The year was 2007. Sankar Venkateswaran was looking for a space to begin rehearsals for Sahyante Makan: The Elephant Project , his theatrical interpretation of Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon’s poem. Rehearsal spaces in cities were an expensive proposition, one he couldn’t afford.

Vinu Joseph, his stage manager, who came from a settler family in Attapadi, suggested a location in his native place. It was at Puliyara in the tribal Attapadi region of Palakkad district in Kerala. A small space, it was hitherto used for drying cardamom.

“It was necessity that made us come to Attapadi. We couldn’t afford anything in the city, where there was also a lack of rehearsal space. We knew we had to go far away. Then we came here and found that this place is really far away from civilisation and all processes of modernisation. It was not because it is geographically far away. We are only half an hour away from the nearest township and 50 km from the nearest airport in Coimbatore. There is some other gap which makes this an excluded and isolated place,” says Venkateswaran, the artistic director of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala held annually at Thrissur.

This gap, which separates Attapadi, the most economically backward block in Kerala, from the other parts of a state high on all social indicators, has perplexed planners for the past many decades.

Projects worth several hundred crores of rupees have gone down the drain without making a difference to the lives of the people here. Infant deaths, 10 reported last year, continue to haunt these hills every summer.

Venkateswaran, who came here by force of circumstance, instantly knew that the time had come for him to make a radical shift in his theatre practice and lifestyle.

“Henrik Ibsen had once said that an artiste should bear the guilt and responsibility of the society to which he or she belongs. I am guilty of the sins which my forefathers committed. I can’t escape that. It’s not a thing of the past. It’s right there in front of us. This makes one ask what purpose does art fulfil? When that question comes up, you have to think of locating your theatre practice somewhere and it’s certainly not in a city for me. You can’t sit in the city and do work which will reflect the reality here. Culture is no more to live, culture is to commodify. By this process, it also abandons the larger part of the country. The majority is away from the cities and cultural hotpots. A place like this has been abandoned by the culture funds. I don’t know how much culture funds the panchayat here is utilising,” says Venkateswaran.

Soon after the successful staging of Sahyante Makan , he was back in Attapadi, looking to set up his theatre. He bought land near Mukkali, halfway up the hills and overlooking the Bhavani river, from a settler farmer. Thus was born Sahyante Theatre — the theatre of the Western mountains. The land was in the middle of nowhere, with the motorable road ending almost a kilometre away, near a nameless village of 16 tribal families. Venkateswaran and his friends from the Theatre Roots and Wings Company got a few people from outside to make a road. The local people viewed them with suspicion.

“They probably thought us to be some resort people. They used to call me ‘bhai’ at first, a term reserved for the outsider. Slowly we gained their trust. We got the old motor pump near the river repaired and changed the pipelines, after which the residents here started to have access to drinking water. Then, they made this small bamboo house for me. We started eating together. They offered to help me with making the road and later with the construction of the theatre.” ‘Bhai’ was soon suffixed with the homely ‘etta’ (elder brother).

One of the things that happened in the initial days of Sahyante Theatre was the revival of ‘Madhurai Veeran Koothu’, an indigenous performance form of the Thadikkundu village, which has not been performed in the past 25 years. Survival issues as well as television and other entertainment avenues had almost killed the koothu. Venkateswaran came to know of this indigenous art form when the village elders talked about it at one of the regular forums held at the director’s place. “It was an impoverished sort of performance, with no lights and an old sari as the backdrop. But the songs had a raw energy. They were in the colloquial language, but the broad ideas could be understood. Our interest in watching it made them interested in performing it. Only the elders were familiar with the form, but even they had forgotten most of it. It’s been a slow process of recollection for them and it’s an ongoing process,” says Venkateswaran.

In 2014, a group of 22 people from the village performed at a national festival for tribal arts and craft in Mumbai. It was the first performance for them outside their village. Echoes from Silent Valley was a contemporary voice performance fusing Madhurai Veeran Koothu with short choreographed pieces that express the existential concerns of forest, livelihood and land. It touched upon infant deaths in Attapadi through lullabies.

“It’s not very easy to do theatre with them. I do forums with them, where a few ideas are short circuited, which then becomes a possibility for dialogue and imagination. What we need to evolve is a new language, where the spectator becomes the actor and vice versa. It’s easy to put up a show with them. That’s like using them to create a spectacle. The performance sensibility has to be evolved and it will take time.” It has been a challenge to hold the forums regularly. Faced as they are with pressing livelihood problems, the local people sometimes disappear for days. Rampant alcoholism is another challenge.

Even while evolving a theatre sensibility in the local community, Sahyante Theatre is also envisaged as a residential creation space, which opens its doors to theatre companies from all over.

The work on the theatre is progressing, with settlers as well as tribal people lending a hand. Venkateswaran calls the structure ‘variable theatre’, a fluid space that can transform based on the requirement for a play. The border between the outside and the inside is nebulous, as the large opening at the main performance space has the hills as the backdrop. The space on the ground floor as well as the amphitheatre at the top are tailored for intimate performances. “We have so many big theatres in our cities. Their scale is way beyond the human proportion. Natya Sastra says large theatres can be built for gods, but for humans it should be small theatres. In an interaction with another person, at a distance of perhaps 20 metres, you may be able to hear each other and see broad gestures. But if you want to have quality interaction, you have to come closer. This proximity is important in theatre and this is an idea we have kept in mind while designing this space.”

A challenge for Venkateswaran is to programme performances that are relevant to the local audience. “Sustaining an audience by programming critical works is most important. That’s how you educate and build an audience. Unlike ad hoc programming, here each programme will have an intention and a target audience. A small festival of Malayalam plays is being planned for Sivarathri, a time when the local people come down from the mountains to the temple nearby.”

“At some point, I want to set up an international festival here where I want to bring works from regions like West Africa. If it’s possible for a German collaboration to happen in Delhi or Mumbai, it should be possible for a West African collaboration to happen in Attapadi. I imagine a new inter-cultural space here. I imagine a new local, a new global, a new regional and newer ways of looking at these connections,” says Venkateswaran.

Also in the works are further explorations into ‘body theatre’. Urs Dietrich, the celebrated German choreographer, is currently living here, working with Venkateswaran on Ur Hamlet , an attempt at bringing Shakespeare on stage sans words. It is set to open here in 2017. “I love this place. It’s a different world and so full of life. This reminds me of the 1920s Switzerland, where the dancers went out to the forest to perform and explore,” says Dietrich.

Venkateswaran is aware that the place will change him and his art, as much as or even more than how he is changing the place. “If you are making a work here and it goes out, there are certain things that need to be heard, including voices that are excluded or pushed out. It won’t be political propaganda. But a play like The Water Station might have members from the community here."