A dramatic journey across borders
- Renu Ramanath, Kochi
e-mail: renuramanath@hotmail.com

September 23, 2010

A lot of common premises exist between India and the South American (or, Latin American) countries, like the status of being Third World or, the historical baggage of being colonised.

And, for Kerala, it's always been the most intense love affair, with a majority of the reading public being weaned on Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Pablo Neruda, nothing to tell of the overriding passion for Latin American football! The addiction to Latin American literature has grown to the extent that as soon as the new works by prominent Latin American authors hit the Western markets, publishers in far-off Kerala get the official rights for the Malayalam translation, which hit the local book stalls within a matter of months.

So, what happens when a group of young performing artists from both regions gather under one roof and put their heads together? What all commonalities of socio-politico-cultural aspects would be discovered among them? What would be the disparities that'd pop up? How would the barriers of language be tackled? (Most of South Americans are as familiar with English as Indians are with Spanish or Portuguese.) Above all, what common grounds of human experiences would all of them choose to share among themselves?

The result of all these quests was 'Temple of Experience Proprietor: Coffee Guru,' a 60 minute-long 'Indo-South American (Chile Argentinean) collaborated performance,' that took the viewers on a roller-coaster ride of laughter laced with sensitive solemn glimpses into the states of human nature.

Directed by Prabhath Bhaskaran, a young theatre person hailing from Kerala (currently based in Pondicherry), this production was the result of an intense 20-day-long workshop held in Cheliya, Koyilandy, near Kozhikode in Kerala under the auspices of Sadhana India. The cast included Verna Perez, Ana Gonzalez, Macarena Rubio (all from Chile), Carla Guida Johnson from Argentina, and Martin Chalissery, from Thrissur, in Kerala. Dramaturgy of the play was by Sankar Venkateswaran, the noted young theatre person and musician, with technical direction by Manoj V Mathai and music by Ana Gonzalez.

'Coffee Guru' was staged at various important centres in Kerala recently, including the School of Drama, Thrissur, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Ernakulam and Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Regional Theatre, Thrissur, eliciting quite a positive response from the audience.

Loosely based on a short story by the late Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer that tells the tale of a pickpocket and an unsuspecting victim, 'Coffee Guru' weaves through three tales, or rather, life experiences as narrated or enacted by the owner of a café and her guests, diligently assisted by Jojo, the waiter (the Coffee Guru). Of course, the owner is a foreign woman ('Madamma'/ the commonly used Malayalam word to denote any foreign woman) and the waiter, a Malayali, who partly acts as interpreter or translator for the Spanish that the 'Madamma' speaks.

The stories are smoothly interwoven into the plot that moves quickly, without pauses, throughout the 60 minutes of action. As each character offers to narrate her 'experience,' at the request (command?) of the owner of the 'Temple of Experience,' it is decided that the scenes should be enacted, the enactment becoming the play within the play. Jojo, the waiter, diligently arranges the 'set' for the play to be enacted within the set of the cafe, creating the post office, or the mental asylum, all with very simple rearrangement of the minimal properties. And, within seconds the actors change costumes, transforming themselves into the characters of the play within the play and back.

In fact, the above mentioned questions were the exact premises from where the group started working. The story/stories evolved through improvisations, more or less as illustrations for the major concerns discussed by the team. "Language was the main point explored in the beginning," explains Prabhath Bhaskaran. "Like, what should be the language for communicating, along with questions like, what comes as common across the barriers of borders and languages? Humanity? Ideology?"

As the discussions progressed, the major concerns around which the play was constructed started to evolve, with 'Humanity' becoming the basis from which stemmed the fundamental concerns discussed in the production. How to reach out to the common people was another issue that came up. "Maybe, that's an issue faced by theatre the world over," points out Prabhath. Also, the idea of play as 'play' was discussed. As language barrier was the first issue to be tackled, it was decided that each actor would speak her/his mother tongue, occasionally switching over to English. Jojo, performed by Martin Chalissery, acts as the translator, as the play was performed before an audience that hardly understands Spanish.

There is a mathematical precision about this play. And repetition. "I like mathematics, and repetition," says Prabhath. "Making repetitions lead to them looking like they're not repetitions. And, the martial art forms, like kalari, all have some repetitions."

The diverse backgrounds of the actors also contributed to the challenge of play-making, points out Bhaskaran. Only three of them, including Martin, had previous experience of theatre. While Ana Gonzalez is basically a singer, Macarena is a contemporary dancer, with a Butoh training. Verna Perez, who has worked in a music opera group, has been focussing on physical acting alone. And, Carla has been specialising in Clown Acting for the last five or seven years.

The dramaturgy was developed by Sankar Venkateswaran by interweaving the original seed of the Basheer story into the autobigraphical / fictional situations improvised by the actors. However, the Basheer story was introduced to the actors only at a later stage and that too, just through one reading. It was more or less the main peg from which the play was suspended.

Only the first of the tales, the scene in which a murder was being enacted, was completely fictional, all the others emerging from the actors' real life experiences. In the 'Post Office Scene,' a bag left at a post office by a visitor causes panic. The 'Asylum Scene' narrates the story of the inmates of a mental asylum and how the patients escape with the help of the watchman, who admires one of the patients for her singing. It turns out the singer / ex-patient and the ex-watchman are running 'Temple of Experience.' Scene returns to the coffee shop, and it is closing time. Guests are requested to settle their bills, when one of them discovers her purse has been stolen. An unbelieving owner confiscates all her belongings, including clothes, when another guest declares herself to be the pickpocket! It is a happy ending, stressing the eventual triumph of humanity and goodwill.

The play had no recorded sound track, with the entire invigourating music being provided live by Ana Gonzalez, with all the others joining in her songs now and then.

Renu Ramanath is a Kochi-based art writer and columnist, specialising in visual arts, classical and contemporary performing arts, architecture and development issues. She was a reporter of The Hindu in Kochi bureau during 1997 - 2007 and currently edits Art Concerns (www.artconcerns.com), an online journal for contemporary Indian art.