Binoy Nambala, a theatre student at the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, has developed a performance inspired by the tradition as part of his PhD thesis.

Reviving Payakkam Parachil a satirical oral storytelling tradition from Malabar
Features Theatre Monday, November 04, 2019 - 13:19

At the other end of the phone, Binoy Nambala sounds excited as he speaks about Sulaimante Payakkam Parachilukal, his one hour and 15 minute long solo performance that is gaining attention. A theatre student at the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, he developed this form, a kind of Malayalam stand-up comedy, as part of his PhD thesis.

Binoy’s guide Dr Gopan Chidambaram, who is also the director of the show, advised him to research on realistic acting based on regional performances. A native of Malabar’s Parappanangadi, Binoy’s research led him to Payakkam Parachil, a satirical oral storytelling technique prevalent in Malabar until the 1960s. Inspired, he wrote Sulaimante Payakkam Parachilukal, a contemporary stand-up piece, giving the long-lost tradition a new life.

“Unlike other theses, mine is performance-oriented. The text is born out of my experiences performing this piece. One will be able to comprehend the text only after watching the performance,” says Binoy, who has performed Sulaimante… at 20 venues, including outside India. Neither his guide nor he were sure about the outcome when they embarked on the project. “Luckily, everything turned out good,” he smiles.

Four years of research

The research was a tough task. Lack of references was the main obstacle. “I found a small reference in one of SK Pottakad’s travelogues. Then I went around asking older people to get a better idea,” recalls Binoy.

Binoy's different getups
Payakkam Parachil was a crowd-pulling tool. “In my area, vayambu (preaching) during the month of Ramadan is a common sight nowadays. Back in those days, as the religion was not quite popular, there were not too many listeners. So, to attract people, a musalyar accompanied by a musician would stage Payakkam Parachil in crowded places. He would crack jokes about the people in that particular place, mostly cooked up stories about prominent figures. Curious, people would gradually gather around him. When the crowd got bigger, he would switch to vayambu,” Binoy narrates. “They used to perform in houses too, to catch women audiences. They had a peculiar costume too,” he adds.

Interactive performance

Binoy inculcated the humour, character getup and the music into Sulaimante Payakkam Parachilukal, which narrates the story of Sulaiman’s life from the age of seven to 21. Unlike the traditional form, his work has a basic script. But he improvises every time through audience interaction.

“For me, each performance is exercise. Before the performance, I tell my audience about my research and seek their opinion. It really works. Many older viewers have contributed to making my work better. For instance, one viewer helped me with details of the costumes. From another viewer, I learnt that Payakkam Parachil is practised as a ritual at a temple in Kasaragod. Interestingly, it’s a Muslim family that performs there. Information like this is my takeaway,” he smiles.

Seven characters, seven styles

Other than the titular character, Binoy appears as six other characters, namely CPM Haji, Vadakkodathu Nair, Ayesha (Sulaiman’s mother), Kuttikandom Mymad, Kuttyali and Velyaudhan Kuttiyettan. They appear on the stage sequentially. “The story is written in such a manner that characters can assume their getups as the story progresses,” Binoy says.

Binoy as Umma
Sulaiman’s father has passed away. His family is yet to recover from the debt incurred for his sister’s marriage. Sulaiman has a cow. But Vadakkodathu Nair, who had loaned money to Sulaiman’s family, has taken the cow as the family has not been able to return the money. Every day, Sulaiman goes to Nair’s place to milk the cow because the cow hates Nair. More than that, Nair’s interest lies in the money generated from the milk.

Binoy says the characters are developed from the situations and people he is familiar with. He cites CPM Haji as an instance. “He is a fishmonger and his real name is Chellichendu Purakkal Kunjahammad. He goes to the Gulf and returns a wealthy man. He then changes his name to CP Mohammed Haji, which is later abbreviated to CPM Haji.”

Binoy as CPM Haji
The story has a political angle too. “There were a few instances in our place where CPM reaped success by launching rich persons as independent candidates. CPM Haji symbolises them. People in my area could easily relate to this,” explains Binoy, who speaks the North Malabar dialect in his interactive piece. Is that a barrier? “No,” he says, adding, “In venues outside the Malabar, I ask viewers whether they can follow it. If required, I slow down the dialogue delivery pace.”

Sound and smell

Live music is an inevitable part of Sulaimante Payakkam Parachilukal. “My friend Thomas Joe handles the music. He plays onstage in costume. We have even developed instruments to get certain sounds right, like the mooing of the cow.” Art by Diljith M Das complements the ambience.

One can experience smell too during the performance. For instance, when Sulaiman mentions biryani, the smell of biryani wafts in. “Smell adds an emotional quotient. Audiences cry when Sulaiman gives them his father’s clothes to smell. Some hesitate to pick it fearing they would break into tears. It is an experience. All these have gone into my thesis,” says Binoy, who is also a cine artiste. Currently, he is acting in Thrissur Pooram starring Jayasurya.

So, what next? “I had to put the performance on hold to complete my movie assignments. I’m planning to resume it in December. And, of course, I have to submit the thesis,” he smiles.

Elizabeth Thomas describes herself as a wild woman who finds happiness in words, colours, coffee and journeys.

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