And Murali also is gone; after an enigmatic career in theatre, films, and in the cultural scenario of Kerala. Murali bring in different memories, different persona, and is relevant for different reasons in each who knew him. He was a versatile film actor, an ardent activist of theatre, a friend, a cultural and political ideologue…. There are many faces to this man...diverse roles he performed in life…
For me he was primarily a theatre person, one who is dissatisfied with the theatre scenario of Kerala, one who dreamt to capture the sun, knowing the base reality around makes this practically impossible. But why not dream and try…aim at the sun and you may end up at least in a stream of light, and that will irradiate the darkness around... And the darkness around the theatre scenario engulfing Kerala was unbearable to Murali.
My first interaction with Murali was way back in 1978 when the group Natyagriham came to Koothattukulam to perform the play Moonnu Prabhukkanamar (Three lords), penned and directed by R.Narendraprasad. I was a college student traveling from Kuravilangadu to see the play. After the play in which Murali was one of the three lords, I met Narendraprasad, Aliyar, Gopalakrishnan and Murali, important actors of the group. We had a short but dense discussion about the play, and Natyagriham. And that relation was to continue and get strengthened.
Later after many years I was again an audience to Marthandavarma Engine Rakshapettu, (How did Marthanda varma escape?) in which the performance of Murali was scintillating and was an eye-opener for me about the theatre practice to be followed.
The plays of Natyagriham, Sanidasa (written by Cherukadu), Lankalakshmi (by CN Sreekantan Nair), Sinkathanum Minnikallum (adaptation of Wole Soyinkas Lion and the Jewel), Souparnnika (by Narendraprasad), Velliyashcha (by Narendraprasad) and many more followed, all directed by Narendra Prasad. Natyagriham was establishing a presence in the theatre scenario of Kerala with a group of vibrant actors and technicians on the scene, almost all taken to films after some time, in some way or other.
And there was the solos, mostly based on poetry, the new tradition of performing poetry – Cholkazha; I remember Murali performing the poem Aa pasukkutti Chathu (that calf is dead), by Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, with ease and élan. He had a peace of rope in his hand as a metaphor of the dead calf, - a flexible property to create visuals and images. Murali was singing, enacting, narrating and commenting on the poem as the form of performance. He shifted into the poem, and then back to himself and to the present moment of enactment, maintaining a direct relation and dialogue with the audience.
Murali, whose true love remained theatre even after he was taken by cinema, was pained by the dearth of performance spaces in the State. Once when we met at Kerala Kalapeetom he asked me to direct a play with him in the cast and he can take 15 or 20 day leave from his busy schedule from films to act in the play. I asked him whether he will be available for repeat shows if any: if he does not what will happen to the play and if so, what is the meaning in doing the play? He said they are things to come, why do you ponder so much into the future… Be optimistic… But I was diminutive in my position, and cannot respond to him in the same wavelength…
Later Murali came back to theatre with a 45 minute solo based on Lankalakshmi, which is a re-creation and further extension of the experiences of the play he enacted with Natyagriham. Along with the role of Ravana the protagonist, he enacted other characters too, using the technique of Pakarnnatam (the Indian technique to shift from character to character, one space to another, and character to actor etc..), so that the narration could be kept in a continuous stream.
Murali as an Actor.
The late Narendraprasad’s ‘Natyagriham’ was instrumental in shaping the sensibility of Murali as an actor and he one of the most successful products of Natyagriham.
Natyagriham was joining the search for an identity for Indian theatre; a form and content to be developed from the indigenous theatre and performance tradition of the land, instead of aping the theater of the west. The group was aware of the cultural colonization that was unconsciously creeping into the theater scenario of India and was conscious of the need to create an alternate theatre. Tradition did not mean just performances, but included the people, all the realms of their life, habits, priorities, sensibilities and also the history. So the products of Natyagriham are not just statements of form alone, but had an inner soul, and they attempted for intense expressions of emotions. The performance became, didactic, political, and native at the same time. It was a fine attempt where the traditional and alien performance systems were perfectly blended so as to suit the demands of our contemporary theatre.
And this is not an easy job to accomplish. Murali was trying to understand, theorize and translate this new approach to acting in theatre. As an actor, Murali had an altogether different sensibility on the stage; I would say he was much more flexible on the stage than in films. The way he successfully communicated with the viewers through very subtle gestures, even with an eye movement, is really spectacular. A change in the body movement -- a swaying of his hand, a change in gait, a shift in the body balance, and a sound produced in unison with a slight movement, — would result in a drastic change in expression. Onstage, a slight movement of his frame conveyed a lot. The whole meaning, expression and Bhava will change dramatically and diametrically to shift the focus to a newer meaning and feeling. Murali was a very intelligent actor, and he knew each and every nuances of the expression created by him. Acting was a conscious, calculated and predetermined activity for him, not a spontaneous overflow that happens then and there unconsciously. That is why he was very meticulous and precise in each moment of his stage presence and looked relaxed, free and comfortable. Murali exuded a rare intense energy inside and he carefully modulated ferocity in acting. His acting was never loud, but subtle.
And he never carried his ego or personality on stage. He never expanded his orbit on stage beyond a point that was demanded by the play. He never filled the whole performance with his histrionic skill so that he can make the other actors and the play itself become secondary and invisible. He always knew that the play is the main thing and the actor is for the play and its meaning. He wanted to hide his self inside the meaning of the play and its outcome; acting was not a means to exhibit him, which may be a challenge for such a vivacious actor like him. He was conscious of the political and cultural implications of performance.
Attempts at Revival
As a person his edginess and discontent with status quo of theatre in Kerala was evident. He was dreaming about the possibility that theatre should become a professional activity and that shall be able to support itself and its participants. He was sad that there was no proper repertoire company of theatre that can support and pay the artists, as well as is equipped to create genuine and vibrant theatre. He knew that it was not because of the lack of resources or equipped persona, but due to a habit of lethargy and settlement into the state of existing situation that has been developed. But he was never satisfied and it propelled him to explore fresh arenas and projects to better the theatre scenario of Kerala when he took charge as the chairperson of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademy.
It is sad that Kerala do not have a single performance space worth to be called so, even if we have a very vibrant theatre practice, tradition, and culture. Not a single theater in Kerala can satisfy the demands of a new performance. We don’t have even a proper proscenium house with a proper stage, sound, lights, green rooms and other facilities; leave alone the spaces that facilitate other possibilities of explorations of the alternative kind of theatre. Murali has repeatedly shared his pain on this pathetic situation whenever we started discussing theatre. After taking charge as the chairman of the Akademy, the first venture he undertook was to renovate and modernize the existing theatre at Thrissur.
His dreams were big, wanted to hold the sun in his hand, making the stars as stepping stones. At the same time he knew the limitations and problems of working with a government agency that has been running with a specific fixed mindset. He wanted to organize a repertoire that can produce good plays and support the artists, and to propagate the message of theatre into the length and breadth of rural Kerala. A repertoire was organised and it produced two plays Koottukrishi (by Edassery, directed by Pramod Payyannoor), and Super Market (an adaptation of can’t pay, won’t pay by Dario Fo, directed by Shailaja.) The ambition was there, dream was there, and attempt was there; the effectiveness of this project is the matter of yet another discussion.
He dreamt that Kerala should be a meeting place of meaningful theatre from all over the globe. He envisaged an international festival of Kerala where the best of world theatre come, perform and interact. Again the first step is done, the first ever international theatre festival in Kerala was organised at Thrissur in his leadership, the Asian theatre festival 2008 (ITFoK, 2008). Plays from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, China, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and four troupes from India, presented their productions, focusing on the theme, On Stage: Modernity of Tradition, and discussions seminars followed. Again the quality of the performances and their relevance in such a big event can be deliberated in length, but this happened for the first time in this state. Beyond performances this festival had other relevance too. May be for the first time after independence, the artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh sat together on a platform to discuss theatre and share the agonies about the social and cultural issues of the subcontinent. This happens when the three nations are at logger heads of mutual enmity and the political situation –both internal and external- of these nations are at boiling point. It was really hearty to come on a common platform and declare that the subcontinent is actually a continuum and the pleasures and perils, with which the people live with, are the same throughout; tears are the same, anger is the same, and the people are fighting against the same odds to survive and stay alive. This kind of a sharing and mutual hugging is one of the best things that theatre can offer and the festival was memorable with just for this rare happening...And Murali was dreaming about the second chapter of the ITFoK with plays from the African continent…
Keli the journal of Sangeetha Natak Akademy was also given a face-lift. More pages, better look, better layout, and better content which make the new issues a collectors copy; again, an act that resulted from his dissatisfaction, on the existing situation.
He had other dreams too. To initiate a true and proper theatre training program at Sangeetha Nataka Akademy that can address the needs of the state, training that is related to its performance and social reality.
Murali was an avid researcher and was keen to look into the newer modes of understanding of theatre and acting. He was talking to me when we met last, about his thoughts and concerns for the acting process... He methodically analyzed on the mechanics of acting and thought it as a ‘psycho- neuro-physical process’; he said, ‘it is the result of many neuro and biochemical processes that leads to the expression of an emotion’. He argued that the brain is the epicenter of acting, and the changes happening there in terms of chemical process that leads to the psycho and physical expression is to be studied in detail and that will lead to the newer techniques of theatre training and execution…
And all on a sudden Murali leaves us, leaving his dreams behind. We can follow his dreams, aim for the sun and the stars, or continue to slumber.
Note: This is not an evaluation of the career of Murali in theatre, but a sort of personal memoire. I am indebted to Anil of New Indian Express and Anand of The Hindu, and the activists of Bhagath Singh Cultural Centre Tripunithura to make me do this.