When I was 17 years old, love confused me – much as it still does today – and I found myself restless with a devoted young farmer man, and needing an escape. In high school I had read On the Road, by Kerouac, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins. I was living in Massachusetts after my freshman year at Simon’s Rock. The year was 2000. My closet friends and I imagined ourselves as the newest generation of beatnicks, and Inside my bones, secretly, I wanted to be just like Sissy Hawshank. In the summer of that year, I hitchiked around the country by myself – which was also sort-of an accident (I didn’t have enough money for a train ticket.) What I found as a 17 year-young woman – who didn’t know she was anything close to beautiful or remarkable – was a lot of stares (you can imagine) a lot of attention, from a very white blue collar America (many of whom had never come so close to an Indian woman in the flesh before). I met and made many unlikely friends, including a lot of truckers and a few hippies. Over and over, I was asked about my “Indian-ness” my ancestry (which I had all but tried to erase in the 13 years prior), with questions about “that red dot you wear on your forehead”, about tantric sex, and Hindu goddesses – questions to which I had no answer. Moreover, I ended up with dozens of stories so strange and beautiful and precious, that I felt completely unfit to tell them, unfit to do them justice. All this led me to decide that I needed to return to Kerala – to India – in order to learn how my people told stories. I needed to learn about and reclaim my roots and my language, and I needed to find ways to answer all those awkward, penetrating questions. The following year, I embarked on a 10-month quest dedicated to learning about all the ways my people told stories. Around this same time, I saw my first clown performance at college. It blew my mind and heart wide open, and I knew that there was something there I needed to know and embody: I wanted to become a clown!
Armed with an adoration for stories well told, clowns, traveling, and the mysterious and wild origins of my own ancestry, and equally loaded with ignorance, modern arrogance and a complete lack of skill in my own mother tongue, I went back to Kerala. I went back to a place whose language was impenetrable to me, nevermind it had been my first language. For months, I would hear sounds that had no meaning. I would look at the writing on the walls and on the buses, seeing an elaborately curled script that I was sure would never be known to me. I went back home to have my soul completely broken for the first time as a grown woman by the crude and hard ways development hinders the human heart. And would feel profound unbelonging in the one place I wanted more than anywhere else to belong to, while also not being willing to do what It would take to fit in. Everywhere I went, I was stared at. And rightfully so. I didn’t look like anyone else, even though my skin was brown. The world I first entered into was depressingly stale and flat – the world of my relatives. I knew there was more to Kerala – that I had come for – but how would I ever find it?! I had only one contact into the world of performance to begin with, and that ultimately served me very well because It led to one thing, which then led to opening a door into many many things and people. It took months before those doors opened however, and when they did, I ran straight through them.
In 2001, televisions and electricity were still reaching the most rural parts of Kerala. There were no cell phones. But even then, the television was fast replacing the the role storytelling and performances once served. (Why spend 21 nights watching an archaically slow re-telling of the Ramayana, when you could watch it from the comfort of your own home on the T.V. with a lot more glitz and glamor?) But back then, one could still walk through paddy fields in the pitch dark without any light to find some ancient Devi (Goddess) temple where there was an all-night long ritual. One could still find a Kavu (sacred forest grove). One could still see an ancient snake ritual in tact. One could still find real magic, there were still performers who carried a spark of something beyond our comprehension. They performed for the Goddess in earnest, not just for show. I’ve been lucky enough to see the old ritual dramatic forms of Kerala before this present time when they’ve been bankrupted by modernity, florescent lights, loudspeakers, cell phones, and alcohol.
I – who had grown up with television as practically a surrogate mother, who learned English by watching cartoons and forgot Malayalam by the same – was now exposed to nearly ever kind of ritual drama/ storytelling form we had in Kerala at the time, of which there are over a dozen major ones (and hundreds of variations within them.) I was graciously let into the homes and lives of many elders who loved the arts, and many performers whose families had been dedicated to their art-forms for uncountable generations. I want to take this moment to thank especially Venuji and all the work he has done within his lifetime to save the last vestiges of the dying arts – Kudiyattam in particular – and to his wife and my teacher Nirmalaji, and to the Tolpavakoothu artists – Ramakrishnan and Lakshmanan, and to the Mudiyettu family – Murali and all, to the Padayani troupe in Kadamanita in the homeland of my father’s people and the late Vasudevan Pillai, to Rajagopalan for showing me my first Serpumthullals, I bow to the dozens of Theyyams I watched and give thanks to Jayaraj to who helped me see many of them, and to the late Kathakali master Ramakrishnan Ashan – the last of his kind, and his wife Narayanikutty who welcomed me and helped me begin my oddesy from the start. I also want to thank the late playwright and director Kavalam Naryana Pannikar, who saw in me what I did not yet see, and who like a mischievous wizard, pushed me onto the stage to dance in my utter embarrassment. Thank you. There are yet many more to be thanked (but names are no longer remembered). All these experiences over many months, showed me like layered ancient tapestries, what was stored in my lineage, and that the way my people told stories and transmitted magic and consciousness was still in tact.
Even after this journey, I came home to the U.S. with a greater love for stories and for ritual and my roots, but I didn’t imagine I would be making theatre. I did learn, slowly, how to be a clown. And I became more immersed into the performing arts, but not deliberately. Originally, in college (and still now) I became involved in “theatre” because of the things we did before we ever got on stage. These practices of exploring the body, mind, and nature of being were as close as I had to shaman tools. Indeed they are shaman tools (if properly understood and used), and the ritual traditions of Kerala, the archetype of the clown, and my own yearnings to liberate myself, brought me into the theatre through the back door so-to-say. I never wanted to be on stage. Never intended to direct. I was a shy awkward girl, and am still an introvert. Yet, some other part of my nature – along with forces beyond me – propelled me outward into cycling journeys and spotlights.
18 years later, my major inspiration and need to make theatre still comes from my roots in Kerala, and from my own lack of rooting. (Of course I’ve also been inspired and encouraged by modern artists who have deep vision like Lecoq and Pina Bausch, the legacy of Butoh, and many others, but my taproot is still the Indian theatre). Yet because the underlying context and intention of these ancient traditions (as well as my own work) is so different from that of the modern Western theatre, I often feel like an outsider artist. The former was born slowly like crystals over hundreds and thousands of years through intricate relationships between specific communities and tribes to their places and ecologies, while the latter is born of a disparate and displaced peoples disconnected from community, from place, and most certainly from Nature. Perhaps the most important distinction - ritual theatre revolves around the sacred.
The ritual dramatic traditions of my homeland were elaborate art-sciences of life-renewal and meaning-making – ways of re-membering the human being, the community and the village. Ritual performances were “whole works of art” that simultaneously and ingeniously incorporated dance, theatre, storytelling, music, and visual art. They constantly broke “the third wall” through their immediacy and intimacy which connected not only audience and performer, but the audience itself as one teeming mass of human aliveness. The ancient theatres were the original avante-gaurde. They were always based in the context of a community and the village and were “site-specific” – happening in temples, sacred groves and near agricultural fields – and on specific lunar and astrological dates throughout the performance season. As such, these performances served as annual communal rite of passages – not for individuals – but for a whole family, a community or village. And more than most theatre of our modern and Western realities, they possessed the rare and un-replicable ingredient of Soul. But such magic and liminality didn’t just serve the purpose of “entertainment” as most modern theatre does. It was the way a family, a people, an entire bio-region, stayed knit together – and not just for themselves, but for the welfare of their shared Ecology – the Devi, mother Earth. It was the way consciousness grew over time within each individual, because the stories told had within them the Big Picture, the larger blueprint. All of this I would come to understand in time, but the seeds were planted way back then by patient ritual performers and elders who explained what they could to me until those same seeds could take root within my own mind and heart, and body. In the Indian traditions, we say that the “form” of tradition holds within it the keys to consciousness. While I’m no master at any one form and was never immersed long within a guru-shishya relationship, I nevertheless feel blessed to have received transmission in a less direct way; I imbibed magic and storytelling wherever I could like a hungry orphan who was always asking, “Are you my mother?” After all, its those who were once orphaned who know most deeply the gift of family, the gift of art, the gift of place, and the longing to belong.
So, for the past 7 years I’ve dedicated my forces to creating “new ritual theatre” dedicated to place (often outdoors and usually never on a conventional “stage”) that speaks of Nature and our sacred relationship to it, that speaks of an essential erotic-ness of life, and of the politics of human delusions, industrial culture, capitalism, war and displacement, about women and men and love and grief, loss and renewal. Ritual and theatre have been the only ways I’ve experienced real authentic community, and that’s why I’ve continued to create and offer them – its kept my soul afloat and fed. Its also taxed me a lot on all levels, but I guess that’s the way it goes. I was never taught so much. Made it up as I went along with all the blunders and foibles of a young person- arrogance, fear, insecurity and exhaustion. I’ve made tons of mistakes, failed greatly, learned humility, contributed some good remembrances within my community, and succeeded at “making beauty out of my grief”.
Being in India again last year, the message was so clear to me, that things are ending there – the old ways, the old cultures are almost extinct. My once-wild jungle homeland is mostly covered over with concrete, even the snake groves, the Goddess groves. My people are numbed-out and lost. My heart grieves for us, even as they continue to feel nothing while the water turns blacker by the day and drought approaches massive proportions. So, here I am: holding a small heirloom seed, a spark, of that original wholesomeness, that magic – and my privilege and responsibility to my ancestors and to the future generations is to continue to nourish and cultivate that here – in this new old world – to craft new medicine and new ritual, to offer beauty and remembrance as I have been, in this strange dispossessed land of America, a place whose people have little roots and no ritual, their Soul substituted wholesale for stuff you can buy at the Dollar Store.
Often these days, I also wonder whether there’s any point to creating theatre/ sacred art/ ritual, without a village to honor it. Is it true that perhaps much of my work goes to ears and eyes who can’t hear or see it fully, can’t comprehend, can’t necessarily even feel because it may be too intimate, too real, and too threatening? Because the story I’m telling requires of them to sacrifice artificiality and the false safety of “first-world” numbness. And in the West, the world of theatre, just like the world of “art” in general, (aside from renegade theatres like Bread and Puppet and the like) is one that’s celebrated and reified the more its disconnected from Nature, place and community. The more packaged and glossy, the better its considered to be. The work I create doesn’t fit into the construct of the Western theatre – it doesn’t come from the same aesthetic and affect of disconnection or of the “whiteness” that sells, it can’t necessarily be contained within a building, and is not necessarily reliant on technology or the hyper-post-modern deconstruction of everything. And after it all, I am not white. In the end it is that very browness and “Indian-ness” which sets me apart form America, and which sets America apart from me. While all of this can feel lonely, its also a blessing. It’s a blessing to known one’s roots, to be proud of them, and to come from a place and a people who revered a well told story – through the language of the body and voice. In the end, the theatre I make adores love, and stories and the simplicity of human being in relationship to place.
So for now I continue making the art I do, driven like a woman with her hair on fire, to save my own sanity in this lost world, and for my own healing, and also for the memory of my ancestors, as an ambassador of heirloom seeds that may soon no longer be so viable back home. My path has surprised me, and looking back the entire story makes so much sense- is so perfectly choreographed, to make me into who I am.
Ironically, my next play talks about tantra (among other things like war and peace), seeking to answer some of the questions posed to me when I was 17!
If you want to support this kind of new old world theatre, if you want to support a brown-skinned woman creating original performance in America, and If you want to support grassroots over gloss, then I invite you to come see my next play. I took a hiatus last season, and now I’m back, with something simple, something brave, and hopefully elegant and nourishing, offered up from my soul to yours and Ours.
Flowers Falling From My Mouth
Sheffield Covered Bridge, Sheffield MA
Solstice weekend, June 22.214.171.124. 7pm
All shows $20 suggested donation
Pls no children, no dogs
(you’re welcome to bring a blanket or chair.)
(The show will go on as long as its not raining at 7!)