In 2003, I was at the Bookshop at Spencer Plaza, a one-of-a-kind distributor of an eclectic mix of specialty books housed in unlikely commercial environs on Anna Salai. It was at here, perhaps, under the abstracted gaze of the owner, temperamental, Tevaram-spouting, Telugu intellectual Seetharam, that my interest in literature, poetry and philosophy blossomed.
Now, I was back at the Bookshop after ages, a PhD student in postcolonial studies at The Ohio State University, researching Tamil nationalism and literature in the 1940s. I had come with my writer-parents to an invited gathering of artistes and thinkers.
Everyone in the room contributed zestfully to a mad caper of a conversation featuring all sorts of topics ranging from post-structuralism’s relevance to the plight of the performing arts in the Indian context. Postcolonial theorist, Professor Radhakrishnan read an original poem of his in Tamil, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran spoke of his interest in Chola art, and a Carnatic vocalist of repute sang impromptu. One Tamil writer expostulated: “Nambalukku avanga Shakespeare ezhutthellam teriyum, avangalukku namba Kamban yaarunu kooda teriyaadu!” (We know all of their [the west’s] Shakespeare’s writings, but they have no idea who our Kamban is)!
The unexpected finale was a crackly audio recording of “Charge of the Light Brigade,” allegedly in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s own voice, issuing from a boom box produced and plugged in by the irrepressible Mr. Sundaram, IAS.
Something about the scene that played out at the now-defunct Bookshop — a rambunctious, cheerfully contentious, decidedly peculiar meeting of minds and hearts, all in the spirit of genuine inquiry and empathy — stayed with me. I began to realise that this confluence of creative and scholarly passions is precisely what was absent from my life in the States.
Simultaneously, with every summer spent in India, I began my first forays into theatre with Chennai’s JustUs Repertory. I got to perform in leading theatre venues in the country with some of the city’s most exciting artistes – Dhritiman Chaterji, P.C. Ramakrishna, Priyadarsini Govind, T.M. Krishna, Sheejith Krishna, Amritha Murali, Nisha Rajagopalan, V. Balakrishnan, Mythili Prakash.
One day, amid such comings and goings between countries, my dearest friend, Joe Levy, said: “You know, you’re energised, full of vigour, when you come here from Chennai, enervated by the time you go back. You should think about that.”
And so, in 2009, I decided to move, to help my indefatigable director-playwright mother, Gowri Ramnarayan, take the work of JustUs Repertory forward (though the actual move happened two years later).
Between acting, writing, teaching periodically at the Asian College of Journalism, and pursuing kalari payattu, another full-fledged obsession, I suppose my plate is rather full. But when such work is transformative in every sense of the word, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
After living in the U.S. for fifteen years, do I miss my life there, you ask? Yes. But doing the things I love with people I love (well, at least most of the time) in the place where I belong helps make it all worthwhile.
(Akhila Ramnarayan is an actor, teacher, avid reader and scholar of post-colonial studies.)
To watch the interview, go to http://thne.ws/madras-akhila Video by K.V. Srinivasan