It was the brainchild of former Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi chairman Bharat Murali – an initiative that would change the face of theatre in the country. A theatre artist and film actor, Murali put forth a unique never-before-heard idea – 10 wonderful days dedicated only for theatre. It was in 2008. Over the years, the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) went on to become one of the major theatre festivals in the country. But as the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. From a normal festival that offers a platform for theatre on a temporary stage, ITFoK has evolved into an annual art jamboree beyond just plays.
As this year’s ITFoK concludes on Monday, the festival promises more to art enthusiasts and connoisseurs. The focus has widened from showcasing contemporary theatre to including other folk and traditional theatre forms in the country, especially before the groups from abroad. The theatre groups and artists engage in active, creative interactions, sharing and exchanging experience and knowledge. The first edition of the festival focused on Asian Theatre. Opening with a spectacular show of Chinese opera, the festival featured a National and Malayalam panorama and plays from SAARC countries. Performances, coupled with seminars, interactive sessions and exhibitions, each edition of ITFoK turned out to be a highly enriching experience. Year after year, theatre activists and enthusiasts landed in Thrissur in droves.
The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi has been doing every bit to raise the standard of the festival by selecting the best plays each year. “Unlike any other art form, theatre is much closer to the commoner. For the past four years, the ITFoK has been maintaining a gate-keeping process by a selected committee in choosing a relevant theme connected to common people,” says Akademi secretary N. Radhakrishnan Nair. This year’s festival’s focus was ‘marginalisation’. “We encourage a variety of genres, performances and creative interpretations of margins. Through this festival, we hope to have highlighted the power of the margins as a space for collective reflection, engagement and action… a place where silence is broken, old languages are revived, new ones are forged, and making the invisible, visible,” he adds.
However, unlike the previous editions, this year, ITFoK had a Festival Directorate that gladly gave space for issues like refugee crisis, gender inequality and problems faced by transgender persons. “The popularity of the festival is soaring tremendously even outside the country. So having a much-discussed issue like refugee crisis proves that we stand with the oppressed and downtrodden. Staging a play like Voicelessness from Iran, Palestine, Year Zero from Israel and Parayan Maranna Kathakal by a group of transgender people from Kerala are examples for it.”
Being the 60th anniversary of the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi and the tenth year of ITFoK, the Akademi is on a mission to make theatre more prominent, offering it necessary help.
“The government has promised to provide an annual budget allocation for ITFoK. We are also planning to build a ‘cultural corridor’ from Ramanilayam to Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in Thrissur. The PWD Ministry is expected to make an announcement soon. Also in the pipeline is a plan for a new two-storey theatre complex. Altogether, the festival leaves us with a promise – that it would continue the stride forward,” assures Nair.
Playwright Deepan Sivaraman, a regular face at the festival since its inception, says ITFoK has been a fertile playground for theatre artists in the country. “But we are still lagging in the global cultural calendar. We need to get more recognition and I hope this government can really help us reach there. It should have a separate office and a group of officials who are more into theatre. There should also be a panel of directors who can select each year’s festival directors in advance. If that happens, I can see ITFoK right on the top with all the famous international theatre festivals.” As the curtains fall for this year’s festival, hope the glory of ITFoK travels beyond borders and Kerala earns a respectable place on the global theatre map.