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Simple themes, straight narration

"Kadavulum Kandaswamy Pillaiyum" of God coming down to earth and feeling appalled by the corruption here. — Pics. by Mohan Das Vadakara.

A HANDFUL of short stories was dramatised by the Koothu-p-Pattarai theatre group recently. "An evening of five short stories" in Tamil (Katha Collage) was presented from December 24 to 28 at the MGR Janaki School at Vadapalani.

Sundara Ramaswamy, Munshi Premchand and Pudumai Piththan were the writers whose works were selected.

The venue of the show worked strongly in its favour. The open space set under the sprawling branches was used in the most effective fashion (set design: Mini Ramesh, M. Bala). Bamboo frames provided the façade of a rustic dwelling with a central doorway. The benches adjoining it could be used as wayside stalls selling food or liquor, a quiet corner to smoke a hookah or even the seat of a rickshaw.

The lighting, designed by Bhaskar and executed by Elayaperumal, was an asset to the production. The equipment fixed to the towering coconut palms or the lower branches of the other trees, picked up the action and the moods with understanding.

Of late, Koothu-p-Pattarai has come out of its "all-black obsession" when it comes to the costume. It was good to see characters attired in clothes that depicted their milieu (costume and props: S. Santhakumar). Just as the attire was in the completely realistic mode, so were the plays. Director V. Balakrishnan had said this would be a narration that would not adapt the stories in a dialogue format. In the beginning this led to the feeling, despite the effort put in by the actors, that one might as well have read the stories at home — so rigid was the adherence to a straight narration. But as the evening progressed, things got better reaching the best point in the presentation of Sundara Ramaswamy's "Kovil Kaalayum Uzhavu Maadum." "Seethai Mark Siyakai Thool" (by the same author) was the first of the stories to be told. It was a tale of idealism and uncompromising adherence to one's conviction contrasted with the crass, the commercial and the voyeuristic.

A poor painter labours over the picture of Seetha (from the epic) which is to be featured in an advertisement for a brand of soap nut powder to be used as a shampoo. His wife is enchanted by the slender beautiful figure he portrays, the essence of all that he has read and heard about the heroine of the Ramayana. The man who commissions the work is disappointed however and wants the painter to reshape it into a more voluptuous figure so that his product will sell. The painter refuses to compromise his art or his values in any way — but where will the next meal come from? It was a simplistic narration. The artistic touch was the empty picture frame suspended from the branches.

"Kaffan" ("Savachalla" here) is one of Premchand's most moving stories. It is a gut wrenching narration of male chauvinism and callousness. Two men — a father and son (Bhaskar and Santhakumar) — relish their meagre meal while the son's wife is in the throes of death nearby. The wails of the young woman shudder through the mean dwelling. But the men ignore it till the cries are finally stilled. The next morning, when the landowner storms in to enquire why they have not turned up for work, they manage to extract some money from him to buy the shroud. But they cheat the woman even of this cloak of dignity and blow the money away on liquor.

The story made painful viewing, so charged was it with the venality of men.

The actors brought out the dark shades of the wretched and the wicked. But the way the women walked in with the bottles and set up the food and wayside stalls was contrived. As a story, "Kaffan" is very powerful when you read it. But as a play it was rather monotonous and heavy.

In the play that followed — "Periya Idathu Penn" (Premchand's "Bade Ghar Ki Beti"), the gap could not be bridged. The story of a rich man's daughter who enters an all-male household of slender means lacked the delicate touches that make Premchand's stories so unique. The daughter-in-law has a spat with her brother-in-law which threatens to split the family. Finally, it is she who helps bring about a rapprochement between the brothers. A lack of identity pervaded the play, the actors unable to make it their own and yet struggling to convey the spirit of the original. The characters dressed in the attire of the North and speaking in Tamil looked confused.

Both through the strength of the content and the fact that it was a milieu the actors could immediately identify with, Sundara Ramaswamy's "Kovil Kaalayum Uzhavu Maadum" was the best play of the evening. (Incidentally, the venue though congenial for the actors is too far away from the centre of the city to draw in playgoers). The moving work by Sundara Ramaswamy brings with it the scent of damp earth and the rejuvenating feel of water that gushes forth from it.

The well acted play portrayed the obsession of an old man for the almost epic project he is engaged in and his friendship with a young man, a Pandaram, who shares his living space with him.

Sundara Ramaswamy's "Kovil Kaalaiyum Uzhavu Maadum" was the best play, "the dog" being a highlight.

Watching the goings on is the faithful dog of the Pandaram. The old man (Somasundaram) spends gruelling hours in digging a well which is his life's ambition and dream.

Sharing his living space with him is a temple Pandaram. (Babu H). When the old man falls ill, the friend learns to his astonishment the dimensions of the work he has done.

He brings back news of how the well has gladdened the hearts of wayfarers and the old man dies happy. The dog, a major player here, narrates the action from time to time.

A fine performance came from the actor who plays the dog. The lead actors too gave good performances. The stage properties too in all the plays were assembled with care.

The last story, "Kadavalum Kandaswamy Pillaiyum" of God coming down to earth and feeling appalled by the corruption here — had its moments especially in the improvised rickshaw scene. There were humorous touches as when Siva appears with the rakshasa who scrambles to lie down under His feet and when Siva and Parvati audition for an opportunity to perform in a sabha. But the idea has been much flogged and so there was not the same impact as might have been when the story was first written by Pudumai Pithan.

Translating stories on to the stage is a welcome step that is being undertaken by theatre groups and one hopes more such efforts are made.


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