The Indian playwright and theatre director Roysten Abel likes to stage gigantic productions. His hugely successful international show The Manganiyar Seduction – still touring – features 50 Rajasthani musicians seated on a massive vertical structure comprising row upon row of red cubicles that light up whenever a musician is playing. Equally gigantic in scale is his new show, The Kitchen, which stimulates the audience’s senses of smell and taste by cooking a dessert called payasam on stage in two vast vessels, which is served to them after the curtains come down. ]
The Kitchen sounds promising. What exactly happens on stage?
You have a couple whose relationship is undergoing a change, 12 drummers with their mizhavu (traditional copper drums from Kerala) and two big pots in which payasam is cooked. We’re talking about 100 kilos of rice, sugar, almonds, milk, raisins, cardamom and ghee. Everyone in the audience gets to taste it. It’s a multi-sensory experience.
But what is the message you are trying to convey?
The Kitchen is an experiential piece of theatre. It juxtaposes the act of cooking with cosmic truths about the universe. It is a metaphor for human evolution. It shows us how we get “cooked” to be palatable to ourselves and to the people around us. It’s about the journey of life.
What, or who, was the inspiration for the play?
When I visited the shrine of the Sufi poet Rumi in Turkey, I was taken to Rumi’s kitchen and was struck by the scene that used to be enacted there. I was fascinated to see the raised level where Rumi and his dervishes would pray and meditate. The novices, seated on a lower level, would not be allowed to eat or drink water until their souls had “cooked”, that is until Rumi decided that they were spiritually ready. And next to these two platforms would be two pots in which food was being cooked. So the novices were being cooked, Rumi and his dervishes were cooking on a cosmic level and food was being cooked. It was the ultimate kitchen.
Why serve it to the audience?
Serving payasam to the audience is a gesture to the common practice in India of offering prasad (devotional food) in temples. The prasad is cooked in the temple kitchen and is first offered to God before it is shared among the devotees.
Tell us more about the drums from Kerala.
I was raised in Kerala and the mizhavu is an instrument I heard throughout my childhood. In Kerala, legend has it that it was given as a gift to the human race by the gods. Even today, it is considered sacred and is used in temple performances.
What launched your career?
I started writing and directing plays in school. At my parents’ insistence, I read commerce in college, but hated it and dropped out. Then one day I asked myself what I enjoyed most in life and the only thing I could think of was the plays I had put on at school. I graduated from the National School of Drama in New Delhi in 1994 and then went to apprentice with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The first performance of The Kitchen will be at the Kerala Theatre Festival today. Have you performed in Kerala before?
No, I haven’t, actually. The artistic and intellectual community there is familiar with my work but I have never performed there. There is tension. It’s a pressure cooker because the expectations will be high.
After its first showing in Kerala, The Kitchen will go on tour to festivals in Lyon, Amsterdam, Penang, Hong Kong, Kraków, Sydney and Auckland