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Please tell us about your background.

“I am a feminist theatre artiste. I’m very proud to be one, very happy to be one, and more importantly, I have no qualms about saying that I am one,” says Sreeletha Kadavil as we catch up with her while she practises for her play Echo of the Day, the only solo by a woman at this year’s National Theatre Festival, which begins in Kozhikode on March 27. “I know that most people would chaff at being labelled so or feel boxed in by it. But I have never felt that being a feminist artiste is a limitation. Instead, it has given me a different perspective on theatre, an unbound freedom to explore myself as an artiste. I believe that in our theatre – and to an extent in life too – a feminist perspective is needed. To keep it real,” adds Sreeletha, emphatically.

Then again this firebrand alumna of the School of Drama, Thrissur, has always been a different act. She was the first woman from Kerala to be part of Footsbarn theatre, the world-famous travelling theatre company. She was also one of the founders of Abhinetri, Kerala’s first all-woman theatre troupe, along with fellow theatre activists Sajitha Madathil and C.S. Sudhi. She has had an exciting career on stage in landmark plays such as EkakiSavithrikutty Oru Kathayattam, and Devasilakal (for which she won the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award for best director and best actor). She has also managed to successfully cross over to both tinsel town and the small screen, even winning three State TV awards for best actress. No surprises that Sreeletha is firmly ensconced in Malayalam theatre’s hall of fame.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Sreeletha’s tryst with theatre began when she was a toddler. In fact, it wouldn’t be all that wrong to suggest that she learned to talk by watching drama practices! “As long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination for drama, not that any in my family was theatrically inclined. But my mother, Susheela, is a Bharatanatyam dancer. Perhaps I got my performance genes from her. Instead of going to nursery school, I would spend all day watching and imitating my neighbour Manacaud Usha, a once well-known theatre artiste, practise her dialogues,” recalls Sreeletha, a native of the city. At age four-and-a-half, while at Usha’s house, Sreeletha volunteered to act in Vilakkumaram, a travelling play that was part of the Government’s family planning campaign. “My father, Kunjumon, was not pleased. He eventually relented when I went on a hunger strike! Thus at a young age I got to travel across the length and breadth of Kerala,” says the artiste.

Throughout her schooling she stayed in touch with the stage, acting in local drama productions and appearing in movies such as Yagam and Poojakku Edukkatha Pookkal. And while in class 10 she starred in the movie Kaligaopposite Venu Nagavally.

What did you study?

“By then I’d begun to feel that the stage was my destiny (she was by then pursuing an economics undergraduate degree at N.S.S. College). Coming to know of my keenness to take up theatre as a profession and my parent’s objections to it, theatre maestro P.K. Venukuttan Nair spent a whole day cajoling them to let me go professional. That was a turning point. The School of Drama trained me to shed my inhibitions as an actor and as a person. The homely, docile Sreeletha who was used to playing soft-spoken heroines evolved into a screaming unrestrained virago on stage – something that I’d always yearned to do,” says the artiste, with a chuckle.

What was your career path after college?

Then, in 1995, Footsbarn came calling, changing her life and her concept of theatre forever. And the world became her stage, literally. With the support of her husband Alex Kadavil, her senior at the School of Drama, the newly-married Sreeletha went off to live the gypsy life with Footsbarn. In her five years with Footsbarn and its motley, multilingual crew, she travelled to countless countries (she puzzles over the number, “a lot,” she says, eventually), lived out of a caravan (children of the cast and crew also travelled with them), performed plays in tents (sophisticated tents, nonetheless), learnt to speak English, French, Spanish…in short, she “had the time of her life.”

“It was an eye-opener. There was no director for any of the plays and each actor could interpret the character as he/she saw fit. Just before my first performance with the company, at a village in France, I peeked out to see a huge crowd jostling for tickets to see the show – just like we see for a Mohanlal/Mammootty movie here! It was the same scene everywhere. What more impetus do you need to do your best? Then there were the post-show discussions and analysis – intellectually stimulating conversations on the play, on world theatre, the wine flowing freely…Bliss. The exposure that I got at Footsbarn is simply priceless,” recalls the artiste, with a sort of yearning in her eyes.

Then wasn’t it difficult to find her footing once she was back in Kerala? “Of course! It took me a long time to adjust from all that unrestrained freedom to fall into the groove here. It helped that Malayalam theatre was changing and becoming more receptive to new ideas and experiments. In between, Alex took the initiative to send me back to Footsbarn for a year – this time with my three-year-old son Akash in tow,” recalls Sreeletha, who lost her husband to a heart attack shortly afterwards. She made the “difficult choice,” and came back to Kerala because she wanted to her son “to grow up in a structured environment.”

The artiste currently runs a troupe called Dafodil (Drama for Different Intelligence) and armed with a B.Ed. degree in teaching differently-abled children, she uses theatre as a means of therapy, conducting workshops and staging plays in association with the Department of Public Instruction. Sreeletha’s unbridled passion for theatre continues…

Sreeletha’s Echo of the Day, conceptualised by the artiste along with Sudhi and E. Rajarajeshwari of Nireeksha drama troupe, is a new genre of theatrical performance in Malayalam that goes beyond the stage and into nature itself. It blends the brushstrokes of artist Sajitha Sankar with theatrical idioms, making a strong statement for the rights of womanhood and nature.