafts through the air and alerts our olfactory senses is so real, that, from the word ‘Mathi’, the air was filled with the smell of mathi spreading from the hot griddle on fire! The stage was set to introduce us to ‘everything you wanted to say about the mathi, but dared not’!

“Mathi’ Rafeeq did not disappoint. He enlightened us (and delighted us too) about the ‘varga bodham’ (class consciousness) of the mathi, its ebullience, its survival instinct, its appeal as a food. The last mentioned was evident when it brought under Mathi Rafeeq’s roof, Chandran-maash, Rameshettan, Nambudiri, Sheeba and a host of people, not merely to rehearse for the play but also to partake of Kunjami’s ‘mathi-fry’. Rafeeq in the midst of his total ‘dedication’ to the mathi also reminds you that talk as much as you may about ‘globalisation, democracy, and chlorofluorocarbons…but, nothing can rob the mathi of its space’.

The ubiquitous ‘mathi’ signifies a lifestyle, it becomes a symbol of changing economies. The first, explains the director, happens because, ‘it comes cheap and therefore is a staple food for the working class. It determines your socio-economic standing. When the Kannur mathi is exported and local markets start receiving the Mangalapuram mathi (from Mangalore) the small fish vanishes, it displaces Rafeeq and his companions.’

When Rafeeq’s heart starts missing a beat and his ‘kinaavu’ (dream) is lit up by his neighbour and customer Sheeba, who gives him a taste of her fish curry and rice, life becomes more interesting. All good things must necessarily come to an end, so does life for Rafeeq and his friends.

Big fish have started gobbling the small fish, living off the land is no more remunerative, there are fewer takers for mathi from Mangalapuram, Sheeba is moving to Andhra for a job, Rafeeq has lost the zest for life. The landscape has changed, migrant labourers have come in, construction activity has increased. But, one person has survived – Chandran maash (Vinod Narath), now Chandran saar continues with his tutoring of the newly arrived labourers on their rights and creating the ‘vargabodham’ of the toiling masses!

An endearing character, Rafeeq, well executed by Ranji Kankol put life into the whole play, never faltering in his performance.

Kunjami (Anusree), the one whose mathi fry is popular among friends, has added the zing as the exasperated little sister. The ‘other’ voice (Jayachandran Thakazhi) who exhorted, cajoled, provoked and prompted Rafeeq throughout, provided the sparring partnership to the latter’s naivete and untainted simple heart.

Since all the actors were drawn from the same region, their flawless dialogues in the Kannur dialect added to the success of the play.

Hariprasad (art director), Ratheesh Nirmalagiri and P.P. Gangadharan (music), Navin Raji and Sasin (lights) and K.V. Ratheesh (technical coordination) have done a commendable job in giving a wholesomeness to the production.

At the beginning of the play the reordering of the space seemed to have stemmed as a matter of convenience, but at the end ‘Mathi’ there was the lurking question: did this reversal also signify (or, was it a coincidence) the displacement and re-alignment of the cultural processes in our times? Jino gives you an engrossing play, entertaining while it takes place, but leaving us with plenty to ruminate on.

Director's take

Jino Joseph, director of ‘Mathi’, says: “The play received the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards for 2013 in three categories – Best Play, Best Script, and the Second Best Actor award for Ranji Kankol. The 30 members of this team attended a 40-day workshop to attain this quality. Most of the actors are not trained, some are. The money for this production has come from within this team and bank loans. My earlier play was titled ‘Parotta’. I chose the mathi this time because it could be used as a ‘marker’ for a host of issues that affect our current situation. Rather than making it a cerebral exercise I felt it would have greater reach if the mathi was made the lowest common denominator.”