Excerpts from the book 'Four Tamil Plays'

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Issue No: 98August 2, 2014


• The World Alliance for Arts Education Global Summit 2014

• The International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) 2015

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• SMART: Strategic Management in the Art of Theatre A capacity building programme ...

• Job at India Foundation for the Arts

• Launch of the Book Four Tamil Plays

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Excerpts from Four Tamil Plays

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book _Four Tamil Plays _which has been published by the Department of English, Stella Maris College and Orient BlackSwan Private Limited, 2014. The Book will be released on 12 August 2014 in Chennai.

The Independence of India is a convenient landmark to begin a discussion of the colonial and pre-colonial legacies that are included or excluded in the cultural productions of the new nation-state. The fact that there is no single overarching pan-Indian national tradition makes a study of Indian traditions in any genre of writing very complex. This is particularly true of theatre since nothing can efface corporeal presences, gestures and conventions of each region in theatre, not even translations into pan-Indian English or majoritarian Hindi. Hence, there is a definite need to understand the particularities of each region without getting into broad generalisations or narrow sectarianisms. Another crucial factor to be borne in mind while studying any theatrical tradition would be the distinction between drama and theatre. While drama can be a written text, theatre is always a performance text. There can be more than one performance text to a single literary text. There can also be literary texts that have not yet seen the light of performance. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theatre, in its introduction, states that our education system has trained us to read drama as literature and not as a performance art. Especially in regions such as Tamil Nadu, where performance pre-dates the notion of a literary text, there is a need to evolve a pedagogy for understanding the genre as it is realised in practice. Tamil Nadu has always had a contentious relationship with pan- Indian nationalism. This was true even during the struggle against colonialism, which united most parts of the country politically. The ancient and classical nature of Tamil language, in tandem with its continuous living tradition, has accentuated the north–south binary, the Sanskrit–Tamil opposition and the distinction between Vedic and non-Vedic lineage. The undercurrents of these tensions continue to inform trends in Tamil theatre today. When the rage in modern Indian drama and theatre in the rest of the nation was to draw from myths, folk and traditional forms and Sanskrit aesthetics, Tamil Nadu was swayed by the influence of anti-brahminism, Dravidian unity and Western realism. (page 6-7)

The history of twentieth century Tamil theatre – which may be called Modern Tamil theatre, for want of a better term – may be traced back to Sankaradas Swamigal (1867–1922) and Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar (1873–1964) who represented the two major trends that were established by the early twentieth century. Swamigal worked primarily in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. He drew his material from puranic and mythological stories and presented them in the form of all-night performances of musical dramas. He also later formed the Boys’ Companies, a unique phenomenon in Tamil Nadu. These companies were formed with young, mostly poor, boys who were trained to perform in these plays. The Boys’ Companies later paved the way for the emergence of another unique system called ‘Special Drama’. They were called ‘special’ because, the performers met at the assigned space of performance and put together the show. Each performer was considered an expert in the role s/he was to depict and the invitation to each member was extended through the sangam (association) of each town. This tradition continues till date and there are hundreds of professional artists who make a living through these shows. Most performers who were popular on the Tamil stage until the late 1960s were products of this tradition of rigorous training. Even when they moved into films, the difference in the performances of the actors trained in these companies, as against those who came without this exposure, was clearly evident. The legendary professionalism of actors such as Sivaji Ganesan, Nambiar and Manorama is a legacy of this training. In terms of content, though the stories were inspired by the puranic tradition, the performances were alive to contemporary sensibilities. Theodore Bhaskaran’s The Message Bearers (1981) documents the interweaving of nationalist messages into the gamut of puranic structures in these plays. It was a time when strict censorship measures were imposed on stage, and these companies used the puranic structures as sites of subversion by slipping in nationalistic messages into them. One popular instance of this is the role of the veteran actress K. B. Sundarambal in spreading Gandhism during the pre-Independence era through her performances. (P. Chozhanadan, 2002). A parallel trajectory of theatre initiated by Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar was essentially urban-based, a product of Western education. He disliked the conventions of songs and bawdy humour that were often an intrinsic part of traditional all-night shows. Influenced by groups from Andhra and Bombay, Pammal, a lawyer and judge by profession, brought together a group of like-minded friends and formed the Suguna Vilasa Sabha in 1891. He also used puranic stories but infused them with new meanings and also introduced prose dialogues and social themes. Chandra Hari, his parody of Harishchandra, is a play par excellence. He also adapted many Western drama texts – especially Shakespeare – into Tamil. As he has documented his stage experiences meticulously, it is possible to form an idea of how he worked. It was his preoccupation with form that led to the growth of new talent in stage design as evidenced by innovative sets and costumes and the introduction of socially relevant themes. (page 7-9)

It was at this juncture (in the early sixties) – when the Parsi theatre tradition modified the traditional koothu performance, and prose and contemporary themes were introduced on stage – that post-Independence Tamil theatre began. By this time, the stage had become a powerful space for contesting contradictory ideologies across the nation. Artists were becoming active participants in politics in many regions in India. However, unlike in most other regions of India, where IPTA (The Indian People’s Theatre Association) represented the nationalist agenda, Tamil Nadu had nationalism infused through the two kinds of theatres mentioned above. There was no separate nationalist theatre to speak of. Political activity was closely linked to cultural activity, especially theatre, in Tamil Nadu during this time. The Left movement, which organised cultural events to collect funds for Bengal Famine Relief, World War II and other causes, used street theatre, replete with songs, as a powerful tool. This may be seen as one of the early associations between political ideology and cultural activity in the state. None of these efforts have been methodically documented so far. It is important to remember this fact in trying to understand the growth of Dravidian ideology in twentieth century Tamil Nadu. It was during this time that the Dravidian movement established close connections with theatre – an association that proved to be mutually influential. Hailed as the Bernard Shaw of Tamilnadu, C. N. Annadurai (1909–1969) led the contingent of writers in the Dravidian Movement. His plays were a complete break from the preceding traditions of Tamil drama. They were powerful social dramas, plays of ideas, where the characters were types representing a particular worldview. In 1967, when the D. M. K., an emerging political party with a Dravidian identity, won the elections, Bhakthavatsalam, the defeated Congress Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu is supposed to have commented that the ‘Koothadis’6 had captured power – such was the important role played by drama and cinema in the history of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam! Though social plays had already been written in Tamil, for the first time ordinary people occupied the stage with dignity in the plays of Anna (as he was endearingly called). The dialogues, though by no means realistic, were devoid of Sanskrit influence and the glory of the Tamil language and tradition reached its rhetorical heights. Oratory, which was refined into an art by the Dravidian political movement, became a pre-requisite for their plays as well. Anti-brahminism, mockery of puranic values, questioning of social discrimination and proclaiming self-respect became the nodal aspects of the plays of Annadurai, Karunanidhi, A. V. P. Asaithambi, Madhiazhagan, C. P. Sirrarasu and many others (Kumaravelan, 1991). Or Iravu, Needhi Devan Mayakkam, Chandra Mohan Alladhu Sivaji Kanda Indu Samrajyam, Velaikkari and Chandrodayam were some of Anna’s most significant plays. Sivaji Kanda Indu Samrajyam, a play which won the title of ‘Sivaji’ for the lead actor Ganesan from no less a person than Periyar himself, was based on Ambedkar’s critique of Shivaji. The play, which has a great deal of resonance today in the context of the rise of Hindutva forces, was performed in 1994 by a modern theatre group called Pareeksha.7 The play demonstrates how Hinduism was interpreted in terms of brahminical hegemony, class hierarchy and superstitious beliefs and, therefore, seen as anti-rational. (page 9-11)

While one branch of theatre – the sabha drama from Pudumaippitthan, through Sujata, Poornam and Komal to contemporary actor-directors such as S. Ve. Sekar – had its own trajectory, another branch – that of the Naveena Natakam or Modern Theatre – was also simultaneously charting its own course. The beginning of what is referred to as Naveena Natakam in Tamil is often traced to the 1977-Gandhigram workshop organised by Prof S. Ramanujam, S. P. Srinivasan and Velusami. This genre has branched out in many ways today. Unlike in other states in India, it is difficult to identify one dominant theatrical trend in Tamil Nadu. Since Tamil Nadu did not join the fray in building up a nationalist theatre and was skeptical in its approach to folk forms in the region, modern theatre in Tamil did not resort to any specific formal experiment between the fifties and the seventies. This was further compounded by the re-examination of the ‘back to the roots’ theatre at the national level in the eighties. The Dravidian Movement had turned to cinema completely by the end of the sixties. So, as far as a serious engagement with drama was concerned, it was really a new beginning when Ramanujam organized the 1977 workshop at Gandhigram. (17-18)

The end of the seventies saw experimental efforts at forming modern Tamil drama. The commercial ventures of sabha dramas continued to survive and only in the nineties did these plays become almost indistinct from TV serials. It is difficult to classify trends in Tamil theatre towards the end of the twentieth century. The exploratory theatre of the actors of Koothu-p-Pattarai, the quest for identity theatre of Palkalai Arangam, the props theatre of Arumugam, the children’s theatre of Velu Saravanan, the political theatre of Pralayan, the gendered theatre of Voicing Silence, the dalit theatre efforts of dalit movements, the experimental theatre of space of Murugaboopathi and many others co-exist. Efforts have been made to make sense of what is happening in theatre by various groups or people at different times through festivals, seminars and journal publications. It is perhaps the right time now to study these trends in theatre critically and to attempt a critical history of theatre in Tamil, a task that has not been taken on yet. This essay is a step in this direction. (35)

By translating two plays each of two playwrights separated by at least a decade or more, this volume attempts to offer a glimpse into the formation of modern Tamil theatre and its departure from traditional theatre as well. In a country like India where pre- and postcolonial forms manage to co-exist simultaneously, it is important to study the varied aspects of dramatic imagination through texts that are grounded in different parameters of performance traditions. This volume, we hope, will serve this purpose in a small way. (36)

Excerpts from Man in the Chair by Na. Muthusami, translated by Thilagavathi Joseph

Man in the Chair: If I drop this … to be more precise, this stone is going to fix my fate too. One man: No … no … that is the rule of the game. The game is played by rules. Rule demands that you drop the stone. You should abide by that. Onlooker: Don’t make a big fuss. They respect you and you have to honour that respect. It is dangerous to be a defeatist. Get up and drop that stone. The verdict is in your hands. Man in the Chair: No, no, leave me out … I’ll say Sivané and sit quietly. Onlooker: How can that be? You ought to cast your stone. It may even turn out to be the judgment of the God of justice. Why not? You may just be an instrument. Come on; get up and cast your stone. (Pulls him up by his hand and brings him) Card Gang: In our jar … Marble Gang: In our jar … Man in the Chair: You won’t let me sit quietly … Okay … will you keep your word? All: We will … we will. Man in the Chair: Then give me some time to think. One man: Take your time. Next man: Relax and think. Man in the Chair: If I refuse to act against my conscience, are you sure you won’t be cross? Onlooker: They won’t be cross. Man in the Chair: You shouldn’t forget that, like you, I too have my own likes and dislikes. All: We won’t forget … won’t forget. Man in the Chair: Later on, don’t get angry. One man: We’ll never ever get angry. Next one: Real sportsmanship lies in accepting success and defeat. Man in the Chair: Then, I’d say that I don’t like the Card Gang. That is not our tradition at all. That isn’t our national game. That makes man a slave; a gambler. Marble game is our game. It belongs to our nation. It must have started in the Stone Age itself. Man must have played this game ever since he learnt to use his fingers. So, my stone is in favour of our game, the marble game. (He casts his stone into the Marble Gang’s jar.) Onlooker: Well done ... victory, victory, victory to the Marble Gang. Marble Gang: Long live marble … victory to the marble, defeat for pack of cards. One section of Marble Gang: Defeated, defeated … Another section of the Marble Gang: Defeated, defeated … (They carry the jar in a procession. The Card Gang is upset and they sit down.) Onlooker: Don’t lose your spirit. Plan the next move. Growing weary will never get you success. You should win in the next round. (The man carrying Card Gang’s jar flings the jar angrily on the floor and breaks it. Others shout, ‘Marble, down, down’. Every one runs helter-skelter on stage and kick each other.) Onlooker: O my God! I am dead. The game has misfired. Game has misfired. (He takes to heel. The Chair Man is astounded. Realising the danger, he attempts to run.) One man: Catch him … catch him … (The Man in the Chair runs.) Another man: Don’t leave him; catch him. Another one: It is he who caused our defeat. Don’t leave him … catch him. Don’t let him go … catch him. (They drag him back.) One man: Just choke him to death. Another man: One punch for gambling – our tradition. Another one: Even one’s wife can be staked.16 Punch. Next one: There is nothing that is not found in our tradition! Punch. (All fall on him and smother him.) Man in the Chair (trapped in the human crowd and in a feeble voice): Save me … save me … (Lights dim and the stage is in darkness. Curtain) (54-56)


Excerpts from Aravaan by S. Ramakrishnan, translated by Padma V Mckertich

Tell me, who are you? Are you someone who has taken on a magical form? No. Your breasts are swelling, your eyebrows are arched with desire, your thighs are shivering. You are a woman. Without your clothes, you will glisten like fire in the darkness. Before I make love to you I wish to swim in the dark blueness of your body. Take off your clothes. (He quickly mimes stripping off her clothes. He talks as though surprised and awed by the nudity of a woman.) Your body looks like a shiny pebble. Don’t shut your eyes. To shut eyes is to insult desire. Open your eyes and look. What is this? Your breasts have disappeared in you; you look like a man. Below your waist, you are woman. Ei, tell me, who are you? Are you death come to play with Aravaan? I don’t care who you are. Lie down. Take in my desires. What’s this? Your body smells of milk? Are you that cowherd Krishna? You are a man. No, you are a woman. Ei, tell me, who is Aravaan spending the night with? (He lies down) Why do you cry? Who are you? Your sobs are not a woman’s. They sound like a man crying. Stop. Don’t run. (Panting as though he has run a long chase) A dark blue is stuck to my body. My lips feel rough as though they have met a man’s lips. To whom did I make love? Whose body received my semen? Wouldn’t the blazing fire have seen her? Who was she? She who made love to me? Where has she disappeared? Where is she? Who? Was she a woman? Where is she? Where is she? (He drinks some liquor.) (110-111)

Photographs by Koothuppattarai and Mohan Vadakkara

Book Cover, Four Tamil Plays

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