Stomping Ground

A taxi driver and his passion for a 16th-century performance form

A street carnival showcase of Chavittunatakam SIVARAM V FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2012

THERE IS NOTHING VILLAINOUS about 58-year-old taxi driver Robert Francis—no wicked gleam in his eyes, no sinister twist in the contours of his mouth. His grip on the wheel of his spotless Tata Indica is gentle and unhurried. But on a drive through rain-drenched Fort Kochi in Kerala, Robert gradually opened up about his alter ego. “My personality is best suited for the role of an angry villain,” he said. “I have played it all—kings, ministers—but it is the character of a thief that I meld into easily. I was also great as Cassius in Julius Caesar. He is the one who poisoned Brutus’s mind.”

When he is not driving his taxi, Robert is a performer of Chavittunatakam, a form of theatre which originated in Kochi in the 16th century, created by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries as a way to propagate Biblical stories and encourage converted Christians to stay faithful. Chavittunatakam, or ‘stomping theatre’, features glittering, colourful, medieval costumes, mudras and the martial movements of kalarippayattu. With a loud, declamatory style of singing, performers typically retell tales from the Bible, or of Christian kings and conquerors. The form gets its name from its defining characteristic—performers prance about the wooden stage, stomping to create loud rhythms with their anklet-shod feet; the stage is often constructed over hollow drums to enhance this sound.

We stopped at Saudi Arogya Matha Church in Fort Kochi to meet Robert’s nephew Joshy Chembuparambil, the sexton of the church, who is also a teacher, director and writer of Chavittunatakam. Joshy has scripted a play based on the life of St Peter and even though the show is scheduled for 30 December, he has already begun rigorously training actors. “No two actors should sing the same tune, so for my coming play, I have worked to incorporate thirty different tunes,” Joshy said. “The audience that comes to these shows knows the art all too well and will boo you down if they detect a mistake.”

Purists like Robert Francis perform only on stage. SIVARAM V FOR THE CARAVAN

Over the years, the nature and style of Chavittunatakam have undergone significant changes. In many training centres, actors only lip-sync, while background singers sing. “However, we in Fort Kochi still remain rooted to tradition and the actors have to sing too,” said Robert. “It is also necessary that we learn the movements of show kalari to enact the European war scenes.”

Robert, whose father and grandfather were exponents of Chavuttinatakam, began acting when he was 14 years old, even though he viewed the pursuit with suspicion at first. “People used to call this theatre kallu-kali [liquor dance],” he said. “My father used to drink heartily before a performance. Those days there were no microphones and the actors believed they needed the alcohol to sing loud enough to be heard across an open ground. That was pure nonsense. The plays would begin at night and end at dawn and it would take three nights running to complete one play, so the drinking was heavy. Today, we don’t drink to act, and the plays have been shortened to three hours.”

At least 30 members of his family are involved in Chavittunatakam, Robert explained, and everyone pitches in when there is a show. “We have musicians, scriptwriters, actors in our family. We were the first to introduce women [performers] to Chavittunatakam,” he said.

Although Robert has been involved with Chavuttinatakam for most of his life, balancing his passion with his livelihood has always been a challenge. “In 1985 I was the treasurer and the convenor of a show,” he said. “We needed Rs 82,000 and the money we collected was not enough. So I pawned my wife’s chain to pay for the sound and light. In the nineties, for many months I was caught up in a show and could not do my regular job as a driver. I had to sell my car and subsequently I sold my house to clear bad debts.” Now, he added, they rely on sponsors to finance shows. “The government should do more to propagate this art or it will wither away,” he said.