But these artistes would like some consideration for the years they have devoted to drama

In an era when newcomers in television and cinema are being aggressively groomed through talent shows that have become mega franchises in their own right, there seems to be an almost deathly calm in the world of Tamil theatre.

Once the backbone of societal awakening in the State, theatre is a performing art that is in definite need of life support, according to some of the veteran stage performers in Tiruchi.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in my career as a stage artiste is that there is no demand any more for new plays,” says M S Mohamed Masthan, General Secretary of Tiruchi Mavatta Nataka Nadigargal Sangam. “Just like all the folk arts - mayillattam, oyillattam, bhajanai and so on - have vanished due to lack of patronage, plays too are in danger of disappearing,” he warns, and points out to how few youngsters want to take up theatre as a career these days.

Masthan and six of his colleagues, veterans with decades spent in theatre, share their stories that wind through many lanes, but eventually end up at the same destination: a diehard devotion to drama.

Stage acting’s link to TV and cinema has somehow helped it to survive, feels Masthan, though it’s been quite impossible to compete with those media in terms of marketing.

“Archiving our achievements as artistes or our art form in a book, for example, will cost at least Rs. 60,000. Even developing a website could eat up as much as Rs. 30,000. Who has the money for it and who would be interested in knowing about us in the future?” he asks.

The sense of gloom is hard to dispense with. “The government should take care of the theatre tradition,” says Masthan. “We are surviving here in Tiruchi because of venues like Rasika Ranjana Sabha. Without a proper hall, at least something that is affordable to performers like us, it’s quite difficult to stage a play. The recent 21-day drama festival (organised in July by South Zone Cultural Centre and District Drama Artistes Association) was possible only because we had the backing of R.R. Sabha,” he adds.

Tough times

So does that mean that drama can longer be viewed as a full-time profession? It’s difficult, but not impossible, say the stage veterans, even though it could entail literally begging the audience to visit the theatre.

“Nobody will turn up for our plays if we relied purely on ticket sales,” laughs Masthan.

“We have to cajole many people to come and watch our plays. Then once we get a play ready, the artists involved all contribute whatever they can, to put together the rent for the hall. We are content with the applause.”

Why not supplement the lean period with other jobs? “Nobody gives theatre artistes jobs easily – we are thought to be runaways from full-time employment,” chimes in M.S. Jagan (originally named Jahangir). “Besides, we never learned anything other than acting – what would we work as?”

Arasangudi R. Jothi, who decided to stay a bachelor so that his passion for the art remained undiluted, puts another spin on it. “Theatre is like the mother, and we are like her children who always play in the safety of her shadow. We’ll always return to theatre,” he says.

Tales of destitution and penury in old age are quite common in the Indian entertainment industry. But few stars are likely to be as unfortunate as a Chandra Babu or Savithri today, says Masthan, because performers in most showbiz fields have wised up to the benefits of saving money while the going is good. “One or two hit roles can make an actor a millionaire these days, because he or she is likely to invest it properly,” he says. “Thirty years ago, the tendency to save was almost nil.”

For the past decade, the Tiruchi Mavatta Nataka Nadigargal Sangam has been working to get financial aid for needy artistes.

The association helps its veteran members to claim pensions from the state (Rs. 1,500) and from the central governments (Rs. 4,000).

“All of us here can manage to live only in rented accommodation,” says Masthan.

“The authorities have even told us that there is no land available for theatre artistes within Tiruchi city limits anymore.”

Social acceptance

“People don’t respect us as human beings,” says Jagan. “My only grouse is that for the past 40-50 years, we have had mostly people from the performing arts becoming part of the governing class, but they are not bothered about the sufferings of theatre artistes. ” he rues.

Women get a worse deal, feels T.N.Mangalam, who started out as a stage dancer while in school. “I was lucky that I got married to an understanding man, but this is not the case for most women who get exploited in the industry,” she says.

“There is no respect for actresses. Our children get turned down when we go looking for suitable matches for them. If I’ve come beyond this prejudice (both her sons are married), it’s due to God’s grace,” she says.

It’s not all doom and gloom however, as the artistes reiterate their belief that Tamil theatre is on the rebound due to audiences tiring of TV and cinema.

Whether this holds true remains to be seen.