Tamil Nadu's problematic relationship with Indian nationalism is reflected in its theatre too…

Tamil Nadu has always had a contentious relationship with pan-Indian nationalism, even during the struggle against colonialism. The ancient and classical nature of Tamil language along with its continual living tradition has accentuated the north-south binary, Sanskrit-Tamil opposition and Vedic and non-Vedic lineage. The undercurrents of these tensions still inform the trends in Tamil theatre today. When the post-independent Indian theatre was under discussion in a Drama seminar organised by the new Nation-State of India in 1956, with the sole exception of Sanskrit all the other languages were presented in alphabetical order, a designed democratic venture! Some how Natya Sastra seemed to be representing Indian aesthetics while Meyppattiyal of Tolkappiyam, or Arangettruk Kaadhai of Silappadhikaram seemed to have no relevance. When the rage of modern Indian drama and theatre in the rest of the nation was to draw from myths, folk and traditional forms and Sanskrit aesthetics, Tamil Nadu was swayed by the influence of anti-brahminism, Dravidian unity and Western realism. Most plays of C.N. Annadurai, Pulavar Kuzhandai, Tiruvarur Thangarasu, Mu. Karunanidhi and others typify that break from the Indian nationalist agenda of building a new, post- colonial Indian dramatic tradition.

The debates regarding the search for identity in the 1960s and search for roots in the 70s saw traditional forms of each region providing the basis of our decolonising process. Ironically these very forms become the basis of experimentation globally under the influence of Grotowski, Barba, Artaud and Peter Brook. Ayyappa Paniker succinctly pointed out how the experimental theatres of the West are actually the traditional theatres of India. Despite this over-arching discourse, a healthy, mutual interaction with traditional forms and artists have been attempted by many theatre people in all States. In Tamil Nadu, (Late) Purisai Kannappa Thambiran's long association with Koothu Pattarai resulted in productions of Brecht and Marquez in Koothu form and Muthusami's new plays inspired from Koothu such as “Padukalam”, “Indrajit” or “Arjunan Tapasu”. Perungattur Rajagopal and Hanne de Bruin run a Kattai Koothu school. For the first time girls are formally trained in Koothu, thus creating a silent history. Voicing Silence has evolved four plays with the professional female stage artists of Northern Tamil Nadu trained in Koothu by Rajagopal. Devarattam and Tappattam forms have become the staple of theatre training and production in Tamil Nadu, thanks to Mu. Ramasami, Murugesan and Prof. S. Ramanujan! Arumugam heads the Pondicherry school of drama with his koothu heritage, and Trichur School of Drama training. None of these interactions is done in the way Kavalam Paniker attempts to produce Bhasa's plays or the modes by which Karanth established a modern Kannada theatre form. In Tamil Nadu, these forms co-exist, war or work with each other.

Another major repertoire that Tamil theatre draws from is the classical literary texts in Tamil. Indira Parthasarathi has drawn from Silappadhikaram in his “Kongai Thee”. Inquilab has written five plays based on Sangam texts. His “Avvai” and “Manimekalai” remain a rich legacy of Tamil theatre to contemporary Indian theatre, especially in terms of providing powerful alternate images of autonomous women in the bard and Buddhist nun. Pralayan's “Paari Padukalam” is also an effort at drawing contemporary sensibility from Sangam texts. If one were to understand the tinai concept of Tamil classical canon in contemporary light, Muruga Bhoopathi's explorations of body, landscape and heritage in his texts and performances become crucial.

Tamil theatre has also witnessed groups of transgender communities entering the performance arena in the past decade. These groups have re-defined the notion of consciousness creation by displaying their bodies that are displaced from the mainstream conception of masculine and feminine bodies. Dalit cultural festivals organised by Madurai Dalit Resource Centre and Tamizh Isai Vizha that were organised by Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam have pioneered a counter-cultural voice against hegemonic practices. The fact that there have been many women in theatre is another distinguished aspect of Tamil theatre. Campus theatre is also getting established by the continuous practices and workshops organised in Tiruppathur Sacred Heart College, as was the case in American College, a decade ago. The past decade has also seen many plays being published. A notion of performance is ingrained in most plays, making it different and difficult for readers used to realistic plays.

Despite the multiplicity of Tamil theatre, there is hardly any support in the form of avenues of training, rehearsal spaces, jobs for theatre practitioners to survive on their skills, building of theatre appreciation in schools and colleges, auditoriums and worse still the continuation of the Dramatic License Act in the form of getting police permission for performances in Government halls. In no other State in India are the annual plays of Institutions performed in English, except in Tamil Nadu, especially in Chennai. That speaks volumes for the plight of Tamil theatre today. What exists is out of survival and passion and despite many odds.

A. Mangai teaches English in a city college and is a director, playwright and actor in Tamil.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012