I found myself bereft of words. Unable to even write a tribute but the truth is – he doesn’t need anyone else’s words. His own words will keep him alive forever.
Kavalam Narayana Panikkar.
I first met him as a newbie writer with her screenplay. A typical film-school-product I was probably too clear about the film in my head, but not entirely confident about the language and cultural ethos. I wanted his opinion on this aspect but what I got was so much more. Not for him were the needlessly intellectualized or the pretentious. His search was for simplicity and complexity in stories finding myths that swim through them in time and space. He said – “Myths are important because they remain relevant in any age. Exploring the myth in your story will reveal many layers. Let the audience have a chance to discover them.” He reminded me of stories I had heard as a child, in my mother’s voice and through classical dance and music. I had pushed them into the backroom of my sub-conscience in the rush to forge my identity as a filmmaker. He urged me to connect everything.
Our mediums were different – the stage and the frame, but the tools were not. I had the privilege to know him, to be guided by him and the special opportunity to witness his process as a director while we visually documented his theatre work. I remember my cameraman Tribhuvan Babu suddenly turning around before a shot to say- “so much in you has changed since we started shooting with Kavalam Sir.” Yes, it is true, and I shall always be thankful to Sir for it. That was ten years ago and I have many experiences of his personal warmth, guidance and creative inputs but most importantly, he was inspiration in the most concentrated form. Even though I last saw Sir lying in state at the kalari, my memory of him is one of heightened energy with a twinkle in his eye.
He treated his work like poetry. Each thing mattered – every word, every prop, every movement. The significance of each component and the meaning it adds up to; Finding opportunity in every aspect of the stage to create the world and the communicate a thought; Being aware of subtext in words, visual and sound and the tales it tells to our subconscience; the childlike exploration of a concept, a theme and finding its nuances. Misc-en-scene lessons at film school didn’t hold a candle to how he went about his work in theatre. I was first surprised and then amazed by his attention to minutest detail.
He never believed in a monolithic audience. He would say “if there are hundred audience members, there will hundred receptive levels. Every one will never experience a performance at the same level. It varies… how does it vary? And on what basis it varies? It varies only on the basis of their own individual cultural quality.” He respected the audience as the one who participates in the creative artiste’s work. “Na hi rasadrite kaschidarthah pravartate” i.e., Without evoking rasa (the emotional engagement of the audience), no meaningful idea is transmitted. His interpretation of the Natyashastra and the Rasa theory were not limited to academics but were part of his practice for thirty-five years.
He had a gentle approach to nudge people and help them grow towards a certain direction; His family includes the theatre group Sopanam where artistes have played every role, done every job and remain ready to do his bidding. But never have I seen him command them. It has always been “angane cheythu nokaamo?” /“shall we try that?” The tone was always respectful, collaborative and blameless. The egoless nature of the process is truly remarkable. With some pushy artistes he let them make their own mistakes but was always around to help find a new solution.
He constantly explored new ideas, often throwing the question out into the open at his kalari – “how shall we do this?” He patiently heard suggestions from anyone and everyone, and evaluated the suggestion in absolute value not bothered about where it came from. His creativity was a journey of improvisation and interpretation and not some fixed destination. During performances I have seen him run from the backstage to the audience seats, back to the wings, to convey a last minute adjustment.This could happen even if this was a play that that his troupe had been staging for more than a decade!
He embraced Kerala by immersing the stories in her culture, language, music, movements, beliefs, colours, landscape and therefore her people. “Doesn’t this hold true for the land of every story that has to be told?” He made it sound so simple even when it wasn’t. Our film Manjadikuru begins with a song that Sir wrote and sang –
Manne nambi elelo, verirukku ailasa,
vere nambi elelo, maramirukku ailasa,
marathe nambi elelo, ilayirukku ailasa,
ilaye nambi elelo, pazham irukku ailasa,
pazhathe nambi elelo, vithu irukku ailasa,
vithe nambi elelo, mannu irukku ailasa.
The cyclical dynamics of both nature and families, couldn’t have been expressed better.
He was never one to stand opposite you to teach. He was one who stood by you, even behind you and urged you to keep looking, keep seeking your own way.
I am not sure I have even a photograph with him. But does it matter? For he had more to teach me than any teacher I have had. His imprint of grace, learning and energy, is not one that will fade. Deepest gratitude and respect.