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Maker of grand spectacles

The remarkable theatre of Deepan Sivaraman, from Thrissur to Krakw

A packed show of ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’ in Kodungallur, Kerala. Photo: AJ Joji
A packed show of ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’ in Kodungallur, Kerala. Photo: AJ Joji

Almost two decades have elapsed since director and scenographer Deepan Sivaraman graduated from his alma mater, the University of Calicut’s School of Drama in Thrissur. The son of a carpenter from Vasupuram village, Sivaraman was predisposed to the visual arts, yet the stint at Thrissur, just 30km away but culturally distant, required a leap of faith.

“I had never even heard of the drama school before then," he says. It has been quite a journey from those humble beginnings to now, when he has assumed the mantle of an accomplished and prolific theatre auteur. A stint in 2003 at the reputed London art school, Central Saint Martins, on the back of a scholarship from the Charles Wallace India Trust saw him crystallizing an aesthetic style that gives his works a distinctive allure.

In 2008, he co-founded the Oxygen Theatre Company in Thrissur with other like-minded peers. Two of his breakout works as director and scenographer were the panoramic Spinal Cord in 2009, which won seven gongs at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) the next year, and Peer Gynt, adapted from the play in verse by Henrik Ibsen, in 2010. These two works cemented Sivaraman’s position as one of the more adventurous new theatre-makers on the horizon. Alongside Abhilash Pillai and Sankar Venkateswaran, among others, he is now considered to be one of the flag-bearers of a cultural renaissance in Kerala theatre. Peer Gynt was followed in 2012 by Ubu Roi, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s French classic, with the National School of Drama’s repertory company.

Recalling his time in London, he says, “By that time I had developed a core interest in the visual language of performance." His early works included proscenium pieces, which stand in marked contrast to his recent oeuvre, with its unconventional and even radical approach towards space and spectatorship. “Being a scenographer was a credential unheard of in Indian theatre circles at that time," he says.

More than the curriculum, it was the exposure to international theatre in London that Sivaraman found especially valuable. “I remember holing myself up in the library for 12-16 hours, watching everything I could find in the digital archives," he says. Yet classically Western works didn’t really stoke his appetite.

A visit to Kraków, Poland, for a three-month exchange programme gave him access to Eastern European theatre. “This was an important turning point in my theatre career," he says. Although less-known outside Europe, it is an invigorating theatre culture born out of subsidy and repression. Sivaraman’s eschewing of purely text-oriented works for more visceral theatre can be traced to this influence.

Sivaraman, who has been an associate professor of theatre at Delhi’s Ambedkar University for four years, also directs plays there under the aegis of the Performance Studies Collective. In his recent works at the university, the impulses of storytelling and visual delineation come across as forces of opposition rather than consonance. This clash of sensibilities can sometimes result in a piece like the site-specific work, It’s Cold In Here (2014), which draws selectively from a Gabriel García Márquez novella, Innocent Eréndira.

This is a curriculum presentation performed by students, in which myriad aspects of spectatorship have been coalesced for the purposes of exposition—Sivaraman leads a course that deals specifically with such notions of live performance. It is rather like an art installation, despite being a dramatic piece that is far from static, as audiences are encouraged to move around in a space in an immersive, if not quite interactive, manner. These markers of cutting-edge art seem gimmicky at times. The play feels a little like Sivaraman showing his hand, even if it is all smoke and mirrors.

In The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (2015), once again the mise-en-scène swamps the very qualities that made the original 1920 silent film such a marvel of German Expressionism. A defunct workshop is commandeered to create the play’s ambience, with forbidding shadows painted on the floors, taps spouting blood, and a backdrop of old Godrej “storewells" evoking office drudgery as death sentence. It is a feat of production design that has been widely acclaimed. Yet, when taken together with the stilted performances, the wall-to-wall projections of overproduced visuals, and languid pace, it amounts to artistic overkill.

However, with his latest play Khasakkinte Itihasam, which takes place in a large open-air arena, Sivaraman’s forte for spectacle comes into its own quite magnificently. Based on the novel by O.V. Vijayan, this is a play seeped in an ethos rooted in Kerala culture, yet the theatrical design is state-of-the-art. Sivaraman has worked with a motivated collective of local theatre enthusiasts from Trikaripur, and the play can be seen as a homecoming of sorts for a prodigal son whose works have often been seen as culturally alien by theatre purists in the state. “My rural background, coupled with the fact that I have lived in an urban milieu for 20 years, has allowed me to mount such a production," he says.

The production includes extensive use of fire, water and earth, and employs a spirited cast, whose unlearned ways add a rustic character that is robust and authentic. There are certainly indulgences, with a few visual motifs milked to exhaustion in a show that extends to well over 3 hours. Some set pieces appear to be mandated more by spectacle than narrative fealty, but not to poor effect. However, there is a veracity that is powerful and compelling, without any of the philosophical and existential elements that made the novel such a seminal manuscript being pared out.

Khasakkinte Itihasam is being staged at the Ganpat Seth Tandel Maidan in Seawoods, Navi Mumbai, over three days, till Sunday. It’s the first time a Sivaraman production is being performed in this city—an initiation of sorts for theatre-goers.

Tickets, Rs500 and Rs1,000, available on

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