It was a transcendental experience for the thousands who turned up at the Actor Murali Open Theatre, Thrissur, to watch the opening play of the 6th International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK 2014) on Monday. Breaking the conventional norms of the theatre, Roysten Abel’s The Kitchen became the perfect cocktail, tingling the five senses of the viewers.
Ask the director of the unique and different theatrical concept, he says, “The Kitchen will give its viewers a sensory experience where the mind is not the only one that is into the act of decoding the performance on stage. It has audio, visual, taste, smell and emotions coming into the act where it’s not necessary each element be decoded at a single go.”
With 12 ‘Mizhavu’ artists performing for one hour 15 minutes seated in a big vessel that resembles the percussion instrument, along with two artists who are involved in cooking ‘paal payasam’, the play is a metaphor where cooking is explored at various levels. A husband and wife, who have been involved in cooking ‘paal payasam’ for many years, confront each other and themselves in the play. As the ingredients blend together, the simmering discontent between the couple is resolved and their strained relationship is spiritually cleansed. The cooking is accompanied with the haunting music of the twelve Mizhavu drummers which takes the play a notch higher.
“Through the act of cooking, the couple is symbolically cooking their own relationship where both cook themselves to be palatable to each other. Here food is not just for nourishment of the body but of the soul as well, and the act of cooking a meal is ritualistic. In Hindu mythology, the body stands for a vessel that contains the soul,“ explains Roysten for whom his first directorial debut Othello: A Play in Black and White won the Scotsman Fringe First award.
Ask Roysten what made him use ‘Mizhavu’-one of the oldest percussion instruments and not any other instrument in The Kitchen, he says, “‘Mizhavu’ is a special instrument and the sound that emanates from mizhavu is the sound of omkara. Each time I hear it, it just pulls me deeper into the percussion instrument. In earlier days it was the only percussion that was allowed in the sanctum sanctorum. It is an integral part of performing temple arts of Kerala like ‘Koothu’, ‘Koottiyattam’ and ‘Nangiar Koothu’. Though the respective art forms were always noticed, the ‘mizhavu’ has often stayed invisible. It is a politically suppressed instrument too but in actuality the large, pot-shaped vessel made of copper with its mouth covered with a stretched hide is unique in producing a vibrant tone, enriched with classical rhythm and purity. They are considered as a brahmachari and this sacred instrument which when becomes dented or damaged, follows the same death rituals as for humans.” Roysten got the inspiration for the play when he visited Jalaludin Rumi’s tomb in Konya (Turkey) four years ago. “There in his kitchen, I saw a raised platform, which was the area where Rumi and his followers meditated. Beneath this area I saw two pots that cooked the food. Another thing that caught the attention were the two pair of shoes. This was the area for the novices. When they came to join Rumi, they were first asked to remain on their knees in meditation without food or water for days together. If they survived the test, they would be allowed to join. What fascinated me was that in Rumi’s kitchen cooking was happening at various planes. First, there was the literal act of cooking where food was getting cooked for those present there, second there was the cooking of the self that was happening with the novices and also the Sufis cooking the cosmic vessel,” he explains.
Born in Kerala and inspired by Shakespearean plays, for Roysten, Good Shepherd International School, Ooty was the first stage where he explored his creative muses.
“It was because of my English teacher Nainan sir that I came to love Shakespeare. He gave an in-depth understanding to the works that were meant to be more than just literature pieces,” he says. Roysten went to study commerce in college but dropped out and joined family business at his parent’s insistence. Bored with commerce and business, he struck the right chord when he left business and joined National School of Drama in Delhi in 1994 and then went to apprentice with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He came back to India in 1995, founded the Indian Shakespeare Company, and from then on there was no turning back for him.
His other much acclaimed theatrical ventures are A Hundred Charmers with a hundred snake charmers performing on stage and The Manganiyar Seduction where 50 Manganiyar musicians create magic through their music. The Maganiyar Seduction has already completed 99 performances and the 100th one will be staged next month.
His theatricals which always bring the deep-rooted culturally rich art forms of our country to the forefront also empower the often unnoticed art forms. “Our country has so much to offer and we should utilise that rich heritage instead of searching out,” he underlines.
He feels that the lack of infrastructure is the main reason why Kerala lags behind in discovering the eminent talents here.
He is currently creating an International Center for Comtemporary Traditional Performances in Jaisalmer, which should be ready by 2015.
“Another future project is the ‘Manganiyar boys choir’ where boys between the age of 10-13 years will be performing in Bangalore in May,” he signs off.