At a time when Indians abroad are trying to make their way back home during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are hundreds of foreigners stranded in Kerala who do not want to return to their home countries as they feel Kerala is safer than any other place on planet earth. God’s Own Country once more shows to the world that its the place which makes you feel at home and where you want to be.
Here we have a story of a US Theatre Professor at the Washington State University who got held up in Kochi during the time when India was put under a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Prof Terry Converse, who teaches direction and specialises in the use of masks in theatre, is unwilling to return any soon to the US. Now, he has taken legal steps to remain in Kerala for at least the next six months.
Prof Terry is at present living with the family of Charu Narayanakumar who is the head of Phoenix World Theatre group in Kochi. Prof Terry Converse’visa had run out on March 27 and got extended till 25th April and due to the lockdown it was further extended until 17th May. However, Prof Terry has now taken the legal process by approaching the Kerala High Court requesting his visa be extended by as many six months.
The Kerala High Court will now take up his petition once the lockdown is lifted.
The story gains interest just due to the fact that Kerala has been termed by many foreigners as a place where they all feel so safe to be. Kerala Calling caught up with Prof Terry Converse to explore reasons why he finds Kerala so enchating that he doesnt want to leave.
File picture from one of Prof Terry’s mask acting workshops
Q: You had said: “I feel far safer in India than I do in the United States.” Can you please elaborate on why you felt this would be the right decision for you?
My feeling safer in Kerala than the US is based on several factors. I have friends and family from several different states ranging from East Coast to West Coast. I hear from them regularly how things are going, and many of them have advised me to stay put, if at all possible. Unlike India, and specifically Kerala, the United States took way too long to begin taking proactive action towards the pandemic.
Besides talking to friends and family, I carefully read articles in the New York Times, New Yorker, and the Atlantic, and they provide me with up to date info on what is happening in the US.
To travel from Kerala to the US typically requires going through 3-4 airports, and this alone is not a particularly safe thing to do if it can be avoided. Then once in the US, I face the difficulty of living in places that are not taking the lockdown very seriously.
Q: In your views how was Kerala able to contain the virus up until now. What do you see as the good things they have done compared to the West?
Locking the borders is one very good thing Kerala government had done. In the US, the state borders are totally open and this has caused the coronavirus to spread much faster than it would have otherwise.
I have also been very pleased with Kerala government’s attentiveness to tracking person to person Covid-19 patients. Again, the tracking in Kerala and India in general is much more effective than the US.
Prime Minister Modi’s suggestion to to support for the lockdown by lighting lamps, etc. was from what I could tell in Kochi very effective, and this kind of solidarity in the US is still, to date, very much lacking.
Q: Can you please share about your works in Kerala?
In 2012, I was granted a Fulbright scholarship to work with a theatre doing an extensive series of mask acting workshops. As a Fulbright visiting lecturer, I conducted a three month series of extensive mask acting workshops with Chandra Dasan’s Lokadharmi Theatre in Kochi.
While in residency at Lokadharmi Theatre
I directed a dramatization of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s famous short story The World-Renowned Nose (Viswavikhyathamaya Mookku) and Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man
. Indigenous theatre often used various forms of masks, and this is initially while I was fascinated to learn more about them.
Q: Can you please explain what is the importance of face masks in theatre?
Usage of face masks encourage actors to use body language more effusively since they could no longer use their faces to emote. It is about aesthetics, performance and technique. When you take away the face, how to communicate becomes a challenge for an actor.
The focus then is on physicalising an emotion and various body movements. An actor has to create various characters using these masks and their body language. We make the participants dress in black and they would emote in front of the mirror. The idea is to strip them of any kind of self-identity.
The mask becomes powerful then and we see an immediate transformation in these actors as they become a completely new person.Kathakali is specifically associated with Kerala, and while it doesn’t use actual masks, the very detailed make up and costuming creates a mask like effect.
Q: Can you please let us know your purpose of being in Kerala?
This ranges from directing, designing posters and press releases, as well as finding theatre projects that are interest to all of us. My assocaition with the family dates back to 2013. In 2013 Charu and I were traveling to Mumbai to do an all day Mask Acting Workshop, on behalf of Fulbright and we suffered a very serious head on collision. Without going into detail, I suffered multiple facial fractures, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung.
I was knocked immediately unconscious, but Charu managed to get us to a hospital in a timely fashion, and she literally saved my life. This is part of the reason I dedicated to helping Charu and her theatre, but even if the accident never happened I would have been drawn to working with Phoenix World Theatre because for over 30 years I have been extremely interested in theatre that focuses on cross cultural themes. Our production of Manjula Padmanabhan’s Harvest is good example of this cross cultural interest.
Q: Has there been any incidents which you can remember struck you as
interesting while in Kerala prior to Covid or after Covid which you can share with the public?
Had I come to India strictly as a tourist, rather than a theatre artist, my experience would have been much different. Theatre people, regardless of what country they come from, share a natural bond, and are more naturally open to reveal things about their lifestyle and culture that I would never learn otherwise.
I feel very fortunate being invited to spend a day visiting Manjula Padmanabhan in Delhi, and I enjoyed communicating with Girish Karnad by email regarding our production of Naga Mandala.
While on my Fulbright I worked with Chandra Dasan’s Lokadharmi Theatre group, and that is certainly an experience I will always treasure. In my touring with Phoenix World Theatre I have met exceptionally talented theatre directors: Ashis Das and Probir Guha.
I conducted a three week workshop at Kallol’s Ebong Amra Theatre Village which remains one my most treasured moments in India — his work and his highly trained actors are remarkably talented, wonderful people.
I plan on working with them again, as soon as social distancing isn’t an ongoing problem.One thing that makes India very special with regards to theatre is the abundance of theatre festivals.
Festivals around the country such as NSD Theatre Festival, Itfok, Gobandanga and many more have been highlights of my time in India. Also, living in Kochi, has made it very easy for me to frequently visit the various events at the Biennale.
Q: As a tourist were you able to accomplish the aims of travelling all over where you wanted to and what will be your feedback on the place Kerala as a tourist destination to the world? Would you come back to Kerala? and if yes, which place would you prefer to stay? Which captivated you both the most?
Absolutely. I have been coming to India for eight years, typically arriving in September and returning to the US in June so I have been very fortunate to have experienced many places in India. During my visits I traveled extensively throughout India, ranging from Darjeeling, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Khajarho, Varanasi, Hampi, Trivandrum, Coimbatore, Mysore, Kanyakumari, Kannur, Trissur, Alappuzha etc.
Q: Please let us know where you are from the US and tell us about your family, town or village?
In the US, my home for the 30 years has been in Pullman, Washington. My daughter Kathleen is living in Portland, with her husband Ben who is a nurse and her son Finley who is 2 ½ years old.
Kathleen is University professor teaching Women Studies at University of Portland. My son Ryan is staying in Los Angeles and is working as a Multi-media visual artist. I have a brother Chico Converse who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his wife Amy who is a lawyer. He runs a highly successful music group called Lagniappe, which specializes in cajun music.
This was interview was first published on Kerala Calling magazine published by Government of Kerala, Information & Public Relations Dept. Magazine May 2020 issue. Print version will be available in a week. This Magazine is having a very wide popular reach and a good source to Public Awareness on the Pandemic. After few days, you could view it on the following link: https://kerala.gov.in/publication