Theatre

To the theatre born

Gireesan Sopanam as Dushyantan in 'Abhijnana Shakuntalam' Photo: Hareesh N. Nampoothiri   | Photo Credit: HAREE FOTOGRAFIE



He does not come with the credentials of a strong theatre lineage. Nor has he gone through the academic structure of theatre training.

Nonetheless, Gireesan Sopanam is an actor one cannot miss when sitting through many of the plays of late dramatist Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

Celebrity status eludes theatrepersons even in these days of hype and self-projection. The recent staging of Kalidasa’s ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam’ has reaffirmed that Gireesan is in theatre for the long haul.

“You have to spin it out of yourself, like a spider. It is the only way,” said British thespian, John Gielgud, who had embraced fresh takes on the Bard’s Hamlet, Richard II, King Lear and Prospero. And, when the actor puts his 34 years in theatre on rewind, you realise Gireesan has done just that.

“I do not know whether to term it as coincidence, but the very first shloka that Dushyantan delivers in ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam’ was the one that I was asked to recite, decades ago, when Kavalam sir put me through an informal screening to assess my suitability for his kind of theatre.”

Happenstance is how one could describe it. His acquaintance with theatre actor Jagannathan (who later entered films) landed him a “very temporary” assignment in the Anand Marg School in the Capital. Blissfully ignorant about the world of theatre, his response to the former’s query, “Have you heard of Kavalam Narayana Panicker?” was, “I know he is a lyricist.” His impression was corrected by the explanation that followed, from Jagannathan, about the thespian.

An informal meeting with Kavalam ended with his remark, “If you have not seen many plays, good.” Years later the young Gireesan would understand the ramifications of those words. The master was trying to probe the extent of unlearning the new aspirant would have to do. But here was a clean slate waiting to be written on by none other than the person who was etching his own journey in theatre in hitherto unseen ways.

Those were days when lead actor Jayarajan had stepped down from his role in ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam’ and the newbie was taking his maiden steps into the field. In true Kavalam’s method of initiating his actors, Gireesan went through physical training in Kalaripayattu at CVN Kalari, and, “voice training under Sivasankara Panicker, who was also a ‘Kuttanadan,’ which meant there was more to the lessons I learnt from him. Voice control, the rhythm and pitch that were demanded on stage grew in me over time. These two stages were methods to test the actor, who came with dreams of becoming a theatre actor. Only those who had the patience and resolve to rough it out through them would start theatre training,” he recalls.

For a dramatist who knew the components that went into his plays, Kathakali and Koodiyattam workshops were de rigueur. That too was not enough: just sit and observe the rehearsals was next. If the learner had not given up drama till then, this ‘watch and wait’ schedule could turn the eager learner away. For Gireesan all of these steps were breaking-in phases that further stoked his interest in the style he saw emerging before him.

The first unlearning that happened was that there is more to theatre than delivering dialogues on stage and ‘doing’ a play was not the same cup of tea as play-acting. Unknown to himself, Gireesan probably found his comfort zone because he was under a personality who was a father-figure sans airs and also because there was something endearing in the manner with which he dealt with his team.

‘Karimkutty’ with Kaladharan and Jagannathan in lead roles saw Gireesan as one among the ‘chathapada’ make his formal entry into a Kavalam play.

This was followed by small roles in ‘Karnabharam’ and ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam.’

Early in his career, he was given the role of the Vidushakan. The actor was apprehensive and quite unsure of his ability to deliver, particularly because his impression of a Vidushakan was the equivalent of a jester. No weighty role this, was what was playing in his mind!

Looking back Gireesan says: “But for that Vidushakan’s mantle that I donned decades ago, I would not have developed the confidence to accept any character, irrespective of the shades of hero, anti-hero or any other.”

When senior actors with Sopanam moved out, Gireesan became the ‘true shishya’, donning key roles and accompanying the master when he conducted workshops. Kavalam had no qualms about telling the organisers, ‘speaking is not my forte. My plays are not to be heard like radio plays. It has to be seen and experienced.’ For every such assignment he would take a percussionist and two actors along to present his play, and each such excursion out of the state was enriching, adds the actor.

All plays of Sopanam have had Gireesan in it, most often as the central character but he is quick to add, “individual performances do matter, but in the final reckoning it is the whole play that makes the impact.”

How would he sum up his 34 years in the Kavalam School of Theatre – Sopanam? “It is a matter of pride to be known as Kavalam sir’s student. But for this shift in my life I would have been tethered to Kerala with limited exposure.”

In numbers, it is 30 years and 30 plays. Beyond that – language skills (acting in Sanskrit and Hindi adaptations of Kavalam’s plays with smooth transitions from one to the other in the same play) and performances in the then Soviet Union, Japan, Greece, Austria and South Korea, theatre productions in Bahrain using local talent are no mean achievement. Gireesan is not laughing all the way to the bank, nor has he earned celebrity status. But inestimable is the wealth of Sopanam experience that has seeped into him: visual poetry communicates. Language is never a problem. Total communication is no hindrance to theatre appreciation.

On stage

* ‘Urubhangam’

* ‘Kalivesham’

* ‘Avanavan Kadamba’

* ‘Bhagavadajjukam’

* ‘Malavikaagnimitram’

* ‘Illiyana’ (in collaboration with Greek theatre)

* ‘Swapnavasvadatta’

* ‘Mayaseetankam’

* ‘Abhijnana Shakuntalam’


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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 7:49:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/To-the-theatre-born/article14550791.ece

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