Playwright-director A. Santhakumar’s plays are his notes on his society

“Plays are not written; they happen.” Playwright and theatre director A. Santhakumar is firm in his beliefs. Requests for a play with a framework are usually met with a quiet ‘no’. For him, a play is a spark, a moment of angst or anger. Hand-held by it, Santhakumar has penned about 60 plays, published five books of drama, directed plays and won both the Kerala Sahitya Akademi and Sangeetha Nataka Akademi awards twice for his work. Theatre is his tryst with truth and that truth has been many — from the political mine fields of Kannur to farmer suicides in Wayanad, speckled in between by chapters picked up from life, travels and newspapers.

Santhakumar calls theatre his madness. A madness he first knew as a child and which he courted through his later years, until he could not live without it. Growing up in Parambil Baazar in Kozhikode, theatre was second nature. “Theatre was an inevitable part of life,” he says. Villages boasted strong theatre culture and samitis banked on theatre for celebrations. He recollects the title of his first play Kuppayile Muthu, but forgets the story. It was a play by a seven-year-old for his playmates. “Our plays happened in the courtyard with dhotis turned into the curtain,” he says.

But what was an assured craft went through severe identity troubles as Santhakumar entered college. The writer in him was plagued by doubts. “The fear of not being accepted haunted me.” So, he took the less risky route. He thrived on adaptations. “If something went wrong it was as if I could say I had adapted Kafka or some other author’s work,” he remembers. It just took a State-wide competition for original plays to get Santhakumar back to writing. His play Sukhanidrayilekku not only won the contest but also won the prize for best script and director. Written and first staged in 1998, it continues to do the rounds. “It dealt with a daughter who was being abused by her father,” says Santhakumar. If the subject now finds space in newspapers each day, when Santhakumar wrote it, it was one lurking in the shadows. “It became a topic of discussion and people wondered if it fit stage ethics. The play came from an instance in my village. The body of a new born was found on our river bank and I took off from that,” he says.

Much of his plays have carried the scent of his soil. When Ajayan, his paralysed friend in the village, asked Santhakumar if he could at least be a crippled revolutionary or army man in any of his plays, the much-acclaimed Maram Peyyunnu was born. Santhakumar did not shove Ajayan to the fringes, instead made him the centre of the play — one that told poignantly the life of a man confined to the wheel chair. As Ajayan lived the role, the audience awoke to a new theatre experience. The play performed on 26 stages was rudely cut short by Ajayan’s unexpected death. “We had got invitation to perform it in Singapore, but before that he died of fever. He had gone to the hospital straight after a performance,” says Santhakumar.

If Maram Peyyunnu tugged at the emotional strings, a lot of his other works carried a strong political tone. Be it Perinkollan on Kannur politics, Neelakurukkan on how power corrupts or Chora Shasthram on an administrator needing the aid of a thief. “Politics is part of life and it seeps into my plays rather unconsciously,” says Santhakumar. Also percolating into his drama are the sharp images and colours of childhood. “My father was a Theyyam performer. What I knew as a young boy was its strong colours and angry rhythm,” he says. His Black Widow spoke of lesbian relationship while Oru Rathriyude Kamuki narrated the lives of sex workers. “On three stages the roles were performed by sex workers in real life,” says Santhakumar.

Ente Pullipayyu Karayannu tracks the farmer suicides in Wayanad. “There may not be many villages in Kerala where this play has not been staged. Thrissur’s Jana Nayana alone has performed it in over 1,000 stages,” he says. Neelakurukkan took off from the fable of the blue fox to show how power corrupts. Produced by Whistle, the solo performance by actor Sajeev in the play became the talking point. “I had written it almost five years ago taking cue from contemporary politics. Power is intoxicating and the ruler could end up baying for the blood of his own people,” he says. The play had to wait for a good actor to realise it on stage. Santhakumar, though, is equally at ease with trained actors like Sajeev, who is a guest faculty at the film institute in Pune, as he is with the amateurs at his Repertory Theatre.

Scent of the soil

What Santhakumar stays away from is professional theatre or what he prefers to call “commercial theatre.” “What you call professional theatre is a masala mix of comedy, love and songs. I am not linked with that.” What he is linked with though is the Repertory Theatre in his village. “Daily wage labourers, carpenters and auto drivers of the region make it. I wrote Chora Shasthram and Oru Desham Nuna Parayunnu for them. They may lack the body language of a trained actor, but what they don’t is passion.” If scripting plays have not risen to its potential here, Santhakumar lays the blame squarely on our mindset. “We are not writing plays that are rooted in our culture, political issues and life. Instead, we adapt foreign texts.” Theatre, he says, should be a search into the heart of a culture, something like what Kavalam Narayana Panikkar did. Plays should boast literary worth and should stand on its own as a work of literature, he adds. He, however, disagrees that plays are not being written. “Every year at the youth festivals about 200 plays are performed of which 150 are original productions. That means plays are being written. We are not finding them,” he says.

For Santhakumar, theatre is life and livelihood. “For the past 15 years, I have lived only by theatre.” A couple of campus theatre assignments would take care of his needs for a year, he says. “I live by the belief that theatre will not cheat. Even when I was in deep financial trouble, theatre has saved me. If I lose theatre, I lose my identity.”