Noel Witts - Professor of Performing Arts


March 17, 2014


Kerala, in south west India, is edged by 360 miles of coastline, known as the Malabar Coast. It has a population of 31.8 million of which 56% are Hindu, 25% Muslim, and 19% Christian.  Fort Cochin is the area’s pre-eminent colonial trading post, with a history of shipping from Rome, China, the Arabian peninsula, Persia, East Africa, Portugal, Holland and Great Britain. It is also home to an extraordinary arts scene , both traditional and modern, and Thrissur, its capital, is a major cultural centre, hence the locale for the annual International Theatre Festival and colloquium. There are regular flights to Cochin from Birmingham via Dubai.


The event is now 6 years old and is directed by Professor Deepan Sivaraman, who works in the School of Cultural and Creative Expression at Ambedkar University, Delhi, a new university of only 4 years with a contemporary performance  curriculum at post-graduate level. His ambition for this year’s festival was to expose the transformations in theatre that have taken place to create contemporary performance practice, given that “Indian theatre has shown a little reluctance – induced by a post-colonial hangover of word-centred proscenium- based drama – in accepting this change”. The festival and colloquium tried to rectify what Sivaraman sees as an imbalance, and much of this report seeks to comment on this, while bearing in mind that the visual and performance work at Leeds Metropolitan University and in the UK generally acknowledges that contemporary performance is now a constellation of different practices.


The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi is a collection of indoor and outdoor theatre spaces which the Kerala Government makes available to a variety of performance groups of all types, running workshops and presenting regular programmes of work. It is a unique resource in India, located in the centre of Thrissur.


The ostensible themes of this year’s colloquium were the ways in which ‘ the lines of force that are set up during a performance that disrupt/connect/ or realign ways of seeing”. Although some of  the Indian and European festival performances brought by Sivaraman certainly demonstrated this, many of the colloquium presentations tended to be concerned with contemporary Indian issues,  with titles such as :  Talking about Gender, Gender Concerns in 21st century India, Proscenium, realism, and spectatorship in Indian theatre. There was little analysis of practice  and its seemed that the concerns mostly  still related to traditional frameworks as exemplified by the writer/actor/director relationship.  Indeed there seemed to be  some reluctance to discuss work which moved away from the traditional word-based drama, precisely the imbalance which the Artistic Director had emphasised in his curatorial note.


Given the above it was interesting to me to see the response to  my presentation on the many ways in which the ‘language’ of European Theatre had shifted over the last decades, foregrounding the work of Pina Bausch, Bobby Baker, The Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, Merce Cunningham, and many others. It was a real surprise to me that while several Indian colloquium participants claimed to have seen some of this work, there was barely any discussion of its significance, and we were quickly brought back to the word-based theatre, where people were evidently more comfortable. I was politely thanked for reminding the colloquium of these shifts, but little more. My interjections on the subject of the changed meaning of “text”, the need for a re-examination of the notion of training performance artists, the questionability of devising ‘foundation’ courses – all current European debates – were barely considered by the colloquium participants  and I  felt to be the European interloper who had somehow infiltrated an Indian world. But it quickly became   clear that while the older generation of teachers appear to hold to the traditional, the younger generation who were present were eager to engage in debate about what they regard as the new performance world which is influenced by technology and social media. There seemed to me to be a definite disjuncture between the artistic director’s views of contemporary theatre and the views expressed by many of the colloquium delegates.

It was especially strange to me that Professor Anurada Kapur, one of the senior figures present, and a convenor of the colloquium,  had, in her paper, talked about the radical work of some Indian women directors in the 1980s, who had ‘sought  to dismantle the conventional hierarchies of theatre-making driven by the word and goal-orientated narratives’. It would seem that these, for many of the colloquium participants, must have been seen as  historical distractions.

The conclusion I draw is that young potential Indian theatre makers of the IT/Social Media generation might have much to learn from a collaboration with the work at Leeds, especially those from Ambedkar University.


A book launch of the third edition of this, co-edited by myself and Teresa Brayshaw, was held outdoors on the penultimate day of the colloquium. This attracted much interest and many people would have bought copies, but the book is available only as an ebook  or in hardback from Amazon India, which is a hopeful sign. I left copies with the Artistic Director and the Festival venue.


Following Sivaraman’s curatorial intentions, and in apparent opposition to the more conservative tendencies presented by some senior Indian theatre figures, the performances were nearly all packed out – both Indian and foreign shows. For me the most innovative Indian shows were Roysten Abel’s “Kitchen Show’, an extraordinary combination of acting and Kerelan drumming on a huge scale, “Burning Flowers’, an outdoor collage of Indian and Polish (Biuro Podrozy) themes,  “The Winter’s Tale”, performed outdoors by Wide Aisle Productions,   and the very moving performance by the Abhinaya Research Centre, of a verbatim piece concerned with the current spate of rapes in India.

Of the foreign groups presented the most revelatory for the audience was the Slovakian Debris Company’s “Epic’, a combination of Brechtian techniques crossed with Robert Wilson. The formality of this European- based show excited audiences, who were amazed by the execution and discipline displayed. Here was a fine example of changed theatrical language which evidently spoke to Indian audiences. This was closely followed by the Sri Lankan performance of Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle’, played by a large and energetic ensemble in a portable tent.  The final show of the festival , from the National School of Drama Repertory Company, managed to show the whole festival’s dichotomy, being a narrative of family history by Mahesh Elkunchwar , which yet was played out against a split outside setting designed by Sivaraman, which potentially allowed simultaneous  episodes to be experienced. However the conventionality of the direction simply played against the potentiality of the post-modern setting – another of the Indian theatre puzzles which has remained with me as a result of this interesting exposure.

Noel Witts

February 2014

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