Spotlight Shylaja P. Ambu performs ‘Matsyagandhi’, the only solo Malayalam performance at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala

Hooked is how Shylaja P. Ambu describes her role in ‘Matsyagandhi’, a solo play written by Sajitha Madathil, which is a documentation of the lives of fisherwomen; about how globalisation has affected their lives. Originally staged by Sajitha, the play which is now being directed by the playwright has Shylaja stepping in as the actor.

Says Shylaja who did her schooling at Cotton Hill Girls High School: “Bringing to life the tale of fisherwomen and how they are often marginalised by society was a challenge. To get into the skin of the character, I interacted with various fisherwomen. I worked on the way they talked, their pronunciation of certain words, their body language… My depiction of the fisherwoman in ‘Matsyagandhi’ is not based on one fisherwoman, but an amalgamation of all the fisherwomen I met. As it is a solo play, I had to ensure I stayed true to the character; the success or failure of the play lay on my shoulders.”

The artiste will be performing the play produced by Trivi Arts, in Thrissur as part of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK).

Hers will be the only solo Malayalam performance at ITFoK, she says. Actors and entertainers live to bask in the warm glow of audience applause and Shylaja is no different, for it was lauds from family and friends that led her centre stage.

“I recall how as a child, after watching Shobana’s performance in Manichitrathazhu , I used to dress up in saris and perform her famous ‘Vidamatte’ scene. Acting fascinated me then but then so did music, which brought me to Tharangini, where I partook in musical programmes organised by Tharangini. My first memory of being in the limelight was when I was 15. I was part of street plays that encouraged women to exercise their voting rights.”

It was an invitation from Abhinaya Theatre Research Centre to act in their theatre production ‘Bhagavadajjukam’ and later a role in Jayaprakash Kuloor’s ‘Soap, Cheepu, Kannadi’, which sealed it for her; theatre was where she belonged.

“My experience with Abhinaya was what got me bitten by the theatre bug. The dedication of the various artistes despite the poor remuneration for theatre performers in Kerala inspired me. But it was Kuloor’s ‘Soap…’ which had me hooked. I could blend song with act in this play, two things I enjoy doing,” says Shylaja over the mobile phone on her way to Delhi where she is scheduled to stage ‘Etho Chirakadiyochakal’ directed by Sam George, as part of National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav.

“‘Etho… a solo play, written by Professor G. Sankara Pillai revolves around Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. In ‘Etho…’ we don’t portray Kunti the Queen mother, we depict Kunti, the unmarried woman who has to give up her first born. Her conscience plays tricks on her. The play is supported by shadow puppetry.”

The artiste, who did her graduation in music from Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady, has set up APT – A Place for Theatre Performance and Research, a group comprising theatre artistes, folk performers, playwrights and technical experts from different parts of Kerala.

The group has travelled across Kerala and has performed short plays and folk songs at various schools and stages.

“‘Etho..’, ‘Ente uppuppakkoru aana undayirunnu’ (a story by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer) and ‘Stick’, a ‘gibberish play’ are some of the plays we have staged,” says Shylaja as she signs off.

Liza George

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