The ancient town of Payyanur, located in the north Malabar region of Kerala, is currently playing host to a unique theatre experiment. Circus artistes are busy rehearsing with puppeteers, illusionists, dancers, gypsy artistes and theatre practitioners, in a bid to present William Shakespeare’s Tempest in a new oral and visual language. Amid the gaggle of performers, one can see a theyyam artiste as well, who is bringing his centuries-old ritual art form to the stage.
Titled Talātum, this contemporary adaptation of the bard’s work will be presented in Panaji as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival in December. This curated festival is an interdisciplinary exploration of the visual, performing and culinary arts, seeking dialogue between the various forms and providing a platform for the patronage of artistes. Talātum is just one of the 40 events—including exhibitions and workshops—that will take place across seven indoor and outdoor venues. “Given that 2016 marks the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare, Talātum seemed like the perfect way to pay tribute to him,” says Preeta Singh, festival director.
It’s significant that the rehearsals are taking place in Kerala. It was in the town of Thalassery, located an hour-and-a-half from Payyanur, that a martial arts teacher, Keeleri Kunhikannan, first thought of training Indian acrobats for a circus company. Finally, in 1901, he inaugurated a circus school in Chirakkara, with the institution giving rise to several stalwart performers over the years. Kunhikannan’s idea was revived in 2010 when the Kerala Academy, India’s only government-funded circus academy, opened its doors to aspiring circus performers. However, with the academy shutting down this year, the performing art of circus is once again in dire straits. “It has somehow been forgotten or relegated to something that has a seasonal presence,” says Anuradha Kapur, former director of the National School of Drama (NSD), who is curating the theatre segment of Serendipity with Lillete Dubey. “Its audience has also contracted.”
“We chose Tempest as it has a lot of visual poetry. It is also one of those simpler narratives and has the nature of a fable. This allows for the various subaltern practices to be explored,” says Abhilash Pillai, who is directing the production. With very few spoken lines in Talātum, the emphasis is on physical actions by theatre artistes, in exploration with the skills of the circus.
The 18 performers are from across India, from states such as Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh. In addition to these, there are seven to eight designers who are working under the supervision of scenographer Deepan Sivaraman.
The cast also features a circus couple—the husband and wife duo of Tanya and Mukesh, whose parents were also circus performers. “The idea has been to learn and unlearn and create a production in the process,” says Pillai.
Sivaraman, who is handling the props and space design for the show, is working on a unique concept for the tent. Though it looks like a circus tent, it follows the theme of “sleep and dream”. As opposed to the vibrant colours of a traditional circus tent, Sivaraman has taken a single colour, which depicts the horizon just before a tempest. The production doesn’t end with the festival; instead, there are plans to make this a travelling theatre project, akin to the famous Vienne-based Footsbarn.
At SAG Ground, Panaji, Goa, from 20-23 December, 6pm-7.30pm and 8.30pm-10pm. For more details, visit www.serendipityartsfestival.com