S. Ramanujam is a pioneer in the genre, besides scripting success in adult theatre.

“I have been on selection committees but have never been the recipient of an award.” The rueful statement of S. Ramanujam, retired Head of Department of Drama, and Dean of Fine Arts Faculty, Tamil University, Thanjavur, comes back to me as I sit facing him 15 years later.

The pioneer of the parallel theatre movement in Tamil Nadu received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for theatre direction for 2008. A number of other awards have also rightly come his way in the past few years.

But Ramanujam (75), expert in Tamil and Malayalam theatre, and a master in children’s theatre, is more keen on talking about his work than about the honours that he has received. With “Karutha Deivathai Thedi” (In Search of the Black God, 1979) he made a remarkable impact on the theatre scene. The play dealt with the theme of how one searches for God outside while he is within us. ‘Veriyattam,’ ‘Narkalikkkarar’ and ‘Chempavalakkali’ consolidated his reputation.

‘Veriyattam’ was a powerful adaptation of Euripides’s ‘The Trojan Women.’

The play transferred the Greek classic effectively to a Tamil setting through “opparis” (laments) and the use of Tamil folk performing art forms. The rhythm of Tappatam, a death ritual, was used as the background. “‘Karutha Deivathai Thedi’ is my landmark play while ‘Ooru Bangam’ draws repeat audiences in Andhra Pradesh,” said Ramanujam during a recent visit to Chennai .

Ramanujam can look back on the road he has travelled with satisfaction. His tally as a director is astounding: 36 plays in Tamil, 28 in Malayalam, six in English and two in Hindi. And with quality to match. His ability to utilise his actors’ talent to the maximum is his strong point, says a well-known director.

But despite his considerable success in adult theatre, Ramanujam is known as a pioneer in children’s theatre and is proud of this identity.

Ramanujam began his career as a primary school teacher in Gandhigram. This gave him useful insights into the nature and needs of childhood: “Adults thrust their thinking on children and create entertainment for them from their own perspective. Children have a gift for creativity of which neither they nor the adults are aware. I have used the basic rhythm the young ones are gifted with to fashion theatre for them. Children’s theatre has to give them joy as well as enable them to participate fully in the process.

“I came into the field by directing plays for children and circumstances led to my doing other forms of the theatre,” says the veteran who is now settled in Thanjavur. He lives opposite the university where he helped develop the Tamil drama wing so successfully. “My daughter Girija lives in the nearby village of Vadakkupattu and runs Aranga Sree, a children’s theatre space. Here, self-confidence, coordination and a cooperative spirit are developed in the young through theatre activities,” explains Ramanujam.

In consultation with theatre experts such as Na. Muthuswamy, he is deeply involved in resurrecting the Kaisiki Puranam Natakam for dancer Anita Ratnam’s Arangham. The ancient temple theatre form is unique to the Vishnu temple in Thirukurungudi in Tirunelveli district. “I found palm leaf manuscripts in a Math, and this proved very valuable,” says the director who has extensively documented the indigenous folk performing art forms of the region.

Although he does not like to call himself a playwright, Ramanujam has written and published plays such as ‘Veriyattam’ and ‘Tsunami.’ “Not adaptations but inspirations,” he clarifies.

Ramanujam, who trained at the National School of Drama under Alkazi, has written extensively on modern Tamil theatre and conducted numerous workshops in both Tamil and Malayalam. The most significant among them was the initial one he conducted, along with S.P. Srinivasan, at Gandhigram University in 1977 as it brought in the modern theatre movement in Tamil Nadu. He was then lecturer in fine arts at the Gandhigram Rural University.

The director finds considerable changes have taken place on the parallel theatre scene in the past three decades. “Thanks to the parallel theatre movement, world classics do not remain as literature but are brought on to the stage; the value of traditional drama is also realised. Theatre has gained respectability as well as educational value with many students having acquired a doctorate in theatre studies,” he says. “In various districts, theatre activity is taking place under committed practitioners.”

The professor’s connection with Malayalam theatre was born of his association with veteran G. Sankara Pillai. Ramanujam was assistant director in School of Drama, Calicut University. “There are numerous good playwrights in Malayalam. The theatre has grown in Kerala because people read plays as literature whereas here they mainly read short stories. Also, cinema does not dominate life in Kerala as it does in Tamil Nadu. Even small reading rooms in villages put up plays to mark their annual day celebrations,” he points out.

His ambition is to weld children’s theatre and theatre for the aged. “I want to make elderly people participate in children’s theatre and infuse joy into their lives.”

As for the distinguishing feature of his work, “Many feel I have lost out by not belonging to particular school. But each play of mine is different from the other. My mind is not imprisoned in a pattern or form. Innovative method or design is the distinguishing feature in my approach to the theatre,” says the former professor who feels fulfilled at being called ‘Nataka Pitamaha,” having trained three generations in theatre skills.

His works

A slice For children:

“Ponnumkkudam”( by G. Sankara Pillai)

“Thangakkudam”

“Chempavalakkali”

Some other plays:

Na. Muthuswamy’s “ Naarkalikarar”

Indira Parthasarathy’s “Kaala Enthirangal” and “Mazhai”

Max Frisch’s “Andorra”

“Agniyum Mazhaiyum” (Girish Karnad’s “The Fire and the Rain”)

“Uravum Ullamum” (based on Oscar Wilde’s “Selfish Giant)