Friday, May 16, 2008

Theyyatheyyam—a play about performances

This play is significant in the oeuvre of Kavalam since, it has a very intriguing narrative and a storyline with many levels of meanings and different layers of connotations.
It narrates the story of Ramayana, the epic. It uses not the Valmiki Ramayana the most widely accepted form, but is narrating a very regional version of Ramayana, where Rama is named Daivathar, Seetha is Poonkanni, and Hanuman is Bappooran while Ravana is named Paranki chamundi. This local and folk version of Ramayana deviates from the grand text in many ways. This is more fluid, straightforward, and is the illustration of the indigenous creativity of the masses. (Here Ravana is devitalized by hanuman by removing his Urukku – a magical waste band- while Ravana dozes during his Tapasu. It reflects the immediate social concerns and milieu of the folk and their life. Accepting and acknowledging such local versions in the present context where there is a conscious attempt to establish a monolithic Ramayana, is a significant position.
This play suggests strong comments about colonialism and the history of protest against the colonizer. The Paranki is clearly the foreign invader who is to loot the resources of the land and molest Poonkanni, the local girl. The colonizer manipulates and wins over the protests spurting against him. This play has a strong comment on the power politics of colonialism and the cultural implications of it.
This play also speaks about the villainy of the local feudal landlord and his handling of the working class. Mekkanthala the local landlord has an eye over Poonkanni and tries to molest her. His brut less and cunning passion for the working class girl is clear and overt. When she do not yield to his whims and fancies, the landlord declares that none of the laborers will be given work in his field; the right to reap the harvest was denied by this landlord which follows a suggestion of possible protest and confluence of the working class. The sickle that is to reap the paddy is transformed into a weapon to eliminate the feudal landlord and becomes the symbol of the working class upsurge. Ravunni after killing the landlord has to go in hiding since police and power-centers hunts for him. Such a clear parable on the peasant revolt suggested in the play is strongly translated into the visual imagery in the whole narrative.


Varied layers of different plots are interwoven to get a seemingly simple text. Besides this the narrative structure and its composition is also important. The play becomes an essay on the performer and the performance itself. It is trying to understand the inner dynamics and chore of the performance.
Performance of myths, performance of the daily routines of the common man who is helpless and wrapped in the daily cores, and also on the performance of this particular play itself becomes the concern of the narrative. It is interesting that the performer is to perform different roles inside the performance itself. He has to narrate the story, explain and interpret it, and at the same time is the character of the play. Performance itself turns out to be the theme. While performing the Paranki Chamundi, Ramunni has to be the representative of the social attribute of the working peasant, and has to lead a protest against the feudal landlord. At the same time he has to elope with Poonkanni also return as the performer of the Theyyam. His mundane existence and his character merge into one. His social responsibility to rebel the landlord and his responsibility perform the Theyyam are having the same importance and consequence. Added together is the social human he depicts.
The singer-narrator has another significant veracity. He has to narrate, create the characters, invite and evoke them on to the stage, interpret and explain the different junctures of the plot, but also is a victim of the events on stage. At times he has to run away from the scene since the very characters he invoked beset him. He is to shift between the performer and the character and at times caught in between the two states. The position and space of him as an actor in the physical as well as the performance realm is always in transformation and is the continuation of one to the other. He is bound within the physical space of the fiction and its dynamics, under the coercion of the other characters, and has to emote, feel and suffer according to the demands of the situation. He is under the endorsement of the director, other actors, and the plot itself. The physical spacing of the actor in the performance context and his functions in an oriental performance is essayed in this creation and its enactment.
This note is the response of seeing the performance of Theyyatheyyam, a play written and directed by Kavalam Narayana Panikker and performed by Sopanam at Fine arts Hall Ernakulam and also the personal chat with Kavalam before the play.

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