A Legend in the Land of Myths

An azure sky blazed over Thrikkarippur on that September day. Heaps of cumulous clouds lazily floated along. There was no sign of any rain. The sun burnt down relentlessly upon the enormous green canopy of the huge banyan trees at Aalumvalappu at Edattuvayal, drawing patterns on the ground beneath which bustled with activity. The open ground dotted with ancient, mythical banyan trees was getting all set to bring alive another myth – the legend of Khasak.

There is no need to introduce Khasak to any Malayali who knows her/his language closely enough. It is the Malayali’s Maconda. The characters created by O.V. Vijayan decades ago still breathe and pulse with life in the hearts of everyone who has read them at least once in their life-time. And it is no little challenge to attempt transposing them into another space, especially that of a theatrical space.

Yet that was what Deepan Sivaraman was getting ready to do, under that September sky, with the vibrant support of the local organisers, the KMK Kala Samithi, Thrikkarippur. Keeping with his trust for the intimate theatre space, Deepan had chosen the open ground of Aalumvalappu, under the shadows cast by the sprawling banyan trees. The arena space with gallery seating on three sides and one huge metal projection screen marking the fourth side was dotted with the gnarled aerial roots of the banyan trees, creating a mythical ambience as beams of light fell upon them.

An unscheduled interlude

A poster of the play
A poster of the play

As darkness fell and the audience filed in, the air was vibrant with expectation. But, no one knew when the clouds started looming up. The thick canopy must have blocked the drizzle for some time, but then the flood gates were opened. As the torrential rain burst down, the play was immediately suspended. The audience filed out in silence and the technical crew quickly covered up the equipments. The entire team was shattered, yet resolute.

The next day, by noon, the whole performance space and the galleries were covered up securely. However, the gnarled roots disappeared. The lights were brought down from the branches. The canopy disappeared. There was no other way. The air was charged as the team took up the challenge.

And, then ‘The Legend of Khasak’ unfolded without hitches. Running well into three and a half hours, the play moved in a linear narration keeping with the original structure of the novel, but for the opening and closing scenes. All the elements and devices that Deepan applied merged well with the structure of the play.

The elements sets the tone

Ascene from 'Khasak'
A scene from ‘Khasak’

The elements, especially Fire and Water, had an overwhelming presence throughout the play, which opened with burning torches and ended with the torrential rain pouring down on Khasak. The translucent sheet of rain that cut across the performance space mid-way had created magical dreamscapes. The almost insane use of fire in all its conceivable manifestations had set the tone for the play- the burning, all consuming, never-dying blaze of life, which forms the core of O.V. Vijayan’s work.

It was interesting to remember that the use of fire is something that comes spontaneously to the local people. After all, it is the Theyyam country. And, Aalumvalappu, where The Legend of Khasak unfolded, is originally the space where the Theyyam performances are held annually.

The dream-like (or, rather nightmarish) opening sequence that nudged at the deep-set and forgotten fears and notions that are etched into the collective psyche of our people (which still lie there despite the interventions of technology).

The muffled and rumbling narration arising as if from the womb of the earth, from under the layers of soil, catches the torch-bearing figures in mid way. They pause, listen and turn back. They go in search of this place that has disappeared under layers of earth. It is a dead village. Village of the dead people. Like them, the torch-bearing souls, wandering in between the worlds.

Deepan’s Khasak belongs to the land of the dead. “Especially since the death of Vijayan, the novel gives forth a different reading to me. Khasak belongs to the bygone days. And its people rise from beneath the layers of earth that cover their graves to tell their stories.”

The notions of ‘being dug out’ and ‘being buried deep down’ kept appearing throughout the play’s structure as the characters went through life cycles terminating in burials. The presence of Earth had literally grounded the play.

Exploring the myth that is Khasak

More than the existential angst of Ravi, which had always been the most celebrated aspect of the novel, Deepan explores the myth that is Khasak, the magical realm created through the existence of all those myriad characters. The village tea shop and Madhavan Nair’s tailoring shop were placed in slightly dug out earth, as if ancient ruins being excavated. “It’s like an excavation site,” exclaims Deepan.

The evocative music designed by the exemplary theatre musician Chandran Veyyattummel provides a perfect backdrop for this mythical journey. “In this, I’ve used only the music that I’d learnt as a child,” Chandran points out. “I’ve not added anything that I learnt afterwards. And I haven’t ‘cleaned’ it. Though I could’ve ‘cleaned’ it, I deliberately left it raw. Otherwise, it won’t be theatre music, but film music, rather.”

The light design created by Jose Koshy merged seamlessly with the flickering tongues of flames that kept throwing a tough challenge for the distribution of artificial lighting. Light falling through the primordial looking aerial roots of the banyan trees was a sight that disappeared after the performance space had to be covered up following the rain hazard. The puppets and masks designed by the visual artist Anto George lent depth to the play with their sensitive expressions and frozen sadness.

Costumes by Aliyar Ali were well-researched and period-specific. The video projection helped to take the narration forward by supplementing the incidents taking place in the performance space. The projected images included certain sequences of the novel that were staged earlier and recorded, like the death of the character, Mungamkozhi. While the images of the drowned man being taken out of the well was running on the screen, the actor was being buried till his neck in the performance space, with scoops of wet earth being ritualistically thrown at him.

The team of actors, all drawn from Thrikkarippur or nearby villages like Annur or Vellur, incorporating people from all age groups including a bunch of energetic children, came up with exemplary performance, ready to go to any extreme in order to achieve the perfection that the director intended.

The Deepan touch

Deepan Sivaraman
Deepan Sivaraman

The play had the general air of an ancient ritual being enacted, which had been one of Deepan’s underlying motifs in his earlier works also. In fact, ‘The Legend of Khasak,’ had most of the motifs and devices that Deepan had employed in his earlier works including the performance space with audience seated on three sides in galleries. However, here, the devices were getting more developed and often worked better than in many of the earlier productions. The boxes out of which the characters would emerge had become enclosures depicting the domestic scenes. The use of the different types of smell, the distribution of food, its taste and smell – all became part of the legend.

‘Khasak,’ had been a literary work that Deepan had carried with him for long. In 2006, he had worked with Abhilash Pillai, when the latter directed the production, ‘Palmgrove Tales,’ based on the novel for the Calicut University School of Drama, Thrissur with the collaboration of the students of Central St. Martin’s College of UK. It was adapted, scripted and designed by Deepan.

At Thrikkarippur, the ‘Legend of Khasak’ was staged continuously for three days, though heavy rains continued to lash throughout of the remaining days. Having had to cover up the space had somewhat changed the overall feel of the production also. However, the organisers are planning to stage the play again, in December, running almost for one week, at the same venue.

The play may travel, both inside and outside Kerala, though the logistics are quite complex. However, the true and deepest spirit of this production might be manifested best in this original milieu, under the ancient banyan trees of Aalumvalappu, in the land of the most primeval myths.

(Originally posted in http://keralatheatre.blogspot.in/)