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SANKAR VENKATESWARAN――Gazing Upon the World from Kerala, India

Interview / Asia Hundreds

Experiences of directing out of India

Uchino: Another thing that you are now doing is, well, at the moment, you are directing a play in Singapore and you've been presenting some works in Munich as well. What is your interest in doing that kind of work?

Sankar: Both are intercultural. And these are opportunities I get. I don't decline opportunities. I take it up as a challenge.

Uchino: When you present a piece in Munich, you really have to see the context that the Munich audience or the dramaturges, are working in and how German theatre operates. How are you doing there?

Sankar: Tough.

Uchino: In terms of what?

Sankar: Different work disciplines. Different work. Professional way of working and very structured, institutionalized way of working. You can't go, break it, and do things.

Uchino: What was the name of the work that you've already done with the Volkstheater in Munich?

Sankar: The first piece was called Tage der Dunkelheit, Days of Darkness. The second piece is called Indika.

Uchino: Can you describe a little bit about the work?

Sankar: It was a time when the war in Syria, war in the Middle East was going on. For me that was – when I go from India to Europe to work, it didn't make sense for me to do an Ibsen or a Shakespeare. I thought I should take something from an Indian epic, so I chose an episode from Mahabharata. It's an old play which questions the righteousness in adopting undemocratic ways to establish democracy.

Uchino: The text itself was written by an Indian playwright?

Sankar: Yes. By Bhasa. It's a classic. People say it was written between second century BC and fifth century CE.

Uchino: Okay. It's written in Sanskrit?

Sankar: Written in Sanskrit.

Uchino: Okay.

Sankar: Yeah. Then translated and adapted in German.

Uchino: That was the first one. The second one as well?

Sankar: No, the second one was devised, which wasbased on the chronicles of Megasthenes. Megasthenes was the Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court in India. That was the time when the idea of centralized states, currency and economy and caste and all these things were – the institutionalization of all these hierarchical structures were happening. Megasthenes sort of chronicles the social transformations in his text called Indica. It's a lost book. There are historians who have taken elements from his writings and then using all this I devised a piece.

Uchino: How did you deal with German actors? How did you train them? Were they against playing an Indian character?

Sankar: No. There are some very creative and experimental actors who are eager to try new things.

Uchino: All right. How good were they from your perspective?

Sankar: They have a very different discipline and approach to work from that of mine. In spite of this difference, I found some of them really good and I enjoyed working with them. They were also very inspiring actors to work with.

Uchino: Is there going to be the third opportunity?

Sankar: Hopefully, yeah.

Uchino: I was just wondering if you are doing too much Indian material that the audience would react that this is a very exotic piece of work that I am watching. What was the response from the German audience?

Sankar: There are elements of this Indianness and all but we are talking about things like of today...

Uchino: The war, death.

Sankar: Yeah. Today, war, death, money, economy. Again, at the end of the day I think it talks about us today and that's why we do those things of the past. It's not just to tell the story of the past.

Uchino: So, you didn't really try to bring a lot of Indian elements to the production, I would assume. What kind of music did you use? Did you use Indian music?

Sankar: Not Indian music. I had a composer from China in my second work, and No Indian appearance. No Indian costumes. They speak German. It's about a group of German actors looking at an Indian story and taking what is of value to the life of Germany today.

A photo of Mr. Sankar Venkateswaran during the interview

Uchino: That's great. And now you're working on the production in Singapore?

Sankar: Yes.

Uchino: And what is it?

Sankar: It's When We did Awaken by Ibsen.

Uchino: Ibsen. And you're working with the students there?

Sankar: They are student actors in their final year. It is not like a company and there is no sort of – it's more of learning, sharing, understanding experiment.

Uchino: Is there any change in the sensitivities or the ideologies or whatever of the students of ITI (Intercultural Theatre Institute; this is the relaunched new name of TTRP) compared to the time that you were attending 10 years ago? You find something different now with the students?

Sankar: Every cohort I have seen a difference because they get different teachers every year. There are only like these traditional theaters, which remain constant, and their vision, but the contemporary training modules always change.

Uchino: Where do the student actors come from?

Sankar: Singapore, Malaysia and India.

Artistic Director for International Theatre Festival of Kerala

Uchino: I have to ask you two more questions. One is about the festival that you were doing for 2 years in Kerala. It's called International Theater Festival of Kerala, which is sponsored by the state government. I was there for the first year in 2015 and you were excluding productions from Europe.

Sankar: Yes.

Uchino: What was your idea behind this decision?

Sankar: If you look through the years that preceded my editions of the festival – in the early years defined by nation state boundaries. The first year they had South Asian theater companies presenting. Then, the next edition was African and Asian theater festival. Then, it was Latin American theater festival. The festival was slowly becoming visible and the European cultural organizations started to push their works into it. So, for the next 3 years, we had a lot of works from Europe and nowhere else.

And then, it was starting to become a bit more frustrating when there are too many works that you are unable to relate to, because these were recommendations from European cultural agencies without really understanding the audience of Kerala. And, they would send what is traveling around this region and what is easy logistically. And, they will try and push this and the festival organizer couldn't also say no because their travel cost was covered. So, you just have to take it, whatever it is given.

So, the only way to sort of put an end to it was to say, no. And then, what? It was important for me to look at the major social transformations of the time, within India and abroad. And at that time it was the Arab Spring in the global context and the rise of the right within the Indian context. In my first year was, we had works from Tunisia, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, all these countries which are closer but are really far away. It's easier to get a production from the UK or Germany or from France but it's very difficult to get a company from Lebanon or Palestine to come and show their works in Kerala. And also from the East ARICA from Japan, Venuri Perera from Sri Lanka performed that year, Choy Ka Fai performed that year. To look at these kind of – like what is happening in our region that was my impulse. That's my reason for saying no to Europe. . Even then it was difficult. There was this production of this Helena Waldmann*12 's Made in Bangladesh.

*12 Helena Waldmann is a Berlin-based theater director, set designer and choreographer. Since 1993, she has attracted worldwide attention and in 2003 received the UNESCO Prize for her work "Headhunters", a co-production with a Brazilian choreographer. "Letters from Tentland", which she produced with Iranian female actors, caused a sensation in 2005. "Made in Bangladesh" is a piece which deals with the problem of working conditions that female factory workers in Bangladesh endure and features the traditional Kathak dance.

Uchino: You left after two years. What is happening now in 2017-18? Abhilash Pilai came back as an artistic director?

Sankar: The communist party came back to power. Abhilash last year. Then you see, this year what has happened is, for me it's a bit very sad, we have the communist government and they wanted to democratize the artistic process. So, we have three member festival directorates. And, the state decided a theme, which was highly problematic for me because they set a theme "Theater of the Marginalized" in singular, and the slogan was "Reclaiming the Margins". And, now when the state says this, it is very tricky. The moment you say marginalized you are creating this big divide. Then you are putting artists on stage and – objectifying them as marginalized while assuming a sort of centrality. Then, it's re-inscribing marginality and reinforcing the same hierarchies, instead of dismantling them.

Uchino: It's too politically correct.

Sankar: Exactly. It's politically incorrect.

Uchino: No, it's too politically correct so it doesn't work. That's what I'm saying.

Sankar: Wow. Yeah.

Uchino: But, it's going to change soon, right?

Sankar: I don't know. The central government is very Hindu fundamentalists and they don't have the sense of political correctness at all. That's why probably Kerala government is more keen to do the political correctness, which, from the radical point of view, is not politically correct at all, but from their point of view it is and we really have to do something politically correct, right?