Playwright Muthu Velazhagan mourns the lack of contemporary world class Tamil drama even as he recaptures the excitement of how he began writing plays
Muthu Velazhagan sits amidst books and photo albums in his tiny cubicle on the first floor of the Karmugil Book Centre, established in 1974 in Tiruchi. The Rockins Road library is as much of an institution as the award-winning Tamil playwright.
Muthu Velazhagan is not his real name. “My parents named me Ondimuthu after our family deity, but I adopted the penname Velazhagan when I started writing in my teens,” he says. “When I became a full-time playwright, I merged both the names.”
Velazhagan, born in 1939, recollects his difficult childhood in Senthanneerpuram. “My father was from a farming background who later joined the Railway Protection Force. Till I was five or six years old, I was tending goats, until a kindly neighbour admitted me to school.”
That was short-lived as the family shifted to Thiruverumbur. But it was here that he caught the drama bug. “There were many ‘show kottais’ there. I would sneak inside during performances by the Vaira Nataka Sabha on the pretext of serving tea (my uncle had a tea stall outside the theatre). I watched plays such as Prahalada and En Vidhi that way. My uncle would thrash me later, but I was crazy after drama.”
Velazhagan lost his way after that when he got into bad company. “Friends I hung out with burgled a house and they were caught. One of them died in police custody,” he says. Soon after that Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Thiruverumbur in the 1940s proved to be a turning point. “I decided to give up thieving, meat-eating and lying.”
Velazhagan’s schooling resumed when he moved back to Trichy. He joined the R.C. High School in class four. “I liked going to school, but somehow it kept getting disrupted. But I never failed in any subject,” he smiles.
By the time he came to the 7th standard, he had an inkling of where his real talents lay. “Our Tamil teacher Mr. Rahottaman narrated stories to us from Sivakamiyin Sabatham and Ponniyin Selvan. When he was absent, I would do the narration – which I did, till the bell rang,” recalls Muthu. By the 8th standard, Velazhagan was writing poetry as well as earning a reputation as a rebel. “After one of my plays got me into trouble for its incendiary dialogues, I had to sign an agreement with the principal to stop writing plays and attending political meetings,” he says. That is when he changed began to write under the name Velazhagan, to avoid being found out.
His first play Vanchaki was staged in 1955, at Thevar Mandram, when he was just 16. He dismisses the play as “Just ideas cobbled together”. He completed his SSLC, never to return to formal education.
Velazhagan’s skills were encouraged by showbiz legend ‘Yathartha’ Ponnusami Pillai who asked him to write his next drama, Inamurasu.
Velazhagan was allied to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) from 1957-77, after which he switched over to the ideals of Periyar’s Self-Respect movement and a Communist ideology.
In the late 1950s and ’60s his Karmugil Kalai Mandram (named after his eldest son who is now a full-time stage artist) performed his plays and those of other writers. A brief foray into cinema followed. “I heard that someone had stolen one of my drama scripts for a film and I went to Kodambakkam to track him down. Instead, I was introduced to director A.B. Raju (father of actress Saranya), and along with a few others, we formed a team to make movies. But things did not work out. I left when I got a job that paid me a hundred rupees every month.”
He was employed as a cashier by Southern Railways in Trichy in 1962 and his involvement with theatre was resurrected. “I had also become interested in Bengali plays and cinema. I would travel to Kolkata to watch Bengali plays. I was a fan of Utpal Dutt’s works, which made me aware that what I had been writing was not exactly theatre!”
Muthu Velazhagan says his writing style improved only in the 1960s. Plays like Bramhai, Vaadagai Veedu and O! Pavigale! (re-staged recently in December 2013), are timeless, he says. But commercial success seldom accompanied the critical acclaim. “I lost a lot of money producing films. Plus I had a large family – two sons and four daughters. So I had to take a 20-year break from writing plays.”
The Karmugil Book Centre gave Muthu the financial security. “I thought of selling the thousand-odd books that I had collected, but realised that running a lending library was more sustainable.” Today the library has nearly 1,000 members, and countless books in Tamil and English.
The playwright returned to active theatre in 2003, with Pathinettaam Por, based on incidents from the Mahabharatha. His works dealt with progressive themes and powerful dialogues. The play Janma, also based on the epic, is in the syllabus of three universities in the state. He has written 26 plays and is working on a three-part historical saga that he says will run up to six hours. But Velazhagan is sad that Tamil drama is no longer as productive as once was. More than the effect of Internet and cinema he blames the fact that that no new plays are being written in a modern vocabulary.
He says, “There’s no Tamil play (including mine) that can be considered world-class.”