THRISSUR, India — The staging of a historic drama on the life of St. Anthony of Padua, enacted by more than 3,000 actors, marked the inauguration of the Church’s Year of Faith in this city in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
There is a large Christian minority in Kerala, comprising approximately 20% of the state’s 33 million residents.
The three-hour Year of Faith drama, Morocasa (The Sacrifice of Morocco), re-enacting the life of St. Anthony in the milieu of 13th-century Morocco, was staged over the first weekend of November.
All four performances were held in a temporary hall, with a seating capacity of 5,000, erected at a soccer stadium in the heart of Thrissur. By the time of the final show on Nov. 4, the organizers had to restrict entry, as tickets were sold out.
The production was staged on an epic scale, with a total cast of 3,023 actors participating. In fact, organizers are compiling data to submit to the Guinness World Records as a new record for the "largest theater cast."
"I will be most happy if our performance is recognized as a Guinness world record," Jinto Thekkiniyath, a Catholic porter at Thrissur’s buzzing "rice bazaar" and the drama’s mastermind, told the Register in a Nov. 26 interview.
The main roles in the cast included several Hindu and Muslim actors, while the majority of the rest of the massive cast was drawn from nine local high schools. Groups of 150-200 students at each of these schools practiced their roles for weeks ahead of the final rehearsals, which took place on the sprawling stage that was set up on the soccer field three days ahead of the first show.
During the student actors’ initial rehearsals, for their roles in scenes featuring events such as wars, public meetings and mass killings of people, Thekkiniyath visited their schools on a fixed schedule to supervise their efforts.
"It was very tough to organize," acknowledged Thekkiniyath, who was able to study only up to the 10th grade before being forced in 2004 to become a porter in Thrissur’s grain market to earn a living. "But everyone extended wholehearted cooperation. That is why we could succeed."
True to the drama’s epic scale, the initial Nov. 3 presentation was a grand event, with Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Thrissur, the president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, inaugurating proceedings in the presence of a host of dignitaries, including state legislators, film actors and prominent dramatists.
Now that the play’s initial run has ended, its organizers are still seeking recognition as the largest stage event ever, in terms of the size of its cast.
"We are hopeful of our performance being acknowledged as a record," Vijay Gopal, a Hindu computer engineer who has been in touch with the Guinness officials, told the Register Nov. 27.
Quoting from a communication from Guinness officials, Gopal said the existing record for the maximum stage participants is 2,100 children appearing in the finale of the Rolf Harris Schools Variety Spectacular, held at Sydney Entertainment Centre in November 1985.
"If we had the money to meet the expenses of Guinness record fees and team visit, they would have come here and given the certificate instantly," added Gopal, who coordinated technical support for the drama. But that would have cost more than 500,000 Indian rupees, about $10,000.
Along with the sterling performances delivered by the play’s main characters, Gopal highlighted the technical innovation employed to accomplish difficult-to-portray scenes, such as fish listening to the sermons of St. Anthony. This was handled through visuals of dolphins and swarms of fish jumping out of the water, displayed on three digital screens located at the back of the stage.
Similarly, the royal palace of the king of the Philistines was projected on the central electronic screen, while the actors stood directly in front. The scene of Samson bringing down the palace was made to look real with the crumbling of a pair of pillars to which he had been tied, while the giant screen behind him displayed a film clip of the crash of a palace taken from a Hollywood movie.
"The story of St. Anthony in itself is very spiritual, and there was not much drama in it," explained Thekkiniyath. "So I decided to weave in the story of Samson and Delilah to bring romance, song, war and other action that the present generation looks forward to in stage performances. I screened the Bible several times before I stumbled upon Samson’s story that had all these elements."
The biblical account of Samson, which comprises the first part of the drama, including wars in which most of the actors assemble on stage, was introduced in the form of a spiritual discourse on the temptations of the world that young Anthony hears from a priest when he visits a seminary with a desire to join it.
"I am a great devotee of St. Anthony and wanted to enact the life of my favorite saint," explained 26-year-old Thekkiniyath. He came up with the idea after he presented a drama on the life of St. George for his parish feast in October 2010, with 200-plus parish youth.
Thekkiniyath found an "exciting" biography of St. Anthony, written by a Capuchin priest named Father George Mekkara in Malayalam (Kerala’s mother tongue), and decided to create a drama about the patron saint of his parish of Arimboor in the Archdiocese of Thrissur.
In his enthusiasm, Thekkiniyath even traveled over 200 kilometers in 2011 to visit the priest-author of the biography at his monastery at Bharananganam. When he arrived at the monastery, however, he was saddened to learn that Father Mekkara was in a coma.
Yet Thekkiniyath was able to touch the feet of the priest (a reverential Indian custom) and returned home with the keen desire to prepare the play’s script.
"I used to write and polish my dialogues at the market during my free time," Thekkiniyath said.
Praise for the Porter
After completing the script, he approached his parish priest, Father Sebastian Peruttil, with his ambitious vision of staging a massive drama.
"Jinto’s enthusiasm and commitment was incredible, so I decided to support him in every possible way," said Father Peruttil, the former director of Kaladadan, the archdiocese’s dance-music forum.
"The staging of a drama of this proportion is a dream come true for us," Father Peruttil enthused Nov. 4 at one of the inaugural shows.
Shivaji Guruvayoor, a Hindu and popular Malayalam film veteran of 100 movies, who played the role of St. Anthony’s father in the drama, told the Register: "Everyone must admire the determination of this young porter who has performed an incredible feat. It is unbelievable that an ordinary young man could mobilize such a number of people to realize this dream."
C.L. Jose, a Catholic and one of Kerala’s leading dramatists, with more than 100 plays to his credit, was also full of praise for Thekkiniyath after seeing the inaugural show.
"A porter boy has achieved what big dramatists cannot even dream of. This is a stupendous effort — it is truly praiseworthy," added Jose.
Thekkiniyath and his stage team now plan to make the drama more compact, restricting it to 300 actors, and stage it for longer periods in the big cities of Kerala.
Said Thekkiniyath, "I am now earnestly praying to St. Anthony to make smooth our path ahead."
Anto Akkara writes from