Two Mothers, Two Cultures, One Theatre


The North Karelian Arts Council in Finland sponsored a collaborative workshop between Lokadharmi in Kerala and artists from Finland. At the end of the seven-day workshop, which took place at Lokadharmi, a production had to be readied. This was accepted with an open mind but was a challenge in itself. The two groups of artists were meeting for the first time, and could not have been more different from each other in terms of culture, traditions of performance and work methodologies. Language was another barrier that had to be overcome and the only consoling aspect was that I knew Tuire Hindikka and Pirkko Kurikka, the director and playwright from Finland and that they knew me and my theatre. We share something in common; we both work mostly with improvisation to create the play, and love to use the actor as the fundamental source and means of our theatre.

We started working together with a thin storyline from 'Kalevala', the Finnish national epic. "There are two main themes in this: Mother's love (which does not finally change the son's fate) and the son's arrogance (which leads to destruction)" as Pirkko had scribbled to me in her first note. The participating artists were Eija Jalkanen, Mari Kortelainen, Anna Venalainen, Martta Hyytiainen, Janne Hyytiainen, (from Finland) along with Charu Narayanan, Adithye K Narayanan and Selvaraj VR (from Lokadharmi). The musicians' group comprised Laura Vuorjoki-Elo, Mammu Koskelo, Kishore NK and Antti Koukonen as the sound technician .The light designer, Gireesh Menon joined later. The play was to be directed by Tuire Hindikka and me with support from Pirkko Kurikka. I decided that the role of the director was to facilitate the devising of the play and to orient the actors towards arriving at a common style of performance.

The story line

Far in the North, young maidens are playing on the shore. One of them is the daughter (Anna Venalainen) of Louhi (Charu Narayanan), the mighty female shaman of the North. The daughter is dancing with her fiance (Adithye K Narayanan) and the other girls tease them.

Suddenly there comes Lemminkainen (Selvaraj VR), a charming stranger. He falls in love with Louhi's daughter. Both the fiancee and Louhi fight with him. Louhi humiliates him and despises him, because of his humble birth in a lower race.

Lemminkainen returns home, but cannot forget the maiden in the North. In spite of his mother's (Eija Jalkanen) and wife's (Mari Kortelainen) warnings, he decides to return to the North to get the girl. He leaves his mother with his hair brush, saying arrogantly: "When this brush bleeds, then you know I have been killed."

Louhi's daughter is tempted by Lemminkainen but her fiance enters, and a battle takes place between the two men. By accident, Louhi's daughter gets killed by her fiance during the battle. When Louhi finds her daughter dead, she kills Lemminkainen with her magical weapons.

In the realm of death, the King (Janne Hyytiainen) receives the two dead people, and they become part of the River of Death.

Louhi comes to the King and begs him to return her daughter, saying that the girl was innocent, and she as a mother is guilty. The King denies, and Louhi must go. Lemminkainen's mother also comes for her son. She begs the King to get her son back, because he has not fulfilled all the tasks meant for him. She offers herself to the River of Death (Martta Hyytianen), instead of her son. Finally she shows the King his hair brush, still bleeding. "If your son still bleeds, he is not dead. Take him away," says the King.

Lemminkainen returns home. The loving wife is happy to get him back. But in a short moment everything changes when Lemminkainen tells that he has to return to the North to meet bigger challenges and other beautiful women. His mother tries to stop him as she is convinced that his life will be destroyed in the North.

The son leaves his home again; the mother has taken him back from the realm of Death, but he has not given up his visions about new life, far away in the North. The play ends with a Finnish song, which means, "Death is the final resort, death is the final consolation and is the abode of peace..." which is sung by all the cast.

The process

We started work trying to explore each other's body dynamics, movement patterns, our potential and our inclinations. Charu initiated the workshop with Yoga and Kalari based movements which the Finnish girls adapted very easily. In return Mari and Anna who are dancers reciprocated with movements from their repertory. Selvaraj initiated movements with singing and rhythm. In the improvisation, Eija came up with strong and powerful expressions and emotions. The work developed very fast and the mutual inclusion was instantaneous.

We had movement sessions, improvisations, and discussions. We did not want to re-narrate the story from 'Kalevala' (even if it reflected episodes and characters from Indian epics), but were looking into the story to extract meaning that is relevant to us even today. Anna told me that the story is about the violence that is happening inside contemporary Finnish houses. In Finland, it seems, there is not that much violence out in the society; but there is much violence inside the four walls of the house. Most of the murders are domestic; husbands, wives, lovers, in-laws, parents and brothers, kill each other. In our story also, there are two murders - Louhi's daughter being killed by her fiance and Louhi's killing of Lemminkainen whom she holds responsible for the death of her daughter. These two murders gave us the opportunity to look into relationships and the contemporary violence that happens in Finland or that which takes place anywhere.

We could thus create references for our interpretation of the story. The story of 'Kalevala' was instrumental in our understanding of relationships, affairs, the disintegration of family, and the betrayal and dissatisfaction that creep into marital life. For me, the disintegration of the social structure within a family, has been a continued obsession in my plays. It started somewhere in the productions of MEDEA, and ABHAYARTHIKAL by G Sankara Pillai. They were a profound articulation of the the treachery, falsehoods, fragility and meekness of the family system. ABHAYARTHIKAL had a very Ibsenesque structure where the female v/s male conflict breaks the family structure so that the heroine celebrates her freedom and self-respect by opting out of the walls of the so called 'happy home'. The sequences with Ravana and Mandodari in LANKALAKSHMI also had undercurrents of deceit and make belief that keeps the family ties superficially going on. In my current play, DRAUPADI (in rehearsal), this theme is more closely and intensely looked into.

In all these plays I approached the state of affairs from the female point of view, the marginalised entity in the whole business. In the Finnish-Indo production of TWO MOTHERS IN THE REALM OF DEATH, the same theme is repeating itself, but can now be looked from a more neutral point of view. A strong male figure is absent except Lemminkainen, who is like a modern youth charmed by passion and beautiful girls around. Louhi's daughter also shifts her love from her fiance to Lemminkainen, when she sees that this new man is more heroic, fashionable and charming than her old lover. Love, attraction and bonding appear so docile and our allegiances can change with the slightest of temptations. Unreasoned passion and blind dreams guide the characters.

In contrast, the mothers are trying hard to keep the family structure and the social order intact. They have to argue, fight (even physically), plead and cry to keep the status quo maintained for a smooth life, but both the mothers ultimately fail. The two mothers play important roles in this play. Louhi's mother is highly physical - a shaman, with magical weapons and innate strength, but fails to convince the King in the realm of Death. She has to be more physical in her expression; Charu with her Kalari tradition did the role with sharp, quick movements and with intense passion that suits the strength and mobility of the character.

Lemminkainen's mother is more passionate, conformist, and more human. She is arrogant with her son, pleads and cries to convince others. Eija came with a very powerful emotive presence on stage, with loads of emotions, involvement, energy and passionate physical attributes to complement her character. The two mothers ruled the stage with different approaches, equally gripping and powerful. It was the journey to the same situation from two diagonal positions; the journey through two different paths from different perceptions, reaching almost at the same place, and done with the same intensity.

Selvaraj used his own skills gathered by his long experience in theatre, to make Lemminkainen convincing. His passion, determination, restlessness, dreams about a more charming life, inferiority complex, arrogance and an innate thirst to seek newer pastures was clear. He used his sense of music, rhythm, movement, physical agility, along with his stage presence in portraying this character. At the same time I noticed that he was more expressive and intense than I have usually seen him. Maybe he was reciprocating to his western counterparts in equal terms. This could be noted as an achievement of this workshop and production. There was good give and take between the actors as they were mutually supporting and influencing each other, so that the blend was more spontaneous.

Charu, Adithye and Selvaraj used more intense facial expressions. They were spontaneous and genuine, yet keeping the physicality of the performance intact. The actors from Finland on the other hand responded to the fluidity of movement and physicalization of their Indian counterparts, keeping the facial and emotional expressions as their innate strength. Mari and Anna being dancers could easily adapt to the movement and choreography, develop it further to create fluidity, transcending to the visual poetry. Adithye and the Finnish girls seemed to create a very passionate movement pattern, beautiful to watch, improvising on stage, mutually enjoying and alert to each other and at the same time communicating to the audience without the use of words or spoken lines.

It was really interesting to create this play which turned out to be an ensemble effort, as in all devised productions. In the early stages, I was more observant, talking and inspiring actors to create. Slowly I found myself on my toes, moving along with the actors, physically involved in the scheme of things, trying to get into the skin of the actors, to provoke and persuade them to create, articulate precisely and fine tune the images, actions, and expressions. The rehearsals were very relaxed, peaceful and creative, and on the fifth day I was sure that we would come up with something interesting and worthwhile to stage.

The one strategy that I adopted was that we started with no dialogues and speech, trying to perform the play without any spoken words so the actors could create visual images, movements and expressions to communicate the essence of the situation. It was on the fourth day after the blocking was done that I asked the actors to start speaking in their own languages but insisted that they focused on the sonority and expression of the sound than the meaning of the spoken word. The audience has to understand the 'meaning' of the dialogue, from the context and expression. Music played a very important role in this phase, and kept on developing till the last day. There were beautiful moments of exchanges in Finnish and Malayalam; the modulated voices were expressive, punched with emotion, and were linked to the gestures and the body language. The spoken words were written and agreed upon on the sixth day.

The very talented musicians, Laura and Mammu along with Kishore contributed a lot to this production. They used vocal singing, created many sounds to match the dramatic situation, performed instruments like melodica, tabla, drums, djembe, udukku and different kinds of bells. The system of music, singing pattern, pitches, and rhythm, became the backbone of this performance but it never overruled the actors. Antti as the sound designer was creatively complementing the musicians by accentuating the effects created by them.

I have to write of my experience of working with Janne Hyytianen, an exemplary actor from the Finnish film and theatre scenario. He is a very powerful and shrewd actor, true to himself and can create magical moments with the subtlest of movements, changes in posture, and voice modulation. In the first few days, he was very neutral and took a lot of time to respond and react, was asking for clarifications like, "Can I turn now... What shall I do with my hands...Can I move up there?" and so on. He was trying to understand his role, and the orbit he could occupy. He was also trying to understand the design and the freedom he could utilise. In this phase I almost felt that he was hesitant and had to be more dynamic, but things started to change on the fifth day.

Slight cues given to him were assimilated and enlarged. He started improvising his movements and expressions, communicated to the rhythm with footwork and dance (it is astonishing to see him pouncing, jumping, dancing as if he is possessed by the music and the Theyyam's headgear, which he had not seen before. The suggestions like "enjoy the smell of blood, use tongue, laugh, and be playful' were elaborated on to create his character. Actually, I played the role of a facilitator than a director. I was observing the graph with which he developed his character, and assimilated himself into the design of the play, quite smoothly, creatively and intelligently. He is one such actor that any director would love to work with.

The play has three distinct locales in its storyline: the lush green and pasture like landscape of Lemminkainen by the side of the River of Life, the land of Louhi in the North, full of passion, warm with intense emotions and the ecstasy of magic; and thirdly the Realm of Death by the River of Death. Gireesh Menon created the ambience of these spaces with changes of hues in his light design.

Finally, on the seventh day, when the performance took place, it turned out to be very satisfactory for the audience as well as for us. The Indian artists may travel to Finland next year to work with the same artists and take the production ahead, if things work out. The workshop was exhaustively documented by Jebin Jesmes, and the production was overseen by Anna Susitaival for the North Karelian Art Council in Finland. It was coordinated by Pradeep Sukumar, and supported by Chavara Samskarika Kendram.

*Chandradasan is Artistic Director of Lokadharmi, a centre for theatre training, research and training in Kochi, Kerala. This article was first published on 2nd June 2012 on Chandradasan's blog- http://chandradasan.blogspot.in/. It has been edited and republished here with the author's permission.

Photo courtesy: Shobha Menon & Jolly Antony

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