Insulated from ground reality

Anirudh Nair and Chandra Ninasam in Criminal Tribes Act, at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel, 2017

Anirudh Nair and Chandra Ninasam in Criminal Tribes Act, at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel, 2017  

Last week, we were left numb by the news of the lynching of a young tribal man, Madhu Chindaki, by self-professed vigilantes who cruelly and puerilely recorded his ordeal. He hailed from the Attappadi forest reserves, a region with a large traditionally self-sustaining indigenous population. His half-bemused expression, even while bound and confined, possibly moments before what is now widely regarded as his martyrdom, is untouched by guile or contrition. He was a forest-dweller battling mental health issues, and could probably not completely fathom what was being done to him. A photograph doing the rounds reads, “Brothers, I stole because I was hungry. Should I be killed for that?” Another is that of a clay figurine created in his likeness, and a third reimagines him as The Little Prince from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella, inscribed with the message, “Sorry, we couldn’t find enough space for you here.” One wouldn’t call them memes because they aren’t frivolous or disposable. They have the force of virality because of the measureless pathos and outrage packed into an image that will likely have the iconic staying power of, say, Rohith Vemula’s serenely smiling visage drawn in blue ink.

Rooted to geography

For more than a decade, the Attappadi region has had a well-known theatre connection. It is home to the theatre outfit founded by contemporary auteur Sankar Venkateswaran. Initially, he sought out spaces there in which he could cost-effectively develop his early works, like Sahyante Makan: The Elephant Project (2007), a theatrical interpretation of Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon’s poem. Away from the expensive trappings of civilisation, there was a serenity and freedom afforded to artistic exploration that proved to be immensely valuable. With time, he found he couldn’t be completely inured to the existential circumstances of the people who lived around him, in the same habitat. In 2013, Venkateswaran was awarded an International Ibsen Scholarship, of around ₹25 lakh, to evolve adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s works with the local tribal populace. It provided an opportunity for him to amalgamate his artistic practice with the setting in which it originally thrived.

During this year’s International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), a minor fracas provided early talking points to the festival. This edition’s theme was announced as ‘Reclaiming the Margins’. The official blurb stated, “We hope to highlight the power of the margins as a space for collective reflection, engagement and action: a place where silences are broken, old languages revived, new ones forged, and, a space to make the invisible, visible.” Venkateswaran was part of a panel on Theatres of Resistance, in which his address to the audience consisted of reading out, almost in its entirety, the script of his new dramatic piece, Criminal Tribes Act, a two-hander featuring Anirudh Nair and Chandra Ninasam (Chandru), commissioned by the Zürcher Theater Spektakel. When asked by the chair, M K Raina, to wrap up his spiel, Venkateswaran berated the organisers (the festival is run by the government’s cultural wing, the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi) for their lip-service towards an overarching thematic idea that they had no locus standi to actually champion. Festival directors Raina and Rajiv Krishnan, possibly the first outside-Kerala curators since ITFoK’s inception, tried to assuage him, but he staged a walk-out with a few of his cohorts.

Purposeful rage

One reason for Venkateswaran’s outburst was his anger at the treatment meted out to a contingent of Attappadi tribals who had made the arduous trek down to Thrissur, on their own expense, in order to participate in the festival. ITFok is always short on resources and manpower, and at previous editions the tribals had always found employment, but this time, they were turned back even after being kept waiting for days for a decision to be made on their involvement. The irony of a festival high-mindedly claiming to reclaim the margins, but finding no space within its ramparts for people who were truly marginalised, was not lost on Venkateswaran. This year’s edition uncharacteristically featured such mainstream free-to-all attractions as a rock gig and a Bollywood concert, as opposed to the traditional forms like theyyam that he had showcased during his own stints as ITFoK’s festival director. Then there was the politics of representation — a panel on protest theatre filled with international names and upper-caste faces, in which Venkateswaran counted himself, a Tamil Brahmin born into privilege, who has received an impeccable international tutelage in theatre, and whose practice is extensively supported by foreign funding.

Disparate backgrounds

It is through this prism that one must look at Criminal Tribes Act, where Venkateswaran juxtaposes two actors from disparate backgrounds. Chandru is Dalit while Nair is upper-caste. The play conflates its ostensible focus on ex-criminal tribes with the problems that beset Dalits which, given the narrative that is emerging post the murder of Chindaki, is not entirely a departure. The tribal question and the caste question can be tackled together. Chandru is mesmerising in terms of an actor’s deportment and his seething gravitas that belies the stories that he holds within himself like a charm — of an inherited social exclusion that has to be negotiated every day. His childhood was full of painful memories that have not been vindicated till present, yet his demeanour is never that of a victim, but of someone who has acquired his bearings.

By contrast, Venkateswaran casts Nair (and himself, since the short piece is almost always accompanied by a Q&A) almost as an agency-giver who translates all of Chandru’s lines into English (which arguably, was not required in this instance) and steers the proceedings. There is a conceit that practitioners hold on to, of being neutral bodies in space, yet Nair is not able to shed the colossal trappings of privilege that appear to limit his understanding of the simple truths recounted by Chandru, and the toll it must have extracted from him.

They end up entirely spurious to this endeavour. In a recent Mumbai performance, some in the audience may have been able to train an intersectional gaze on the liminal spaces occupied by Chandru, but others remained insulated from the reality of his existence, as the piece does little to bridge a gap, already deemed insurmountable.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 7:17:19 AM |

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