Though a theoretical physicist by training, he found his calling on a stage, under the arc lights. Kumaran Valavan, founder of India Nostrum Theatre, is a maverick at multiple levels. Coming after a month-long summer tour of Tamil Nadu's villages where the group tried to present a Tamil adaptation of the French classic Les fourberies de Scapin to people unexposed to theatre, he tells Ajai Sreevastan what it takes to be a theatre artist in India.
“Being a theatre artist in Tamil Nadu is very difficult. The word ‘koothadi' itself is very pejorative. The structure of the theatre scene is also very western,” Kumaran Valavan says. “There is a lack of money, respect and motivation. You have to constantly make sacrifices.”
Many of the actors in the troupe do not have permanent jobs. He feels the government has to do more to encourage local forms of theatre.
“We went on a village-to-village tour because no one else is doing it,” he says.
During visits to remote villages, every child who was asked “Have you seen a ‘naadagam' (drama) before?” said “Yes, on television.”
Born in Karaikkal in 1973, he left India at the age of 14. He finished his schooling and university education in France.
In 1997, he started his own theatre group in France, and travelled through the countryside staging plays. In 2001, he joined the Theatre du Soleil, where he acted in two plays directed by Ariane Mushkin.
Mr. Valavan has a Ph.D in Non-Commutative Geometry from Marseilles University, and he taught there for four years, before he took to full-time theatre.
Mathematics and theatre connection
What is the connection between mathematics and theatre? “Theatre has more freedom,” he says “I can say bitterness is blue without having to prove it. To feel something, I do not have to understand.”
Even during his Ph.D, he spent more time on starting a cultural centre for students and initiated a drama troupe.
In search of roots
He returned to India in 2006. “I came back to India in search of my roots. I came back to find myself,” he says. It was a struggle at first, but he eventually found enough people who believed in the cathartic power of theatre to form a troupe.
“To me, the role of an artist is not to entertain,” says Mr. Valavan.
“He or she should raise questions without trying to provide the answers.”
According to him, art can break that barrier, pierce through shields and touch people.
Despite the struggles and the intermittent letters to sponsors asking for additional funds, Mr. Valavan says he feels like a flower about to bloom when he is on stage.
“My grandfather was a Koothu artist. My father was completely against it. He only took me to one play. I was five-years-old then. I've been in love with theatre even since. I believe in its imaginative power,” he adds.