Krishnan A, who hails from the Kollengode region of Palakkad, has been a porattukali performer for the last 34 years and is the master trainer of his troupe. Although his many physical ailments have pushed him towards retirement, he perseveres because he wants to preserve this dying art form. Krishnan started performing at the young age of 15 and has been a favourite of all porattukali enthusiasts ever since. He has also achieved the commendable feat of playing every single role of which the art form is comprised, and speaks about his art just as passionately as he performs it.
Following is a translated and edited transcript of excerpts from the original interview conducted Malayalam at Krishnan’s house in a beautiful nook of the Kollengode region in Palakkad, Kerala, on September 8, 2019.
Haritha Vijayakumaran (HV): Could you talk a little about the origin of porattukali?
Krishnan A (KA): About 170 years ago, the Panars [A community in Kerala , classified as scheduled caste; their roots go back to Tulu-speaking Pana folk singers of Tulunadu] developed a form of satirical theatre which represented the ‘untouchable’ community, and the joys and sorrows of their day to day life. They formed separate acts known as porattu to represent each avarna community [the castes that fall outside the Indian caste system] who live in and around Palakkad. These acts are strung together during a porattukali performance. Since they were kept out of the temple premises, they were called puramjanam or outsiders, from which the name puramattam/ kali is believed to have been derived; puram means outside and kali/attam means performance.
HV: So there is a separate act for every caste? How many acts does a single performance have?
KA: Yes, there are separate acts for every [avarna] community. A single performance has 10 to 11 acts. Conventionally, each act goes on for a duration of 45 minutes to one hour. However, this is an art form that heavily relies on the performers’ improvisation skills. So based on their talent, charisma, and rapport with the audience, a single act can go on for up to three hours, or even more. The performances run well into the night and the early hours of dawn.
HV: Is there a plot line or premise the actors use as a foundation to build their act?
KA:The plot is always the same. Most of the porattu [performances] are performed by a male and female character [performed by male actors] and it is always the female character who appears first on stage. The action revolves around love, separated spouses, lovers’ spats etc. Each porattu is separate and stands on its own, and the characters from different porattu never meet each other.
The chodyakaran [jester] appears in all acts and is the only consistent presence throughout the play. I myself am a jester. The jester is the master actor and often the mentor for all the other actors. With their witty dialogues, lewd comments, and tomfoolery, they keep the audience entranced. They are the central driving force of the performance. When the long lost couple reunite, he encumbers their union with sly ploys and dialogues brimming with innuendos. However, towards the end of the act, the couple reconcile and leave together.
HV: If the plot is always the same, what makes these acts different from one another? Further, considering the length of the performance, does it get monotonous after a point?
KA: Not really. Each character usually has a lot to say about their community, the myths about the community’s origin and where they come from, their means of livelihood, crises they face on a day-to-day basis, etc. The dialogues are both spoken and sung. Further, they talk about matters of contemporary relevance, ranging from politics to cinema, and even simpler things like recent births, marriages in the community and so forth.
HV: So porattukali is a lot like improv and stand-up comedy where there is interaction with the audience throughout, and the jester spares no one from their fiery tongue? Isn’t that challenging? Also, what is the composition of the audience and do they always respond positively to the comments of the jester?
KA: These performances are held during the festival season of the Mariyamman [a South Indian mother goddess] temples after all the other performances staged inside the temple compound, like the traditional instrumental concert, are over. Everyone is jubilant at the time and they don’t take the ridiculing and taunting seriously. They laugh at themselves with others. In fact, they enjoy it so much that sometimes it is the person ridiculed the most who gives more money to the actors. The actors are beckoned from the stage from time to time and offered money as a token of appreciation by members of the audience who are impressed by their performance.
The audience is mostly comprised of working-class people, peasants, and labourers.
HV: When did you start performing and is the art form still as popular?
KA: Of course not. I started working 34 years ago and used to earn five rupees for an entire night’s performance. The world has changed so much now. Now, while I earn a 1,000 per night, the bookings are not very frequent and the money is not much when you think about the effort we put into it: it involves months of training and burning the midnight oil. The strain from yelling out the dialogues leaves your vocal chords damaged for good. There were days when I spat blood from all the strain, and now I will never get my real voice back. After all this, we sparsely get booked and that too only during the temple festival season. But I have to say, there are some committed porattukali enthusiasts even now whose appreciation and love for the art form makes it all worth it. One such man, now a close friend of mine, has booked our troupe for his daughter’s first birthday. That is really unusual.
HV: Is it these challenges that make acquiring new/young talent difficult?
KA: Yes, a young, skilled labourer can easily make as much with a day’s work. Also, with all the development happening in the town, they are employed around the year. Moreover, there is also the stigma attached to porattukali. Families don’t like their children coming into this art. Like I said, it was created and watched solely by the ‘lower caste’ members, the ‘untouchables’. Panars had created the art form but now, even they desist it. I belong to the Ezhava caste which is much higher in the hierarchy, so when I started performing it was purely out of the love and passion I had for porattukali, and I had to hide it from my family for 10 long years. When they came to know about it, my wife left me, although she did come back later. That is the kind of reputation the art form holds. Young men hesitate because it is not likely anyone will give their daughter’s hand in marriage to a porattukali artist. We have changed it a lot now, lewd comments and innuendos are avoided. We have made it more ‘civilized’ now.
HV: Does this impact the authenticity of the art form? It seems that the playful, witty, and unfiltered use of ‘raw’ language by the performers is what makes porattukali different from the plethora of Sanskritised art forms of Kerala. Who decides the evolution of this art form and its moral boundaries, so to speak?
KA:Yes, it does. But it is inevitable that we make these changes because porattukali is unpopular already. We rarely get a chance to showcase this art form which has become a part and parcel of our lives.When we present it the way it is supposed to be presented, people get offended. The same people who enjoyed it a few years ago now find it derogatory and vulgar because now they are people of importance. There is a tendency to integrate everything into a new ‘high’ culture now.
HV: Compared to many of our other traditional art forms, I think only porattukali has gone through any evident change, it is an art form that evolves with time by taking up issues of contemporary relevance. Is that still being done? What kind of issues are being taken up right now?
KA: Yes. We always derive from what is going on around us, ranging from political changes, natural calamities, new developments, and so forth. Sometimes, specific issues that affect the people of the area in which we perform are taken up, like the lack of infrastructure or water supply. For example, when the Malampuzha dam was being built, it was a big event for Palakkad, and also Kerala, and multiple songs were composed in this context, and weaved into the performance then. Right now, we are focusing on the floods that afflicted us in the past two years [2018–19].
HV: It is amazing that in each porattu, male and female representatives from the community get equal representation, and it is clear from the dialogues that women of the so-called ‘lower classes’ enjoyed greater agency and power in their family life. Then how is it that they are played by male actors and not women of the Panar community?
KA: Let me tell you this story that my guru told me. Forty years ago, there was a famous porattukali troupe here run by Nallepilly Narayanan and there was this Nair [upper caste] man who did the female roles. You can imagine the trials and tribulations he must have faced. He was known equally for his talent as his long beautiful hair, and was often mistaken for a woman. He was kidnapped more than once in between performances. And during one such incident, some drunk hooligans cut off his hair and humiliated him in unthinkable ways. And let me tell you, it is not always a mistake, in their drunken haze, anything that even remotely resembles a woman is enough for them. If this is the state of the men who perform female roles, how will a woman dare to take part in porattu? How can I urge the women in my own family to be a part of it? We do not get the kind of protection which the performers of classical/sophisticated art form get.
HV:What do you think can be done to prevent decline of the art form? Where do you think the help should come from?
KA: Despite my failing health, I continue to perform and promote porattukali because I can’t bear to see it being passed into oblivion. But I worry about what will happen once my time is over. It has been years since anyone new or young has joined the troupe. A large number of people living within the district don’t even know about porattukali. We have formed a committee of performers and enthusiasts to ensure the preservation of the art form. Ensuring pension, even if it is a meagre sum of 1000 rupees, for the old and retired performers, is one commendable feat we have achieved till now. But it shouldn’t stop there. Inclusion of the art form in the extracurricular activities and competition events of educational institutions is one step that should be adopted. The government should actively be involved in promoting the art form to a wider and even global audience by accommodating it in the tourism sector.When so much is being done in the name of culture and its preservation, I don’t understand why they are turning a blind eye to us.