Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tamil theatre? Are you joking?

From the Sruti archives

Watching the Madras Players’ production, Mercy, at the Museum Theatre, Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit performed by a young theatre group at the Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium, Magic Lantern’s shows at the Alliance Francaise, or the stylized, dedicated theatre of Na Muthuswami’s Koothuppattarai at varied venues big and small, you cannot help recollecting your earliest experiences of the stage in the Madras of your childhood.

Being the son of a bank officer with membership in the Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylapore, in the fifties and sixties meant that you ended up being the sole regular user of the season ticket, as said officer was seldom able to leave said bank at a decent hour. The entertainment consisted mainly of Carnatic music but there was also a monthly dose of amateur theatre. If your earliest ideas of classical music were fashioned by the voices and instruments of the stalwarts and starlets of the day—Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, Madurai Mani, Maharajapuram, GNB, MS, MLV, Pattammal, Palghat Mani, Lalgudi, Krishnan and many more—Tamil drama offered considerable variety too.

Dramatisations of the novels and novellas of Devan such as Mister Vedantam, Tuppariyum Sambu or Kalyaniyin Kanavan were popular hits. A Tamil version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which the lead roles were played by the towering Dr C G Seshadri, was so frightening that the walk home afterwards from the Alwarpet bus stop to home on Murrays Gate Road was a nightmare. ‘If I get it’ by YGP was a thriller all the way with never a dull moment, at least to an impressionable pre-teen fan. Unforgettable was Koothapiran or N V Natarajan, his real name, and though there were many plays he directed and acted in, one particular performance stood out. ‘Aravamudan Asada’ featured a tufted young man who turns out to be wiser than all the other protagonists; naturally they believe that he is a simpleton, because he is not well versed in their ‘modern’ ways, only to realise his greatness in the climactic scene.

The great dramas of the period were staged by the TKS brothers, with T K Shanmugham and T K Bhagavati playing major roles in all their lavish spectacles. Shanmugham was so convincing as Avvaiyar that when the wonderful K B Sundarambal played the sage-poetess on the screen, it was initially disappointing to note the role taken away from TKS. The eponymous ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan’ and ‘Veerapandia Kattabomman’ were both runaway successes and both eventually had Sivaji Ganesan essay the star roles in his inimitable style on screen.

Another veteran theatre personality was S V Sahasranamam whose Seva Stage was a highly respected troupe. ‘Policekaran Magal’ and ‘Nawab Narkali’ were among their evergreen hits, some of which were later filmed successfully. R S Manohar specialized in special effects and gigantic sets as much as unconventional perspectives on well known myths and epics. His plays had Manohar in roles such as Ravana in ‘Lankeswaran’, ‘Sukracharya’ and ‘Naganandi’.

The stage décor was predictably theatrical in most of these productions, with palaces, streets and temples painted on scene-specific drop-down-roll-up backdrops. Comic relief was mandatory and actors like Sarangapani, Sivathanu and Sambandam drew the most laughs. The sixties also brought to the fore such larger than life theatre personalities as United Amateur Artistes’ YGP, whose son Mahendra is still going strong on stage and in films, and K Balachander.

In Balachander’s Ragini Recreations flourished such future stars of the screen as Sundarrajan and Nagesh. Sundarrajan’s stirring performance as Major Chandrakanth prefixed the title of the army officer permanently to his screen name and the brilliant comedian Nagesh’s ‘Server Sundaram’, adapted for cinema, became an all-time classic, Viveka Fine Arts’. ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy’s plays, a complete departure from the prevailing genre of ‘social’ drama, lampooned the political classes and their corrupt way of life that was increasingly pervading Indian society.

A later development was the growth of light drawing room comedies of the strictly Madras variety, the handiwork of natural humorists not distinguished by hidden depths or subtlety. ‘Kathadi’ Ramamurthi, S V Shekher, and Crazy Mohan belong to this category, made even more fluffy in recent times by the likes of Bosskey. (This is by no means an exhaustive list of theatre groups in Chennai--I am aware there have been many, many more sincere practitioners over the decades).

When Poornam Viswanathan, originally famous for his work on radio and the play, ‘Under Secretary’, moved from Delhi to Madras, he found a superb outlet for his acting ability in the productions of Kala Nilayam, in which along with committed amateur artistes of the calibre of Chandrasekhar (of the musically talented Sikkil family) and others, he was able to take part in such super hits as Savi’s ‘Washingtonil Tirumanam’ and Marina’s ‘Tanikkudithanam’ and ‘Oor Vambu’. Viswanathan later formed his own group to stage some excellent works of serious content, mainly plays by Sujatha, such as ‘Kadavul Vandar.’

Indira Parthasarathi’s ‘Nandan Kathai’, ‘Aurangzeb’and ‘Ramanujar’ are again serious works, which like Poornam’s earlier efforts, lack support from sponsors and audiences alike, a sad commentary on the prevalent theatre culture of Tamil Nadu. Theatre of the old Nawab Rajamanickam or Boys Club kind is still reputedly alive and kicking all over the state, besides terukootu and other forms of folk theatre, but urban Tamil Nadu has the reputation of not supporting or enjoying serious Tamil theatre any more. The lure of cinema and television is blamed for the lack of an informed, interested audience for plays other than the joke-a-second or slapstick variety. The huge crowds that Magic Lantern’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ drew a few years ago at the YMCA Open Air theatre, however, suggested that the blame for the situation did not lie with the audiences alone.

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