Theatre Madras Players’ Water , based on Komal Swaminathan’s Thaneer Thaneer, was rooted in the local context and performed with fervour
As promised, the Madras Players brought the village of Athipatti to Chennai through their production of Water. The English translation (by S. Shankar) of Komal Swaminathan’s Thanneer Thanneer directed by P.C. Ramakrishna was presented at the Museum Theatre for three consecutive days recently.
Thanneer Thanneer is part of the consciousness of all those who value powerful and meaningful theatre in Tamil. The issues the play deals with are ones the viewer can immediately relate to; the sceptre of water scarcity always looms threateningly for numerous villages, towns and cities in the country.
Vellaiswamy, a bonded labourer who is escaping from the law for the crime he has committed, enters a drought-affected village whose inhabitants have to trudge for long miles to procure even a single pot of water. He rouses the villagers to collective action, the support of the village teacher being crucial in this struggle. A venal politician, a couple of stout-hearted elders, a fiery young man, the village priest itching for an animal sacrifice, a journalist with a social conscience, a feisty young woman and her policeman husband are among the characters around whom the story is woven. Just when they are about to attain their much-longed for goal, they are thwarted.
The first scene with its excellent sets (set and light design: Victor Paulraj) immediately took the audience to the heart of the village with its thatched huts, the niches on the walls for the lamps and the mandatory bench or thinnai in front of the house. The villagers speaking English instead of the Tirunelveli Tamil did strike an odd note initially. But as the struggle for water was played out, the language barrier slowly dissolved. The brilliant direction and the spirited performances soon helped to brush away the incongruities. This was a play where the director’s vision was firm and clear and he was able to transcend some of the inadequacies of the English text. He showed his acumen by retaining certain words in Tamil and also the folk songs (which had sounded strange and incoherent in the translated text) in the original. Off stage was used to great effect in the production. An inspired stroke too was the lighting of the door frames flanking the stage and the sound of music (sound: Charles, vocals and music arrangement: Madras Youth Choir) and conversation to depict the village wedding. So too was the building of the cart portrayed though backstage effects.
The dramatic tension never slackened throughout. Appropriate casting can be crucial in a play of this kind where the characters can easily descend into caricatures. Water got it right almost every time. P.C. Ramakrishna scored high with his portrayal of the schoolmaster banished to a drought-prone village but who becomes its guide and key figure. Keeping pace with him every step of the way were Shankar Sundaram and D. Ramachandran as the village elders. Ramachandran consistently maintained his bent posture and limp and his demeanour of a villager who is in turn supportive, disbelieving or disarmingly simple. Mohamed Yusuf made for an arrogant and ruthless politician though he seemed a trifle too suave. Krishna was convincing as the deferential fugitive who transforms into the bringer of water. A. Karthik was the credible, angry young man who puts up a good fight with the politician. But the casting faltered when it came to the female actor, setting the balance askew. The character of Sevanthi is a pivotal one. The actor who played her appeared unsure and too sophisticated for the role. She seemed hardly the woman who would stun an entire village by her revolutionary action. Her costume of crisp and glossy sarees was glaring in its inappropriateness. Even more out of place was her equally sophisticated-looking husband. The drummer Nellai Manikandan was an asset to the play enhancing the rhythm of the work.
Komal’s play represents both success and tragedy for us today. The success of a playwright who could so realistically depict the plight of a water-starved village and its characters. And tragedy for despite the passage of 30 years the situation remains the same. But to the Madras Players Water was a great success. A veteran actor turns director with aplomb fusing together various elements harmoniously and with understanding, in a felt tribute to the writer. And the team produces one of the best productions seen from them in recent times — rooted in the local context, dealing with vital issues and acted out with fervour.