Marks and Sparks in Performance during the Pandemic

Marks an innovative and interactive performance by Abheesh Sasidharan and team is a unique theatrical and performance-based artistic enterprise. It is played before the people from 2021 October 4 to 8. This collective aesthetic venture is performed in collaboration with School of Drama of Calicut University at Aranattukara campus near Thrissur. It is an artistic homage to the legendary British architect who became an Indian, Mr Laurie Baker (1917-2007) who is the master architect of the still versatile and diverse structures there standing in the Aranattukara campus. Architecture, theatre, nature, performance and the people become one in an intertwined aesthetic and truly polyphonic experience.

Marks by Aheesh Sasidharan at School of Drama Trisur 2021. Photo: Ajay Sekher

The whole theatre fraternity and community at the School of Drama are involved in the elaborate moving performance. Techno-art and conservationist politics merge with human rights issues and the critique of the hierarchical society in the context of intersectionality and graded inequality. A scathing critique of power and totalitarianism is the deeply impinged impetus of the cultural event. Animalization and demonization of the human, othering and dehumanization and the biopower and resistance potential of the subjugated form a key contemporary theme that is theatrically explored and multi-vocally enacted from the beginning to the end in deeply intricate and multi-sensory ways. The various little episodes are linked through the narrative/s of motion and change. Truly multi-cultural or polyphonic vision and multi-sensory experiences make it an engaging artistic creation or combined and involved making or production of social democracy and justice at large.

From the performance Marks at School of Drama, a homage to Laurie Baker too

 The concern for humanity, life at large and ecology are thrust areas of this key artistic intervention. The very survival and sustenance of life during the contagion and the the current conjecture involving totalitarian and monopoly formations both in Kerala and India and the world at large become the real setting and context of this ethical and political act of art. A new performance idiom and language of collaborative and participatory action are also evolved through exploring the non-visual and auditory stimuli. Touch, smell, and temperature differences and sensations are also utilized dexterously in the production. Eye masking and sense of taste are subtly embedded into the performance choreography and syncretic text. The whole world becomes players and performance makers in this unison.

Animalization and othering as dramatized in Marks by Abheesh Sasidharan at SoD Trisur

Marks leaves deep and engaging imprints of life and art onto the body and mind of the engaged moving audience as they are guided through the dark interiors and starlit exteriors and the drizzling thickets and the wet hedges skirting the old bare-brick architectural ensemble in an island like landscape amidst vast Kol wetlands and paddy fields of Thrissur suburbia. The natural vegetation, huge and meandering mango trees and other wild plants that literally engulf the campus in an ethereal way in the light showers and magical lightning as the gentle rain or rainbow from heaven become the organic arena and real-life props of the performance. The twittering of the birds and their soft landing and cajoling near our ears, shoulders, and neck are mesmerizing and scintillating. The elephant encounter in the blinded play within the play is unforgettable. The smell of the wild tuskers in the humid air becomes part of our senses and reflexes.

Surviving the pandemic through agriculture and culture as depicted in Marks by Abheesh Sasidharan

Solar and dynamo-like renewable energy sources are used for lighting and minimal illuminations that sparks critical and creative thoughts, affects and emotions in the audience in intricate ways. It is a watershed in the history of performance in Kerala as its true predecessor Madness done by Abheesh on the short fiction of C Ayyappan earlier in Kochi in 2019 within a moving Ambassador motor car at Tripunitura.

Intimate and multi-sensory peformance in Marks by Abheesh Sasidharan at SoD Trisur 2021.

The improvisational and contextually evolving theatrical language used in tandem with the performers who are students and academic exponents of theatre and performance make it unique and historic once again. This collective and collaborative artwork involves and actively engages the audience in creating the music of life and a true polyphony of community and collective survival in the time of the pandemic. Let it be a new beginning for theatre and performance in Kerala after the colossal wreck of the cultural space during the pandemic.

Dr Ajay S Sekher  

5 October 2021.

ajaysekher@gmail.com +91 9895797798

The Worldliness of Compassionate Art: Alapuzha as the New Art Hub

An installation featuring the light house at Alapuzha in the Lokame art show

The World is One Family, an art show at Alapuzha that began in April 2021; curated by Bose Krishnamachari the leading artist and curator, and one of the pioneers of the Biennale movement in Kerala is a dexterous and detailed depiction of contemporary art in Kerala. Five heritage monuments of the colonial era in the city in and around Vellapally suburb are renovated to feature the vibrant and diverse expressions of the young artists of Kerala in an ingenious way.

After the success of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the artful curator and his team have moved south to Alapuzha or Aleppey to bring the art world’s focus to this old port town by the Arabian Sea. History, culture, society, heritage, and art are brought together in an unprecedented and illuminating way here.

Metal sculpture by K S Radhakrisnan at Port Museum, Alapuzha art show

It is a truly contemporary, futuristic, and commendable act in the pandemic for the artists and the general public. The Kerala Government that is part of its organization must step in to make it more useful and popular with the local people of Alapuzha. Because of the lockdown, the public entry is restricted now. The opportunities to open it up for the people are to be devised and materialised.

At the same time, it also raises many questions on the representation, presentation, inclusion/exclusion, and showcasing of art in a democratic world, especially in the context of historic over-representation and gross monopolies in art, culture, academia, media, public service and politics in Kerala by the historically advantaged elites. The very concept and keyword of Taravadu is a contested category as it is derived from the elitist high culture of Kerala often notorious for social exclusion, power monopolies, and subtle and invisible casteist hierarchy operated in aesthetic sophistication and clinical precision.

As the elite exclusionary culture is often associated with the notion of the safe soil and reinforced raised ground of Tara and Tarakkoottam or Taravadu the people’s culture is often associated with toponyms and geo-cultural tags like the Chery or Pally that are keywords of culture in the whole of South India, derived from ancient Pali and Tamil, dating back to the Sangam culture and Asokan missionary age the foundation of Kerala’s composite culture. The very part of the city that houses the old Coir Corporation buildings is known as Vellapally the ancient seat of a white Vihara like Kadakarapally to the north associated with Itty Achudan Vaidiar. This enlightened people’s culture has recreated the modernity and renaissance of Kerala in the wake of European colonial intervention in the 19th century.

E G Chitra’ sculpture in Alapuzha art show

Art practice, performance, and art curation need to be more egalitarian, ethical, inclusive, compassionate, and sensitive to the cultural history and regional manifestations of culture at the grassroots levels. The micro-politics of culture must be reflected in art and its representations.

There are multiple works by women artists on the politics of gender and gender hierarchy and inequality from the context of Kerala, that are to be appreciated. But that much intensity or accent is not given to the much more entrenched issue of social hierarchy and caste inequality which is the rooted form of hegemony and violence in India and Kerala, when caste walls, wells, schools, roads, and even brutal caste killings are coming back as in Kevin Joseph murder at Tenmala and Aneesh at Tenkurisi in Palakad in recent times.

In a state where even daily waged working women are able to hurl casteist abuse at an aged and male Chief Minister in public as in the infamous episode of Mrs. Mani Pilla abusing Mr. Pinarayi Vijayan with a casteist slur in public on camera during the 2018 Sabarimala Viswasi riots; we must realise and address the crucial issue of caste and its material and symbolic violence in art and politics in truthful ways. It proves that caste is much more deeply inscribed in the body politic of Kerala and India than gender or class.

From the Alapuzha art show 2021

Such pertinent and rudimentary socio-cultural and political issues are to be represented in an art that is socio-politically sensitive, egalitarian, and democratic. Such awareness of the world makes it worldly and compassionate. Art gains transformative powers and values in society only through such a keen sense of truth and justice rather than mere cliched aestheticism and esoteric idiom.

Anyway, it is a great effort and opportunity and a creative beginning for the aspiring and practicing young artists of Kerala, who are working locally and also globally in myriad ways for a more wholesome and brave new world. Salutes to Bose and his team for this visually engaging act of worldliness and compassion.

Dr Ajay S Sekher

ajaysekher@gmail.com +919895797798