My Goodness, this is the third time!” exclaimed danseuse Sonal Mansingh, as Deepan Sivaraman ran up the steps of the podium to receive the META Award for Best Choreography for the Malayalam play Spinal Cord at a spring-time function in Delhi this year. He had already ascended the stage twice that evening — to rec­eive the awards for Best Lighting Design (representing lighting designer Jose Koshy in abse­ntia) and for the Best Stage Design (by himself). But Deepan ran up the steps three more times that evening — representing Gopalan K for Best Actor Award, Best Director for himself and finally for the Best Play, with all available members of the ensemble lining up, including James Elia, who had earlier received Best Supporting Actor Award.
Awards need not always be the only touchstones of merit. Yet, when they reach the deserving works, then that gives anybody the much-needed moral backup. Especially in Indian theatre, where artistes still struggle against infinite odds just to produce plays. The Mahindra Awards, into the sixth year, have been playing a significant role providing this all-important support for the theatre practitioners here. And, Spinal Cord sweeping seven out of the 13 awards set something like a record.
Not only that. At all staging so far, both in Kerala and outside, the play proved a hit among audience, even the most lay ones. Of course, dou­bts and differences of opinion do exist, but that also proves a performance’s success in another way. A play with a difference, for sure.
A play that crashes down upon the spectators with an explosive energy created through the deft use of innovative lighting, sound, digital projection and a whirlwind of bizarre objects that support the tremendous performance of a bunch of powerful actors, Spinal Cord also did away with the conventional ‘proscenium peephole’, by seating the audience on the three sides of the performance space.
And it successfully transports the story of an honour killing and its tragic consequences upon the lives of people in a distant South American township to a distinctly Kerala locale, simultaneously managing to retain the raw brutality and the magical lyricism, both characteristic of the Latin American sensibility. The story unfolds 27 years after the incident, through the rusted memories of the victim’s mother, whose mind occupies the no-man’s land between grief and insanity, with the narration moving back and forth in time.
Santiago Nassar, a rich and spoilt young man, was murdered by the brother of Angela, a girl who was found to be not a virgin on
her wedding night, by her husband, Bayardo san Roman (aptly rechristened Kunjavaraan), who had arrived there looking for the perfect virgin. Various circumstances coalesce toge­ther in a complex play of destiny, leading to
the brutal murder of Nasser that later affected the lives of all involved.
The inventive lighting designed by Jose Koshy, forming pools of dim, yellow light from old modal metal shades used in houses or hospitals (or even torture chambers!), candles and light ropes, works in the same way like the objects and text, in what Deepan describes as “telling the story through light.” Low-visibility lighting was chosen to keep with the mood of the play and also for keeping the surrounding audience in the dark zone. The lampshades hanging down from metal wires crisscrossing over the performance space also forms part of the design, defining the performance space. The digital projection, running in the backdrop, provides another dimension to the storytelling. The play evolved through intensive rehearsal sessions held during summer 2009 at Thrissur. Educationist Nalini Chandran offered a part of her home in Thrissur for the rehearsals.
A research project partially funded by the Wimbledon College of Art, London, Spinal Cord is an experimental theatre project done as part of Deepan’s ongoing doctoral research titled, ‘Spatial Identities and Visual Language in Indian Theatre.’ It is a “scenography-focused spatial experimental work, an attempt to find an alternative to text-oriented dramaturgy”, acco­rding to Deepan, who holds an MA in Scenography from University of the Arts, London.
Scenography itself is a new topic ‘not just in India, but theatre world in general.’ An alternative term for a performance’s visual language, Scenography started to get established only during the last one or two decades. Deepan is exploring how Indian Theatre tradition uses ritualistic actions, objects and space to tell the story. His faith in the spatial and visual aspects of Spinal Cord was so strong that he refused to use the sub titling facility before the META awards jury. “Language should be no barrier to theatre experience,” is his belief.
Still, Spinal Cord is not a play that just drops down out of the blue skies. Its powerful language springs out of an equally strong history, of the intensely lived lives of a group of theatre practitioners that extends back even to the 1980s, when maverick theatre activist Jos Chiramel, one of the first graduates of the Calicut University School of Drama in Thri­ssur, began his quest into a socially and politically oriented theatre.
In Playful Revolution: Theatre and Liberation in Asia, Eugene Van Erven, an expert on Asian political theatre, has framed the Root under a broader perspective of Asian political theatre. Erven has described how, on “Sunday, 17 April 1988,” he travelled with Jos Chiramel and memb­ers of his Root to a tiny fishing village off Kochi to perform Badal Sircar’s Bhoma in an open space under improvised lights hung from coconut trees, with the audience seated on cloths spread on the sand floor. No make-up, no microphones.
And, in the 1990s, a group of youngsters, emerging mainly through Chiramel’s workshops, formed Theatre Eye, a group based in Thrissur. That was in 1994. Till 1998, Theatre Eye operated out of Thrissur, exploring and evolving a new theatrical language. Among the Spinal Cord team, Jose P Raphael, James Alia, C R Rajan, Gopalan, Jose Koshy, Anto K G and Deepan himself were part of this group. After the first production, Sircar’s Beyond the Land of Hattamala, directed by P G Surjith, another alumnus of School of Drama, they went on to do William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. Deepan, who had just graduated from School of Drama, was the director.
Theatre Eye did not last long. Deepan was the first to leave, for higher studies, moving on to Pondicherry and then, London. In late 1998, the group was dissolved, its members scattering in various directions. However they had only moved away, not apart. Through the years, most of them had kept in touch with each other, and with theatre. And, Chronicle of A Death Foretold was a recurring topic. Deepan did a small version as his post-graduate production at Pondicherry University.
That Deepan chose to return to Thrissur and seek out his old teammates was quite significant. In one way, it was a natural choice. Deepan asserts that without this team of creative actors, he wouldn’t have managed to do this play in this format. Jose P Raphael agrees: “More than act­ors and director, we were a group of theatre persons who knew their jobs well.”
That was also the spirit of Theatre Eye. A team who knew its job well, and who respected each other’s views and imaginations. It is the same energy, the same conviction that has its origins in the past and that has sustained itself through the never-dying spirit of a group of theatre activists. And it is the same force that flows through Spinal Cord, making it an epitome of a certain time, of certain values and ethos and an exceptional camaraderie shared by a group of theatre activists.
— The writer is coordinator of artconcerns.com and
lives in Kochi. firstname.lastname@example.org