28 March 2009

A Factory for Theatre

When I was but in my teens and deciding theatre was to be my end all, a friend introduced me to Ambai’s short story, Siragukal Muriyum’ [Wings Do Break]. He walked me to C-rea, then in Royapettah and made me buy this book. May I say; this book changed my life forever? That was the same year Jayabarathi made his seminal film Kudisai and cast me to play a role in it. I have not turned back since. It is through these two I heard of Pareeksha and Gnani, and I dropped him a postcard asking if I can act in his troop. He wrote back, in a similar postcard telling me theatre is about reacting, not acting. The same year I joined Pareeksha. Thedungal, [Mirchil] was my first play with them. That was the year I even learnt about Koothu-p-Pattarai (KPP) a professional Tamil theatre group founded in 1977, by Sangeet Natak Academy winner and playwright Mr. Naa.Muthuswamy. When we all advented into doing the theatre of our soul, the groups had very few women artists, even KPP. So plays had to chosen to accommodate the number.

Beginning of 80s is probably the best era in post-independent Tamil Nadu. There was so much of free thinking, SFI was active in colleges, main-stream media had opened itself to a different woman – that was the time when we were active in theatre too. Theatre scene in Chennai was changing too. We had K. C. Manavendranath conducting workshops in colleges, Vedhi theatre invited Badal Sircar to conducted a ten day workshop in Cholamandalam, USIS invited Anita Kanzadian to direct Our Town, Rehmat Jamal, fresh from NSD and her training under Elkazi was talking to us of a new theatre we had never heard about till then.

Caucasian Chalk Circle 1987

So when in 1987 KPP launched out as a theatre repertoire, we were ready to jump at it. That was also the time when foreign [non-Hollywood] cinema was not so freely available. We depended on our film clubs to screen them. As a movie buff I was a frequenter to any embassy that was screening a film of interest. It was in one such screening, on the sprawling lawns of the old Max Mueller Bhavan that I was cast in Vellai Vattam [1987, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Dir. K. S. Rajendran. K. R. Archana, who later on went to play the lead in Tim Supple’s Midsummer Nights Dream, was a school kid, who played a role with us. I don’t know if it was my talents as an actor, or the fact I had a five-year-old girl who fitted the role of the child that won me that place.

Watching the flood of talent that existed there then, Kasi, Jayakumar, Pasupathy [who would elegantly swirl his sword, when he took his bow] Kalairani… taught me of a different way to apply myself to theatre. I have worked with many of them since then, but not under the auspice of KPP.

Kalairaani in Song of Lovino

KPP has moved very extensively since then, exploring more and more contemporary themes. Nandhanaar and Song of Lovino with Kalairaani, was probably their most expansive moments of dealing with gender. That besides, their enthusiasm of reviving lost texts, discovering newer talents to work with, and exploring more body work and folk traditions to train the actor has probably been the most unique feature of Tamil theatre scene ever. Many of us have followed what we learnt under the magnanimous man Naa. Muthuswami in our own forums elsewhere, but that we learnt under him cannot be denied. If there was such a rich theatre happening in the 80s and 90s, he was the backbone.

Today theatre scene is different in Chennai. It has grown wide, more costly. But the sponsors of different performance space all grew under the guidance of this great man, at one time or the other. KPP continues to provide ardent theatre workers [May I call them that, as we are talking of a factory?]. More younger groups have come in since then. But we all need that energy of Naa. Muthuswamy, who scripted those wonderful plays like Mugamudigal and Naarkaalikaararkal. Yes sir, will you now begin training indigenous playwrights?

photographs from Kalairaani's website

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