This year’s International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) was a letdown compared to previous editions. A look at what went wrong.

As the cultural capital of an art-loving state, Thrissur’s art “zone” is actually quite small. Flanked by temples, the bazaar and a ring road, it comprises an all-white well-preserved town hall and a clutch of old style recognisably government-owned buildings that make up the modest offices of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi (KSNA). The Regional Theatre is a local landmark and the key venue for the fifth edition of the eight-day International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) organised by the KSNA. A Sahitya Akademi, a Lalit Kala Akademi, a museum with the obligatory Raja Ravi Varmas and KCS Panickers, all within a few bends and turns of tarred streets and the spreading shade of old trees.

But it is in this unassuming town that the virtually abandoned notion of the state’s responsibility to culture, particularly to contemporary Indian theatre, has resurfaced in a significant way thanks to the ITFoK and its recent troubles. At a time when governments are reducing their allocations to culture, ceding ground to corporate brands and big media, this also raises a bigger question of the value of the arts to the government today.

Theatre has been losing its political and contrarian edge, especially in our cities where it finds it difficult to function with an assured sense of its audience. It has had to inveigle itself into the increasingly vapid entertainment habits of the day. Even in its more serious forms, it often finds itself reduced to a type of amateur activity with narrow cliques fuelled by actor and group vanity creating showpieces which leave little residue.

ITFoK, and the welter of contentious issues thrown up by this year’s festival, hint at a diametrically different and wider view of theatre. In a year when it is impossible to deny the decline in its programming, its very failure has been revelatory. It has opened up a debate on issues like funding for the arts, the role of an artistic director at a theatre festival, the importance of a curatorial vision, audience-building strategies as well as cultural policies and the politics of culture. The ITFoK case offers a rare opportunity for a reclaiming of lost ground and for reimaging the role of theatre in contemporary India.

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If representation from several European countries and serpentine queues forming an hour before shows were the sole measure of the success of a festival, ITFoK 2013 would have been a stupendous hit. In eight days, there were a total of 35 plays (20 Indian and 15 foreign) with 32 groups showing contemporary theatre from Poland, Romania, France, Italy, Catalonia, Uzbekistan, Slovenia and the U.K. as well as Indian and Malayalam plays. On the opening day, as queues began to form for Polish group La.M.ort Theatre’s Hamlet Machine, heated exchanges broke out and policemen hovered nervously, waiting to intervene. A general sense of dissatisfaction and unfinished business between some sections of the theatre community and the KSNA hinted at unresolved issues related to theatre practice and gave the festival a charge missing from most festivals. It was a reminder of how much this festival has come to mean to those who live and practice their theatre in Thrissur.

But the best efforts of the organising team failed to paper over critical gaps. Principal among them was the absence of any subtitling for a predominantly Malayalam-speaking audience as well as visitors from elsewhere. The over-programmed schedule, with as many as four or five plays a day, included workshops for young theatrepersons beginning at 7.00 a.m. and interactions with directors and cast at 9.00 a.m. followed by seminars. The well-attended but poorly-moderated discussions frequently degenerated into free-for all-sessions with some displays of local chauvinism. The thoughtfulness that an artistic director could have brought was keenly missed at such times.

Festival venues included the Regional Theatre, a hastily-readied black box, two open air spaces and a Yatri Niwas sharing a wall with the Sangeet Natak Akademi offices. Despite the expansion into venues like the open municipal grounds where the Polish group Teatro Buiro Podrozy staged a high-voltage version of Macbeth with actors walking on stilts and the firing of real cannons, the crowds expanded to fill those too. Such enthusiasm needed to be understood and nurtured by the festival authorities but there was no evidence of the sensitivity needed to make that gesture.

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There were always going to be great expectations from ITFOK. In five short years, the festival has developed a mythology of its own and is invoked by theatre persons around the country as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved when government support combines with the best efforts of an artistic community and a responsive audience. The first festival in 2008 had a focus on Asian theatre and was the brainchild of KSNA’s chairman Bharat Murali, an actor who grew out of the theatre movements of the late 1970s and 1980s in Kerala. It had Shylaja, an NSD alumnus from Kerala, as its festival director. M.A. Baby, then Minister for Culture in the government and a close friend of Murali, was personally involved in every aspect of the festival’s envisioning and execution.

But it was ITFOK 2010 with its focus on contemporary Latin American theatre that gave the festival its reputation as a brilliantly curated and executed festival. The new chairman Mukesh and secretary of the KSNA, Ravunny C., along with Baby, formed a supportive as well as informed core. Director and teacher at NSD, Delhi Abhilash Pillai was the festival director working closely with other senior theatre-persons who were given the freedom and support to curate a truly international theatre festival. This was a rare occasion when the usual personality clashes and insensitivities that plague the government’s culture departments were set aside and it was possible to work towards a shared goal. Says Baby, “We wanted to identify the qualitative interventions in world theatre and bring them to Kerala so that our theatre communities could benefit from the kind of experiments being made. We also wanted audiences here to develop a mentality for appreciating experimental theatre. ”

“It was a one-of-a-kind programming that is unheard of in India. It is a pity that it was not repeated,” says culture critic and writer Sadanand Menon who was part of the curatorial team. “There was a boldness and ambition in the vision for the festival, in deciding to bring down Latin American plays knowing fully well the difficulties and expenses.” During the festival there were a sudden strike and a two-day official mourning for former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran. But the theatre community in Kerala, a responsive press, government and minister all came together and made it a memorable festival, recalls Menon. The festival brought together 650 artistes for 29 performances with 11 international groups and nine each from Kerala and the rest of India over a period of ten days.

Critic and writer Rustom Bharucha, there for a seminar, remembers, “It was a combination of cutting-edge professionalism, which matched the highest international standards, along with the down-to-earth informality of Thrissur’s cultural scene and use of local resources, which made it so striking.” For instance, the two temporary auditoriums, built with bamboo and other indigenous materials, were deeply appreciated by international visitors for the sheer finesse of their design and functionality. “It was a rare case of the local incorporating the global,” Bharucha emphasises, adding that ITFOK represented the most vibrant form of festival culture.

The festival also opened itself up to thinking beyond Kerala that year. A lifetime award was given to Badal Sircar. Adds Ravunni, “We decided to get every theatre person from all over India involved. When we started the committee there was no money but we made the effort and found solutions.” The budget was the highest for any ITFoK at Rs.1.53 crore and the expenditure eventually touched Rs.1.85 crore. The Kerala government gave Rs.50 lakh, the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi and Ministry of Culture gave Rs.10 lakhs and Rs.15 lakhs respectively and the South Central Zone contributed too. Additional funds were sought from other central government bodies including the ICCR (Rs.15 lakhs) with Dr Venu V., secretary in the Department of Culture, playing an important role.

Critical to its success was the fact that the ITFoK 2010 team made its own selection of plays by contacting theatre persons and groups in Latin America directly. Martin C. John, an actor and director with Sadhana Centre for Creative Practice, a theatre group with Indian and Latin American theatrepersons and currently in Thrissur, was then based in Chile. He was key in making the contacts across Latin American countries.

One of the curators Sudhanva Deshpande, actor and director at Jana Natya Manch Delhi, remembers the time the team came across an excellent play from Cuba that, however, had a brief scene of frontal nudity. Wondering if it might offend sensibilities, the team approached Baby. His response — particularly in the current context of the politics of competitive hurt sentiments — was quite remarkable. “He told us that if we were confident of the artistic merits of the play we should bring it down and he would support us,” says Deshpande. The play was staged without any incident.

There were plays from Bolivia, Chile, the U.K., Argentina and Cuba. Theatre director Shankar Venkateswaran, the technical director for that festival, says, “Every play gave us a sense of what that society was going through and we could read our own themes in those.” The Bolivian play was on the earthquake and corruption in its wake while the play from the U.K. was a response to the deepening recession in that country. The festival spent around Rs.65 lakhs on international travel whereas the festival this year spent only about Rs.10 lakhs. Clearly, being able to pay for the passage of international groups and their crew is the difference between a great festival and a poor one.

Maya Rao, theatre actor and teacher whose performance of Ravanama this year was one of the few highlights of the festival, was a spectator at ITFoK 2010. “The difference in the quality of ITFoK 2010 was felt by everyone and it had to do with the fact that the theatre community was entrusted with its vision and execution. Even today theatre actors and groups are reaping the benefits from connections made at that festival,” she says.

ITFoK 2010 had two commissioned projects at an additional cost of Rs.20 lakhs. Las Indias was a collaboration between local and Latin American artistes while another was a collaboration between students and faculty of the School of Drama, Thrissur, and Casa De La India, Spain, who worked together to create theatrical pieces weeks before the festival. As Rao points out these partnerships have now acquired a life beyond the festival with many actors working together at the international level.

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ITFoK 2013 is the first festival to have borne the full impact of the regime change after the UDF coalition government came to power in 2011. Since the festival was organised without any assurance of funds, the organising team worked under extreme pressure and the international segment, which needs advance planning, was the most disappointing part of the festival. Four weeks after it was over, Rs.50 lakhs was released by the finance ministry against an expenditure of Rs. 1.25 crore or so.

Soorya Krishnamoorthy, chairman of the KSNA who took over in August 2011 and selected himself the festival director, agrees that the lack of funds from the government meant that “beggars cannot be choosers and we had to take whatever the embassies were giving us.” Indeed Krishnamoorthy, a self-styled cultural impresario whose tastes often run to populist extravaganzas, seems quite removed from the world of contemporary Indian theatre and its creative as well as financial challenges. As head of the autonomous KSNA, it is his duty to seek government funding yet there is a persistent feeling of lack of seriousness and a sense that he is being too accepting of the government’s reluctance to accord ITFoK the respect and funds it needs.

As for the unfavourable comparison between the festival this year and the one in 2010, he dubs the latter an example of wasteful spending, adding that its expenditure was closer to Rs.2.5 crore and not Rs.1.85 crore. A simple clarification with the office reveals that the expenditure was indeed Rs.1.85 crore.

Bizarre as it sounds, Krishnamurthy also tries to explain away government inaction by blaming the media for its current obsession with film stars and cricket. In other words, the absence of sufficient publicity for ITFoK in the press is the reason that the festival is being denied the funds it might have otherwise deserved. “They are a democratic government and when they see it is not generating enough media interest they feel what is the point”, he suggests.

This disturbing and brazen philistinism — and there were signs of it everywhere at the festival —explains its poor quality this year. For instance, Krishnamoorthy has allowed the winners of various amateur and professional theatre competitions organised by the KSNA to be part of the ITFoK each year uncaring of the fact that nine or 10 such plays coming in by default every year could distort the curator’s vision and the design of the festival. There is a shrewd attempt at categorising the ITFoK as a limited “elite” festival. Pitted against it are the populist gestures of offering health insurance to registered artistes of the KSNA or giving slots to professional and amateur theatre groups in the state, but this is a false and mischievous divide.

Elsewhere in the local press, he has also been trying to take credit for organising a festival cheaper than his predecessors. But is a frugal but badly curated festival with sub-standard plays a credit to anybody? For the next year, he says, he has requested for an amount of Rs.1 crore with the state Planning Board. Will that be enough when Rs.1.25 crore this year was not enough for a good festival? He has no answers.

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So is ITFOK paying the cost of the regime change? It would seem so. Since the government has only cleared Rs.50 lakhs for a festival that cost almost Rs.1.25 crore, where will the finds come from? Krishnamoorthy is vague and says they may have to divert funds from the regular activities that take place at the KSNA and also pass the hat around among friends including the patrons of his own organisation for help. Unmindful of the implied irregularity, he goes on to make the astonishing claim that his friends and private financiers, including Malayalam superstars Mammooty and Mohanlal, have helped him with funds to the tune of Rs.25-50 lakhs for things ranging from the makeover of the black box and medical insurance for more than 5000 artistes registered with the KSNA. He speaks also of having an open-air auditorium with “a see-through glass top” and ACs for the black box for the festival next year.

The contrast between ITFoK and the International Film Festival of Kerala organised by the Chalachitra Akademi and supported by the Government of Kerala in Thiruvanathpuram for the last 17 years is quite stark. The film festival in December 2012 spent about Rs.3.70 crore. Perceived to be a prestigious event, it was helped by the involvement in its early years of film personalities like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and others. Budgetary proposals are always passed in the Assembly at the start of each financial year. The treatment given to ITFoK is, in a sense, a reflection of the poor status of serious contemporary theatre in general in India. An international theatre festival that requires the transportation of sets, cast and crew ought to deserve as much as the generous grant for the film festival. In reality, it does not even get half and there is a question mark every year over its fate.

Till the ITfoK is able to achieve a similar status, its shabby annual scramble for funds will continue. Ironically this is taking place in a state with some of the richest traditions of theatre in the country. Many feel that the only approach to take is to amend the by laws of the Akademi in consultation with the Culture Department so that ITFoK becomes a permanent activity of the KSNA. Once this happens, every aspect of its functioning from selection norms to funding will be devised. This is a critical task that the previous government failed to do. Ex-Minister Baby accepts that this has been a critical oversight. But it was only after ITFoK 2010 and its national recognition that the festival’s potential was understood even by its organisers. A few months later the state went into election mode.

In the theatre community, the fear is that the lack of rigorous planning accompanied by the informal infusion of funds from friends could pave the way for a greater role for private sponsors allowing for the gradual withdrawal of the state. Aware of the sharp criticism of the festival this year, Krishnamoorthy was quick to announce that a festival and artistic director would be part of a 10-15 member directorate in the coming year but, in the absence of assured institutionalised funding on the lines of the film festival, what good would that do?

There is a list of additional recommendations from the theatre community in Kerala too. As a nationally significant theatre brand, perhaps it is time to become more representative of contemporary Indian theatre practices. Some also feel that the performance fee should be hiked to Rs.1 lakh for all groups. At the last festival Rs.40,000 and Rs.60,000 was offered to groups with less than 10 and over 10 members respectively. The NSD’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav with a budget of about Rs.8 crore and roughly 80 plays offers a performance fee of Rs.40,000 only. A festival complex in Thrissur with better halls of varying sizes is another demand made.

It is impossible not to sometimes view the five years of ITFoK as a face-off between a disorganised Congress-style philistinism and petty politicking on the one hand and a shrewd understanding of the power of culture with all its ominous undertones that a Communist training allows for on the other. Ironically, in a democratic set up in this case and so far, it is the Left parties that have shown a better understanding of the aspirations of the theatre community and their audiences in Kerala as well as other parts of India. Will Indian politics ever become mature enough to carry a good idea forward and not overturn it just because it was started and given shape by an opposing party, especially in a state where regime changes are a fact of life? Along with everything else the ITFoK is a test case for that too.