One of the most important functions in Niravu –Fulfillment, the program organized as a tribute to Kavalam Mahayana Panikkar on his 80th birthday was a seminar on the evolution of Kavalam Theatre in the Indian Context. The program was held in Kanakakunnu palace Thiruvanathapuram from 18th to 20th April, 2008.
Well known Sanskrit scholar and theatre expert Dr. K.D. Thripadhi set the seminar in the in the right focus in his presidential remark by soliciting Kavalam theatre with a historic perspective. He suggested that the proscenium theatre and its era in the Indian arena were over by the sixties. Habib Tanveer has already come back leaving his London experiences behind, to the Chathisgadi villages to reinvent the Indian theatre. The Sanskrit theatre tradition of Koodiyattam was being revived and set resolute in Kerala. The 4th volume of Natyasastra – The Indian treatise on theatre, was published from Baroda in 1964. All these coincide and mutually fulfill the search for an Indian identity in Theatre.
The question in the air was how to make the age old theatre traditions contemporary. Theatre is not an archival form, but it is to be contemporary, vibrant and living. Kavalam had a specific role in bring out this resolution.
The visit of Kavalam to Ujjain in 1978 with his Sanskrit adaptation of Sakuntalam is an important event in his career. and the focus of Indian theatre of the seventies was on the Sanskrit tradition of performance.
Tripadi argued that the position of Kavalam is at par with the masters of world theatre along with Eugene Barba, Richard Schechner, Peter brook, along with Rattan Tiyyam from the Indian continent. All these masters were trying to conjure the oriental theatre tradition to expound a modern theatre form and performance language, that can address the sensibilities of the new era.
Kavalam dissolved his own idiom of expression even if it is derived from classical forms with the Sanskrit tradition of performance and at the same time used it to interpret Sanskrit plays with a modern perspective. Tripadhi was focusing on the interpretations of Kavalam in his adaptations of Bhasa, Kalidasa, and other Sanskrit playwrights.
In the works of Kavalam, a complimenting harmony of the folk and classical traditions of the land can be observed. The tradition is not an end in itself but is the process of continuity, and this makes Kavalam a contemporary theater director. He is using the mythology in order to discover new meanings valid for the current day.
B.R. Bhargava observed in his paper that ‘theatre’ is to be liberated from the written text and Kavalam is one director who did it in his productions. Confirming to the tradition of eastern theatre Kavalam did not pass the agonies and miseries from the stage to the audience as in western theatre. Kavalam theatre refines the spectator and provides the Ananda out of the Rasanaubhava.
Udayan Vajpeyi observed the flow of the narrative and the eclectic amplitude of scales – vocal and physical – in Kavalam productions. His Vachika or the vocal patterns range from prose to songs, mundane speech to refined Alapa of music. In movement it encompasses the simple walk to the dance. This whole range of microtones of Sruthi to the dance choreography makes his plays a Leela in its true meaning. With this Leela Kavalam contemporizes, recreates the old Desi laws into a new Margi way. With choreography Kavalam creates the whole macrocosm of universe from earth to sky to water in a unique structure; a pagan mode to express a pagan vision.
In all these papers the adaptations of Kavalam as a director of the Sanskrit plays were in focus. So I felt that it is appropriate to speak about his original writing in Malayalam as my response. I started my talk by saying that the contribution of Kavalam to Indian theatre is total and comprehensive. He was a writer and director merged into one who knew the essence of the language of theatre and its creative milieu. As a writer he demanded that his works has to be reinterpreted in performance and not to be staged as such. He insisted that the creativity of theatre is in reinterpreting the text by a director and a host of actors. I remembered the discussion between me and Kavalam when I was to direct Poranadi (outcast) written by him for Lokadharmi. He asked me specifically not to follow each and every line written by him as something sacred. He asked me to change it and make it my own. This insight is so important in the context, where many of the playwrights insist that each of the word and even punctuations they created are holly and should not be changed. He expected me to take the freedom he himself takes with the texts of Bhasa while he adapts them. And Bhasa has also taken the same creative freedom to interpret the Mahabharata in his plays.
Another important assertion he made in Indian theatre is to validate the regional language theatre and culture and reinforce it. Even now the Indian theatre is imagined as the works in Hindi produced from the metros of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkota. India outside these cities was not a concern of the cultural intelligentsia. It was the result of the works of BV Karanth, Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and Ratan Thiyyam that the regional language theatre is accepted or considered equal with the mainland theatre. The recognition and acceptance we experience in Delhi or other north Indian cities for our plays in Malayalam, is the result of the works of Kavalam and his persistence to validate the language theatre, physically culturally and aesthetically. Through his works he established the language, its cultural implications, and aesthetics as a distinct entity. Thus in redefining Indian theatre from the mainland and metro sensibilities, to a pan-Indian conglomeration of regional entities is a true contribution of Kavalam and his colleagues.
Kavalam was also one playwright who wrote his texts in an Indian narrative mode. His plays are texts to be performed, knitted in a loose narrative that suits performance. It is so flexible so that, an actor and a director get enough space to interpret it according to their sensibilities and viewpoints. His plays have passages and pathways to enter, roam around and to exit for a creative person. The journey into the text, through it and out of it and re-entering into a Kavalam text is a highly enriching and creative experience for a director. This is possible since the narrative structure of his writing is truly Indian and not influenced by the western models of proscenium drama. It gives creative freedom to invent the form and interpret the content. He writes in a real ethnic Malayalam using the rural flavor of the spoken language. It can communicate meanings so sharp and subtle. The sonority and vocal patterns are set to Kerala meter patterns. He may be writing in prose and in verse or in poetry. But the prose has the inner rhythm inside it so that it can be sung by an actor. Also the verse and poetry can be said as prose dialogues without changing the written text. The vocalization of his language is so suited to meet the needs of the creative actor and director and to suit the interpretation of the scene. This flexibility which allows shifts between prose, poetry and verse is because his writing is closer to the aural tradition than the literary tradition of ‘writing’ the literature.
It is interesting to note the subtlety with which he denotes the political meanings into his plays. Most of his plays are derived from local myths or legends from a specific locale in Kerala. He writes a play based on this native myth belief or hearsay, to express universally valid ironies of contemporary existence. In most of his plays, the existing social structure is at the verge of collapse and there is the throb of the evolution of a new system. This kind of a socio-political situation when one system is collapsing and another is to evolve is a very interesting political, cultural and sociological scenario with a lot of intrinsic drama. Panikkar always depicts this agonies and uncertainties of a political transformative period. It is worthy of note that almost all of the rulers/kings in his plays are weak characters, not capable of doing anything or to control the given situation. They are insignificant presences and Panikker leaves their cataclysm with a sarcastic smile. They are almost clowns or pawns at the threshold of a changing history and the density of the situation. Thus his plays are having a political underscore with a cultural and historic perspective, and this aspect of his plays are not much discussed till day.
Panikkar is also a good translator of plays. His translations of Bhasa texts into Malayalam are truly a great contribution. In translating Bhasa plays he keeps the prerogatives and concerns of Bhasa in tact, smoothly into Malayalam so suited to perform.
Kavalam has also played a very valid role in formulating a theatre training system with an Indian perspective. When our theatre schools including NSD are still thriving to free it from the clutches of the western training methodologies and are incapable of identifying an Indian system of actor training, Kavalam has quite successfully arrived at a system of training the Indian artists and is practicing it.
Thus the contribution of Kavalam to Indian theater is spread on all aspects of theatre-directing, writing, theorizing, training and performing.
Kavalam theatre becomes the reference point for the present day theatre practice in this part of the country. One can work along, further or deviate from his creative contribution. The evolving Indian theatre has to salute this maestro and guru with all respect and reticence.
Other respondents in the seminar were Puthusseri Ramachandran, T.M. Abraham, Venuji, V.Jayarajan and Sangita Gundecha with .P. Narayana Kurup as the moderator.
On the whole the seminar was trying to place Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and his contribution through the evolution of Indian theatre to its new edifice.