It was in 2009 I got a chance to meet this veteran artist and visionary who spend his life to fulfilment till the end, Dr.Vayala Vasudevan Pillai. One evening Jean was asked to do a video shoot of Thayambaka of Mattannur Sankarankutty at the Vighneswara temple in Vazhuthacaud and since he wanted assistance, he asked me to join him. We went there and it was there I chanced to meet this smiling face clad in white khadhi Mundu and shirt to be the Director of the Centre for Performing and Visual Arts where Jean has just joined the Centre, as Technical Assistant. He enquired Jean on where he is setting up camera, and left us to do our job. At the end of the program, he enquired who I am and what our plans were. As we said we plan to go home, he immediately said ‘why not go to Aruna Hotel, have a Masala dosa, then go home and relax.’ We were being lovingly pushed in, into that charming love, which has enthused so many generations of students into becoming better humans, being kind and generous in their ways and clear in their attitudes.
Kerala University Senete House campus was at that time, having a centre running full-fledged with students doing their M.Phil in Theatre and drama, as a part of simplifying the present education system, which is mostly based on a by-hearting and exhibiting one’s memory power in examinations rather than skill development or survival knowledge. And occasionally, since I was doing some work in sanitation and education sector, I used to meet Jean in the evenings at this place. And I occasionally used to meet Vayala sir here. Had to commit that I was impressed to core beyond all faith by his simplicity and later on he tend to capture my heart forever with his gentle ways.
I was busy with the works going on in Tamilnadu and Bihar and other places, so the chances of meeting him were rare. But whenever we met, I was greeted with a smile, a small enquiry on how the works are going on and finally calling Jean “come on, let’s have a coffee from coffee house, I will wait by the gate.. You two come”… etc were very frequent conversations when we met. He will be chatting with the security staff waiting for us when we join and made sure we were introduced to the security staff. A food together with some chat or plans regarding work was something he loved, I assume.
The incredible and jovial way by which he handled students and even Jean, were shared often by Jean himself. We still have good laughs about such situations. For example, when Jean hasn’t reached office or if he is sent out for a mission, but if situation demands Jean to come back, Vayala sir will call him, ‘Jean where are you, when are you coming back?’ ‘Five minutes sir, I will be back’, skipping the first part Jean will answer (who has not grown out of his five minute ventures even now). From his hesitance to say where he is, Sir as a person who has grown up understanding the situations of the other person will immediately ask, ‘is that Jean’s five minutes or our five minutes? Come straight after your mission is over, I need your help.’ And students later seem to tell Jean that Vayala sir clarifies with them, ‘Jean is caught up with some urgent matters that takes time, but he will join us somewhere between half an hour or one hour.’ That was sir. There was very hardly any situation where he raises his voice or disrespectfully talked about anybody.
The skill with which he handled his students’ community was just amazing. Talking with students, once they mentioned the time he planned ‘Aandubali’ to be enacted for the first enacted at Senate Hall, University, he seems to have given the play for students to read it through during the weekend and asked them to come back selecting their part they want to play themselves. Next week beginning he came to the class with a paper in his hand and asked the students if they read the play and selected their characters. Then he asked them to mention the character they selected and why they selected it. One by one and they all revealed their mission and at the end of the introductions, he handed over the folded paper to the students. They were spell bound by the way he wrote their names and how their character selection and his, synchronised with each other. To me it was his commitment towards his students and towards the world of drama which he held so close to his heart, which revealed to him the character of students in identifying the play characters.
It was around this time I got something on ‘How much is the value of a 50 year old tree if it was monetarily calculated.’ Jean helped me with setting it up as a poster, for our education purposes. He took one to the Centre and put it up on the notice board for students to understand the value of paper and to use it with discretion. Few weeks later, when one of the students set up their primary papers on dissertation with excess space between lines and as one-sided printout, he very painfully seemed to have spurt out, ‘have you once read that poster on the notice board? Do you know a lot of trees are cut for making paper? Trees are invaluable things we should treasure. Pls don’t waste and misuse paper or other resources.’ This I think was one occasion he really got upset.
There were some days some urgent work has to be done and sometimes if Jean has to spent a Sunday or second Saturday, he will be coming during lunch time with savouries from their kitchen saying, ‘Valsala is here for the weekend, and I know you both will be here, don’t work hungry stomach, eat this and after that you can complete the work.’ When our niece was in hospital with serious health issues, and since her father wasn’t around Jean had to run around a lot, Jean remembers that he was never called in, but if there is any work to be done it will be left on the table with instructions on. He was allowed to come and leave at his convenience and also there will be some extra money for all the little works done. When the extra money is returned he never accepts it, saying ‘all work has a pain and labour behind it.’ Yes, he respected people and all sorts of work people undertook.
In 2010, they went to Delhi, where Kendra Sangeeth Natak Academy had selected his drama “Aandubali” as the best drama script of the year. Jean was asked to find a post office while at Delhi, and post some money orders in the addresses given. After completing the mission Jean came back to report and it was then that Jean realised that there were so many students who were part of this kind-hearted person whom he supported economically for their studies and the kindness showered on Jean was not a singled out instance.
He had shone in all phases of life as an actor, playwright, teacher, researcher, director, organiser, a visionary playwright but maintained his uncompromising stance to be a pure Gandhian in all its’ sense. Starting his career as an English Lecturer in Mar Ivanios College from 1968 to 1984 on completing his P.G. course, he was soon enamoured by the world of drama and joined School of Drama, initially as Assistant Director and then as its Director. Though it was Prof. G. Sankara Pillai who initiated School of Drama in Thrissur, it was Dr.Vayala’s struggle which was behind developing drama courses and struggling to have its own building for School of Drama, while he was the Director. And until he was gone, he never had shown any pompousness of being a person known worldwide in the field of drama and theatre.
Last few months of his life had been a trial with chemotherapy affecting his health negatively, along with the cancer he was suffering from. But never had he remained grumpy nor had he disappeared from the world of students in the name of ill-health. Until the day he had gone to Lakeshore hospital for better treatment, he was with his students in the Centre giving them hope he will come back with better health and added vigour to help them complete their course. None of the staff remembers him being grumpy or unwell, making use of his illness to acquire benefits or even complaining about his illness. Many were completely taken aback when the news of his untimely departure came in, since he never mentioned it even to the close associates.
Learning and becoming part of the World Theatre, he has never forgotten the struggles he underwent as a student, having to walk kilometres to reach the school. He made sure Vayala his motherland finally got a Government High School of its own, so that the students don’t have to travel far to acquire education. And as his dedication to the drama world, convincing UGC, he acted as the Honorary Director and Founder Director of Performing and Visual Arts Centre in Kerala University until 2011, August 29, the time he left the world. Thankfully he has left this world with lots of inspiring memories with his students, family and friends who still keep their Guru’s memories in awe and reverence.
Veena M is a social activist