Mizhavu drummers will perform
Mizhavu drummers will perform

Something’s cooking on stage

Roysten Abel's new production, 'The Kitchen', delves into food and spirituality and brings sight, sound, smell and taste together

The idea for The Kitchen, which will be opening on 1 August, had been cooking in theatre director Roysten Abel’s mind for four years. In 2009, Abel had visited the tomb of the Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi and the kitchen of the dervishes in Konya, Turkey. And he was deeply impressed by the idea of the “cooking" of the souls of novices to prepare them to join Rumi’s Mevlevi sect.

The experience got him thinking about the link between food and spirituality. “Next to Rumi’s tomb is this kitchen. As soon as you enter, you see these raised platforms where the cooking would happen.... And the novices and the dervishes would also whirl in that (kitchen) space," explains Abel. The idea of “three levels of cooking" in this kitchen—of the food; of the novices who had come to join the sect and were being “cooked" to become ready and “cross that threshold of sustenance"; and of the dervishes on a cosmic plane—resonated with him. “It was the ultimate kitchen, and it stayed with me for a long time," says Abel.

It’s an experience Abel has sought to reinterpret in the production of The Kitchen.

During the show, two actors will cook on stage the Pal Payasam sweet preparation that is often given as prasad in the temples of south India. Twelve Mizhavu drummers will beat out a rhythm that follows the pace of the cooking. So the drums will pick up the tempo as the food cooks, reaching a crescendo when the prasad is ready. The audience will also be able to see the “emotional cooking" of the actors, even as the ingredients in the pots come to a boil. And finally, the audience will get to taste the payasam. “Sight, sound, smell, taste…"—Abel says the idea is to engage all the senses of the audience.

The music will also mirror the three levels of cooking—the natural rhythm of the cooking process, the emotional score of the actors’ experience and the beat of the drums. Abel adds that the choice of the Mizhavu drums was far from accidental. “It’s one of the oldest percussion instruments still in use and it is the only instrument that has a caste—it is a Brahmin and gets its own thread ceremony," says Abel.

Moreover, the Mizhavu is a copper drum with a hide stretched across the mouth. Copper is also the colour of the pots in which the payasam will be made. Even as it is the colour of a hugely important element of the stage set—a large copper drum contrived to seat the 12 drummers drawn from the Kerala Kalamandalam arts centre.

A graduate of the National School of Drama, Delhi, Abel is best known for The Manganiyar Seduction show featuring over 40 musicians from Rajasthan and a set that’s inspired in part by the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, and in part by the red light district of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The show has travelled to the UK, US, Germany, Austria and Australia, among other places, since it opened in New Delhi in 2006.

Abel explains that though he understands the impulse to compare the two, the monotonic arrangement of The Kitchen is in fact nothing like The Manganiyar Seduction, which shows the musicians seated in bright red boxes. “The only thing similar is the vertical seating of it," he says.

The Kitchen will play at 7.30pm from 1-4 August at Ranga Shankara, 36/2, 8th Cross, 2nd Phase, JP Nagar (26493982). Tickets, 200, available on in.bookmyshow.com.