March 1, 2017 12:24:53 am
Actor and social activist Ramachandran Mokeri’s resistance to oppression has translated into theatre. He directed and acted in Naikali (Dog’s Opera) to mark the death anniversary of Safdar Hashmi by political goons in Delhi, translated the play Che Guevara from Italian into Malayalam and penned a performance text, Fragmentos, based on Brecht: A Third World Beggar’s Opera, among others. He was the first person from a backward caste to join as permanent faculty at the School of Drama, Calicut University, where his acting classes were held outdoors in local colonies. At the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK), held in Thrissur till February 28, Mokeri acted out the terror and shock he experienced on hearing of the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad. Over phone from Thrissur, the Kerala-based performer, who is known as Dogtor Mockery, spoke about the play, Untouchable I Am: I Am Rohith Vemula. Excerpts from the interview:
What was the genesis of your performance piece?
I was shocked by the suicide. It shocked the youth of the country. The consciousness of a new India is emerging out of the Dalit fire. Rohith Vemula was passionate. He said, ‘I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.’ Dalit lives matter and it has become a dominant part of new politics, aesthetics and re-reading of history. As an actor, it has activated my body, soul, flesh, blood and sweat. The play emerged from a natural urge.
You have used social media, predominantly Facebook, for this performance.
I used the social network to have a discussion on Rohith Vemula. I tried to connect with other actors of Kerala and outside, asking them to join me with their own performance modules on Rohith Vemula. I believe that actors should come out of the shackles of the director. Around 26 actors responded, most of them activists engaging in political plays.
What is the nature of your own performance?
I draw a cart, which is traditionally used to transport vegetables, in which an actor, playing a dead body is wrapped in a mat. I become a man in front and, with the help of a mask, a woman at the back. We sing songs from the history of Dalit struggles, performing fragments from Rohith Vemula’s poems as well as enacting a montage of Dalits being slaughtered through history. There is no linearity, and the subjects jump from one distance and time to another. Finally, I carry the corpse in my arms and take it to the audience. The performance ends with me lying down and the actor playing the dead body utter syllables and words, such as ‘Jai’ and ‘Bhim’. The performance includes local and indigenous performers.
How deeply does the situation of Dalits in Kerala influence your theatre?
There is a very long and wretched history of Dalits in Kerala, the adivasis. The adivasi life is vanishing every day from the state of Kerala. They used to live in the high ranges and valleys and deforestation and intruders have deprived them of everything. Everyday, we hear of the adivasi women being molested. I did a research with the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum on the topic, “The Alienation of Culture. Performance and development of the Adivasi-Kurumbas of Attapady”.
You, too, belong to a backward community.
As a young boy, I experienced discrimination. If I went to the next house, which belonged to an upper caste Hindu, I had to wash the cup in which I drank tea and the place where it was kept had to be sprinkled with water. That left a deep impression on me, especially since the upper caste boy was my classmate and we went to school together.
How did you enter theatre?
My father was a farmer and, in my boyhood, I would accompany the people who stayed up the whole night in the cucumber and pumpkin fields, so that foxes did not get at the crop. Vellari natakam or the cucumber plays were performed in which all of us participated. After the play, we would have payasam. Small boys were taken as characters. Much later, when I was in high school, I was a part of a play by a William Morrison of the British Council who would perform William Shakespeare’s plays with children. I was selected as Hamlet. We were taken to London, where we performed at six-seven places. That was my exposure to theatre.
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