M. Ramaswamy has directed and acted in more than 30 plays and has considerable expertise in the performing folk arts of Tamil Nadu and in Tamil parallel theatre.

“Modern theatre’ is only a label. Theatre is always modern and it is always becoming new. And the message being received is also constantly new. You can’t do theatre without the contemporary element; otherwise it is a mere museum piece. If you present a play such as ‘Antigone,’ it should have relevance to the present,” says M. Ramaswamy, Prof. Department of Drama and Dean, Faculty of Fine Arts, Tamil University, Thanjavur. Ramaswamy is the president of the Nija Nataka Iyakkam. Founded in 1978, the Madurai-based group’s aim is “a real theatre movement that relates to one’s life experience.”

When I meet this theatre personality who has done such formidable work in the sphere of Tamil parallel theatre, initially, instead of a stream of words, there is just a well of silence. He prefers to let his work, lauded as “a rare combination of the deeply political and the highly aesthetic,” talk for him.

Considerable expertise

Ramaswamy has directed and acted in more than 30 plays. He has considerable expertise in the folk performing arts of Tamil Nadu and has guided numerous Ph.D scholars.

Surely he must be having a feeling of great satisfaction after working in the field for more than three decades?

The actor, director and playwright says softly, “Satisfaction? I do not know about satisfaction. One does something, which one likes and then moves on. The period when we all do a play together is a happy one. Then the process repeats itself.”

When the Nija Nataka Iyakkam presented Badal Sircar’s ‘Spartacus’ in Tamil in 1989, it created a stir in the Tamil theatre world. The audience braved the drizzle in the open grounds of the St. Joseph’s College in Tiruchi to watch the production, which was performed as part of the Badal Sircar Theatre Festival. Its intense physicality and immense energy stunned viewers, as also the breadth of its conceptualisation and the idiom it employed.

“Martial art forms were used in the play with effect.” says the director. He treasures Badal Sircar’s comment that it was a highly energetic performance.

“I look upon all my plays with an equal eye. But ‘Spartacus,’ ‘Antigone’(1984 ) and ‘Kalagakkarar Thozhar Periyar’ (2003) were trend setting works. ‘Periyar,’ on the great leader’s thought, with humorous touches, has been performed a record number of times,” says Ramaswamy. “And now when I stage the translation of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Galileo’ or ‘Andha Yug’ in Madurai, Thanjavur or the remote villages of Tamil Nadu, at least 400-500 people turn up to see my play – I owe it to the expectations aroused by ‘Periyar’ .”

Every year in March, Ramaswamy stages a production,“something new or done before” to mark his wife Shenbagam’s death anniversary. “It is 11 years since she passed away. A Tamil professor in Fatima College, Madurai, Shenbagam translated Sappho’s poems as also ‘Antigone’ and ‘Prometheus Bound’ from Greek into Tamil. When I presented ‘Antigone’ in Bangalore at the Zonal Festival, it propelled me to the national level,” he recalls.

Ramaswamy, who did his Masters in St. Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, made his debut on stage during his college days in the role of Casca in ‘Julius Caesar.’ His love for the folk arts led him to do his Ph. D in the Madurai Kamaraj University in the “Leather shadow puppet show of Tamil Nadu.”

After attending the theatre workshops conducted in Gandhigram, as also the ones conducted in Chennai by Badal Sircar, he staged ‘Panditar Moovaram Mandathoru Singamum,’ his first play on the foothills of Nagamalai Pudukottai in Madurai. A translation of G. Sankara Pillai’s work, the message about the destructive fallout of nuclear energy was brought home to the audience sharply.

Encouraged by the response, Ramaswamy wrote three plays for the Vizhigal journal. “They were embraced warmly by readers. I then put up street plays with the students of the Madurai Kamaraj University and the Nija Nataka Iyakkam was born,” says Ramaswamy, who taught folklore in the Madurai Kamaraj University for seven years.

When the group was told they were good at only staging street plays, they decided to go proscenium. ‘Padukavalan,’ the translation of Sankara Pillai’s ‘Rakshapurushan’ was followed by a production based on Gnani’s ‘Balloon.’ “Soon after, Dr. V.I. Subramaniam, the first Vice Chancellor of the Tamil University, Thanjavur, sent me to Bhopal to attend a music conference. I also visited the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi where I met the Assistant Director Dr. Bhargava. He asked me to apply for the Young Theatre Directors fellowship saying, “there is only mainstream theatre in Tamil Nadu and hardly any parallel theatre.”

The fellowship resulted in Ramaswamy directing ‘Antigone’ using the folk arts. The play, full of modern references, first staged at Bangalore created a great impact. “Then came ‘Muni,’ as part of the Young Playwrights’ Scheme in 1995. School workshops, with the sponsorship of the Max Mueller Bhavan, resulted in the Tamil translation of ‘The Four Musicians of Bremen’,” says the actor- director, who has also been deeply involved with children’s theatre.

“Among playwrights, Brecht has had the greatest impact on me. All thinking people have a left orientation,” he adds.

When he stages his plays in the rural areas, he is often asked, “Do the viewers understand it?” He quotes the response of a construction worker in Thanjavur to his play ‘Muni’: “I am not able to understand it but I want to keep on seeing it.”

“That is what the theatre is about – you want to keep on viewing the play,” says the director. “If the karuthu meets your life experience, you will relate to it. Do we understand all of poetry? But we relate to it, don’t we?” he asks.

“An empty space becomes theatre space once an actor enters. Then every gesture should be meaningful. That is Nija Nataka Iyakkam’s aim, not to just help people spend time but to make the time spent valuable,” says Ramaswamy.