Madras Players is staging an English adaptation of Komal Swaminathan’s timeless classic, ‘Thanneer Thanneer.’

When ‘Thanneer Thanneer,’ written and directed by Komal Swaminathan, was first staged in Chennai in 1980, it created a tremendous impact. The content and the form blended seamlessly to create theatre that was realistic and serious but appealed to all levels of viewers. And when director K. Balachander adapted it for inema, the film had the force of a river in spate and it went on to win a National Award.

‘Thanneer Thanneer’ is still searingly relevant despite the passage of three decades. This testifies to the power of Komal’s pen and vision. The struggle of the poor inhabitants in a water-starved village, the red tape the bureaucracy is mired in, the machinations of politicians, and the skewed priorities of the media - all these issues featured with such incisive power by Komal are true even today. ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ has been staged more than 250 times. But a ban was sought to be imposed on the film on the grounds that it provoked violence.

Now for the first time the play will be staged in English by The Madras Players. ‘Water!,’ the English translation of ‘Thanneer Thanneer,’ directed by P.C. Ramakrishna will be presented at the Museum Theatre on November 30, December 1 and 2. The translation is by S. Shankar who is now Professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

I met Komal Swaminathan, a towering figure in Tamil theatre for an exclusive interview in August 1995 just a couple of months before he passed away. Anyone who met the playwright- film script writer- director-journalist could not but be struck by how lightly he carried his fame and multifaceted talent. “Well made traditional theatre is what I believe in, not the abstract kind,” he told me. “Theatre,” he pointed out, “should reach out and communicate.” His plays certainly did. He was responsible for creating a middle theatre. His plays were marked by realism and a strong social concern and formed a bridge between the mainstream and serious theatre, between the rural and urban sections. Focussing on issues that matter, that provoke thought and debate, his plays are in a class of their own. Not for him the mindless family fare or the inane comedies of the average sabha offerings.

Realistic theatre

Many of his plays deal with the larger issues of society and the politics of exclusion and exploitation. His heroes are the nameless, faceless citizens who struggle against an unfeeling and unresponsive establishment. And those who strive to succeed through bold, decisive action.

Komal believed in realistic theatre that would reflect the travails of the common man. He wrote 33 plays in a span of 30 years. “Physical and mental revolt is what I am concerned about in my work,” he told me in the interview. “Marxist thought and literature have provided me a broad-based philosophy of life and I have used it for literary ends,” he admitted.

As a young man, Komal, who hailed from a village of the same name from Thanjavur, was inspired by the writings of Pudhumaipithan. The course of his life took a firm shape when he moved to Madras. He learnt play writing at the educational institute for drama run by well known actor S.V. Sahasranamam.

After joining Sahsranamam’s Seva Stage, Komal began writing for the theatre and with his very first play ‘Pudhiya Paathai’ that dealt with villagers carving out a new road, set out his own path for the future. His plays drew in audiences who were ready for such revolutionary fare.

He later formed his own troupe, Stage Friends. Play after play that he wrote and directed became successful. Many of his plays toured the villages and quite a few of them were made into films.

As assistant director to K.S. Gopalakrishnan, Komal produced powerful scripts for films such as ‘Karpagam,’ ‘Pesum Deivam’ and ‘Kai Kodutha Deivam.’ He also wrote and directed his own films of which ‘Oru Indiya Kanavu’ received the National Award for Best Regional Film in Tamil.

His involvement in literary issues saw him become the editor of Subhamangala, a literary monthly that also dealt with the fine arts. The Subhamangala theatre festival that he conducted attracted plays from various genres.

“I came across the English translation of ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ at Landmark ten months ago and found it eminently workable for us,” says P.C. Ramakrishna of The Madras Players, who is the director of ‘Water!’ “I had seen the first show of ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ when it was staged at the Kartik Fine Arts and was completely blown by it. I introduced myself to Komal and he became a friend. He was such a simple quiet man,” reminisces Ramakrishna.

“The play remained with me all these years. It is a seminal piece of theatre. It deals with conflict and self-belief. Dramatically it worked for me. The village is the hero in my play. I asked Komal’s daughter, Lalitha Dharini, who has the copyright after the publisher Seagull turned over the rights to her, whether I could edit it a little. She said she trusted me. If I touch the younger generation through this, I will consider it an achievement. It is strangely the first play I’m directing for the Madras Players in 43 years. I have not found the language or the culture a barrier and I am sure the audience is catholic enough to accept it.”

So much water has flowed under the bridge since the play was first staged but so much still remains stagnant. ‘Water!’ promises to once again bring to the forefront issues that Komal presented with such intensity.

Theme universal

Professor S. Shankar is happy with his effort.

“What is amazing to me about ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ is its combination of political commitment and brilliant exploitation of theatrical resources (story, spectacle and performance elements such as folk songs). At the same time the play has universal themes - a stranger arrives and becomes a catalyst for change. People can relate to that kind of story. I admire also the play's treatment of female characters - in some ways, in its treatment of marriage for example, the play was path-breaking,” says S. Shankar, Professor, Department of English, University of Hawaií at Manoa, who has translated Komal Swaminathan’s ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ into ‘Water!’ (English). Excerpts from an e-mail interview:

What prompted you to choose ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ for translation?

I was in Chennai as a college student during the years of the ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ controversy. I knew it was an amazing and powerful play. Many years later I was working on a scholarly article on representations of the poor and was surprised to learn that this play had never been translated into English. I began by translating a few passages for the article and ended up doing the whole play. I am glad I did.

Which are the areas you have succeeded in and are disappointed with?

I am very happy with my translation and it is gratifying that the Madras Players is staging the translation without any changes. It was vital to me that I maintain the narrative arc of the play - it's driving momentum. The play is very political but it is also a rousing story. I think I managed to capture that. I always had the idea when I was translating that the play might be staged and so I wanted to retain its performability. Of course, it has taken 10 years for it to make it to the stage! Where I had to compromise was in capturing the flavour of the language, which is often a kind of Tirunelveli Tamil. I have to admit I was helped here by my father.

Why are such few significant theatre texts being produced in Tamil?

This is hard for me to answer especially because I don't live in Chennai any more. I also think ‘Thanneer Thanneer’ had many things going for it, that made it a runaway success. I think the current theatre set up in Chennai might militate against the production of an independent, serious drama.

Rooted so specifically in a cultural context and milieu, how successfully will a text like this translate on the English stage?

I have few worries on that front. It's a socialist play, and it also raises crucial questions about post-colonial nations in general, especially with regard to the poor. In fact, I would say the play's cultural specificity only strengthens its ability to travel around the world - the story and issues become fresh without losing power.