Sankar Venkateswaran, the child, loved Malayalam poetry. “It is a flair I got from my mother,” he says. The skill of recitation he imbibed as a child, groomed as an adolescent and perfected as an adult, became the highlight of his masterpiece till date, “Sahyante Makan: The Elephant Project.” A theatrical interpretation of Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon's poem, it riveted viewers with Sankar's dramatic rendition, Japanese actor Micari, whose body exuded the majesty of the elephant, and the spectacle of a temple festival the play perfectly evoked.
When Sankar's mother Meena watched it, she traced it to where it all began. “She went back to 1983-84, when she directed me in my first performance. It was a kindergarten play, an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” he remembers.
What his mother thought would at best be an extracurricular activity has grown to be Sankar's passion and profession. “She has mixed feelings about me being a theatre professional,” says the 32-year-old theatre director, sitting at Gandhi Park in Kozhikode, the city where it all began.
With four plays that have travelled from Gimhae in South Korea to Madikeri in Karnataka in his repertoire, Sankar invites attention with his audacity. He brought to theatre a streak of science and experimentation, though he quit his studies in Physics to pursue theatre at the school of drama at Thrissur.
Fusion of sorts
He provokes actors to cruise over cultures, languages and performance techniques to create a vibrant theatre experience. Sankar interpreted Bhasa's “Urubhangam” with Japanese artistes and technicians. His “Quick Death”, based on Australian playwright Richard Murphet's play, rattled an audience tuned to wholesome, linear narratives. His latest production “The Water Station”, based on Ota Shogo's play, is an experience in silence and slowness.
In a grey world, the audience response to Sankar's plays falls squarely on black or white. “After ‘Quick Death' many asked me what it was all about. But playwright Girish Karnad called up to say he loved it. At Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre, the two scheduled shows were sold out before the first performance and we did an unscheduled third,” says Sankar.
“The Water Station”, to be performed at the National School of Drama, Delhi, in January and as part of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala at Kozhikode in February, disowns words and drags movements. “It looks into the movement of the body threadbare; a situation where a static or a quasi-static actor seeks to move an audience,” he says.
As one constantly testing boundaries, he knows the audience response will be varied. “When one knowingly fractures the history of appreciation, the response is bound to be mixed,” he says. If “regular” theatre gives a sense of tangibility, Sankar's works aim to be an experience. He challenges his audience, teasing them to see his point or to find newer meanings.
“Theatre for me started in college. I had an orientation towards music, especially percussion, since childhood,” says Sankar. He plays a key role in the music of his productions, apart from giving music to productions like Mohan Maharishi's “Main Istanbul Hoon.”
“We were a small group in college (St. Joseph's College, Devagiri), and theatre gave us a kick. Some of our productions like ‘The Train of Death' were unlike the amateur theatre in college. We experimented and had a serious urge to express through this medium,” remembers Sankar.
A year after his stint at the drama school where he passed out with first rank, Sankar was invited by a Japanese company for a month-long workshop. Therein began an enduring theatre partnership. The East unraveled to him a mine of rich performance traditions. “When looking West-ward was the norm, I looked at the East,” he says. “The traditional theatre culture has a longer, unbroken history of performance in the East, be it the Beijing opera or Noh theatre,” he says.
When he meshed actors from abroad with local texts or lured Indian actors to foreign texts, he was searching for a new language of expression. “When an actor from outside a culture performs a local text, he/she might be able to provoke thoughts beyond the limits of what a person from within is able to do. That is when it finds a universal resonance,” he says.
Sankar pampers his ‘actor'— not the performer, but the driving force behind his plays. “During my study in Singapore (Theatre Research and Training Programme), I realised the actor/acting is at the centre of the process. But Indian theatre had discrepancies when it came to actor training; there were no definite steps that led to a comprehensive acting method, unlike music training in which you begin with the swaras and proceed further,” he points out.
Sankar explores the evolution of an actor in three stages — an exploration of the body, the voice and finally the mind. His productions so far have dealt with the body, explored its possibilities and provoked it to speak and express. “I have looked at the body in isolation and will deal with the voice and the mind the same way,” he says. If that means waiting for his eleventh production to watch an amalgamation of the three, he replies, “Maybe yes, you never know.”
His forthcoming project will be Anton Chekhov's “The Seagull” in Kannada. He teaches in Assam, Karnataka and Mumbai and is hoping to make Attapadi the home for his Theatre Roots and Wings. “Attapadi, in a way, is deliberate. Theatre tends to polarise in cities, cultural hotbeds and festival circuits. I am slowly getting sucked into it.”
The space will have the actor at its centre. “The construction will enhance the actor and acting,” he says. Figuring out how is what his theatre is about.