"Swami and Friends" provided good undemanding entertainment for a supportive audience with fond memories of Malgudi

R.K. Narayan’s much-loved tales about the fictitious town of Malgudi were actually launched in 1935 with Swami and Friends. The escapades of 10-year-old Swami may have been a debut work, but already displayed that Narayan blend of old world charm and gentle irony. In many ways, then, it was an inspired choice of subject matter to convert to stage by Chennai’s youth-run theatre group Landing Stage. And, you were practically guaranteed a supportive audience with fond memories of Malgudi, as proved to be the case on the night of the performance, at Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium recently.

With the text adapted by Manasi Subramaniam, and designed and directed by Aruna Ganesh Ram, it was apparently one of the first times Narayan’s works have been translated for the stage. Another “first” was that this production was a debut joint venture between Chennai’s veteran theatre group The Madras Players and Landing Stage.

The play was largely true to the original story of Swami (Ujwal Nair), set in Malgudi, on the banks of the Sarayu River, during pre-independence India. The lad’s idiosyncratic views of the world may not lead to academic excellence, but do make him a memorable protagonist. At home, Swami’s many enthusiasms are tolerated by his pragmatic dad and grandmother (T.T. Srinath and Sushi Natraj). At Albert Mission School, it’s all good, innocent fun, the mischief wreaked by Swami and his best friend Mani (Shyam Sunder).

In one of the more experimentally staged sections in the play, we see various teachers (played by P.C. Ramakrishna, Mohamed Yusuf, Shankar Sundaram) teaching the children by rote — “we fought bravely, so bravely” they chant with bored incomprehension in a history class on the 1857 war. The play would have benefited from more such well-constructed sequences that firmly set the old-world story within the sensibilities of our time, without losing any of the flavour of Narayan’s writing.

The friendly power equation of Swami’s world changes dramatically when Rajam (Ajay Kumar Ramachandran) joins his school. With his pukka diction and Western clothes, Rajam — who can be read as a symbol of colonial power — becomes the object of Swami’s enthusiastic admiration. Events take a slightly darker turn when Swami gets involved in demonstrations for Indian independence as well as in Rajam’s cherished desire to hold a cricket match.

In this way, the piece had a more episodic flavour rather than a sequence of events leading to a climax, and was allowed to meander in parts. Charming as Narayan’s tale was, structurally, the play fell somewhere between a staged story-telling and a theatrical construct.

Though you wished for more of the contemporary and less of the conventional in the choices made, the play certainly worked as an evening of good, undemanding entertainment. Credit must go to the charisma of Nair and Sunder, for living their roles rather than reciting memorised lines. Nair, especially, carried off the wide-eyed wonderment of Swami with an easy enthusiasm that avoided the trap of cloying sweetness. Other elements of note were the music scored by kanjira vidwan B. Shree Sundar Kumar, the minimal staging, and, of course, the lingering magic of Narayan.

It is limiting to think of Malgudi as a simple exercise in nostalgia — intentionally or otherwise, Malgudi was always a parallel universe of how things could be in more innocent times rather than how they necessarily were. Like narratives of simple pleasure created by writers such as Alexander McCall Smith, this allows Malgudi to exist with grace in today’s complicated world, and remain a part of our cultural psyche.

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