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.”