Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Being the change--By Saraswathy Nagarajan

Sajitha Madathil says the stage is her world. She talks about her role in the theatre scene in Kerala, and her book that deals with women in the theatre history of the State

As the curtain goes up and the lights dim, all eyes are riveted on the stage. There, in the twilight zone of reality and illusion, is where theatre person Sajitha Madathil lives her many lives as she etches characters that have become a part of theatre lore in Kerala.

Sajitha wanted to be a dancer. But that was until she attended her first theatre camp in 1991 and discovered that the stage was where she belonged. “It felt so right to be there; I felt at home, and I knew that this would be my world from then on,” reminisces Sajitha.

Today she is one of the names to reckon with in the theatre scene in Kerala. Her feminist plays and passionate interpretations of characters have added a new dimension of gender to the theatre scenario in Kerala, which has mainly been moulded and shaped by men. Beauty Parlour, Matsyagandi, Spinal Cord and Mathilukkal saw Sajitha move centrestage with some powerful performances.

The former student activist of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad believes that theatre is a potent tool to raise your voice against injustice and to raise awareness on an issue. It all began in the mid-nineties, when activist and feminist Mini Sukumaran organised a group of women under the auspices of ‘Sthree Padanna Kendram,' which brought together a number of young women activists. One of the camps organised by the group happened to be on theatre and it helped several volunteers to get their act together.

“That was also the first time I met Srilatha and Sudhi, both leading theatre activists today. It led to the formation of ‘ Abhinetri,' which we thought was the first women's theatre group in the State. I decided to learn drama academically and joined Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata,” recalls Sajitha.

And did her dance help her step up the ladder in theatre? “Yes, of course; for one thing, it helps you internalise emotions and portray them. But dance, especially Indian classical dance, has a structure unlike theatre where each role and stage depends on an actor's interpretation and utilisation of space and time.”

Marriage took Sajitha to Delhi where she began working at the Sangeet Nataka Akademi. Although theatre was always there in her life, her job took her all around the country for documentation and events. In the meantime, her angst over the exploitation of women found expression in Beauty Parlour (1999); her first solo play, which was co-directed by her and its playwright K.S. Sreenath. It hit out at the “commoditisation and homogenisation of women and their physiques,” an after effect of the winds of globalisation that was beginning to blow in India.

Memorable experience

Rave reviews followed. Then, she decided to document the lives of the women of the fishing community in Kerala. Travelling through the coast of Kerala opened her eyes to the problems of the women who struggle to eke a living. That experience resulted in Matsyagandhi, another solo play, which was written for the World Earth Summit in South Africa in 2002. At Johannesburg, she interacted with actors and directors from Egypt, Brazil and the United States. “Each of us presented plays that encapsulated the lives of the women of the fishing community in our country. Those plays were put together as a single play called Guardians of the Deep,” recalls Sajitha, the excitement still lingering in her voice.

Rapturous reviews and the overwhelming response from that experience remain special to her. With a smile she adds that she felt quite lost after she returned to India. “I was back to being an employee and a homemaker. It takes time to get back to normalcy after a tour like that.”

In 2007 Sajitha returned to Kerala as a staffer of the Kuttiyattam Kendra in the city and that was when she bagged the role of Narayani in Pramod Payyannur's play based on Basheer's Mathilukkal; a role that has been immortalised by KPAC Lalitha.

“It was a challenge to play Narayani. I was told many a time that Lalitha chechi had done it in a particular way or she had spoken the dialogue that way … Finally I decided that this was Sajitha's Narayani and I had to portray the character my way. It was well received at all the venues we staged the play,” says Sajitha.

She will also soon be seen in K.P. Sasi's film Janaki. She had also acted in Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkoothu and Sibi Jose's Thuruthu. “But more than the silver screen, it is the stage that catalyses my talent. Srilatha and I plan to do a play next year and that is something that enthuses me,” she smiles.

However she says Kerala is not a kind place for women in theatre. “Each step forward is a small victory. And what hurts me most is when people presume that actors act all the time, even in real life. The sharpest comment is to “stop acting.” Every woman has to balance so many factors. Each role and play of mine was shaped after a period of intense soul searching,” avers Sajitha.

But negative vibes or personal problems has not disrupted her romance with the stage. And now that her book has been released, she sees it as a base to begin her research to throw light on the theatre history of Kerala.

Leading ladies in theatre

It was Sajitha’s research for her doctoral thesis that motivated her to write Malayala Nataka Sthree Charithram (History of Women in Malayalam Theatre), which was released yesterday. Sajitha, who is now deputy director (programme) of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, says she was surprised to find many books on theatre in Kerala silent on the role of women in theatre. “One of the first instances of a woman’s name cropping up in the books is that of a play titled Subhadraadhananjayam, written by Thottakkaattu Maadhaviyamma. However we find that the play is actually Subhadrarjunam written by a famous woman writer, Thattakkaattu Ikkaavamma. Similarly, there are many famous plays such as Akjaathavaasam by Kuttikkunju Thangachi, Saavithri Athavaa Vidhavaavivaaham by Lalithaambika Antharjanam, Devadoothi by B. Saraswthiyamma or Madhavivarma by Madhavikkutti. However, none of them find a place in mainstream books on theatre history. Perhaps the authors did not feel they were important enough for inclusion in their books,” says Sajitha.

Her book attempts to delve into the part played or not played by women in the traditional theatrical art forms of Kerala and the evolution of theatre in the State from a woman’s perspective.

“This is just a foundation for to begin my work,” says Sajitha modestly. A strong foundation can make all the difference when one is building an edifice for others to emulate and study.

Keywords: theatre, arts, Sajitha Madathil, rave reviews

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