Indira Parthasarathy, author of 35 works and winner of both Akademi awards.

In parallel theatre, ‘realistic theatre’ has become a dirty phrase. The movement is not able to attract youngsters.

It is appropriate that Indira Parthasarathy, a towering figure in Tamil literature and theatre, is an admirer of one of the greatest playwrights of all time. As I settle down for a brief wait in his living room, the genial writer darts back from the other side to place a rare copy of Shakespeare’s plays in my hands.

A recent compilation of Indira Parthasarathy’s plays, neatly divided into various categories and beautifully brought out by Kizhakku publishers, awes one with the range of themes and the depth of treatment. The writer believes that plays are of two kinds — ones that can also be read as literature, such as Shakespeare’s plays, and others that primarily need to be performed, such as those of Bertolt Brecht.

“Mine are all written to be performed,” he says, as he settles down for the interview. Indira Parthasarathy who began writing in 1964, is the only Tamil writer to win both the Sahitya Academy and the Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. The 73-year old litterateur has displayed his talent in many genres of writing. He is the author of 35 works. These include 15 novels, six collections of short stories and numerous plays. ‘Kurudhi Punal,’ based on the massacre of 42 Harijans, in a village in the erstwhile Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, fetched him the Sahitya Akademi award in 1977, while he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2004. ‘Ramanujar,’ a revolutionary play which deals with the life and times of the enlightened reformer and proponent of the Visishtadvaita philosophy, won him the Saraswati Samman. “The first ever Tamil work selected for the award,” he tells you. He is also the recipient of the Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad award and numerous other honours.

Translated into many languages, his plays have been staged in various places in the country. “‘Aurangazeb’ was staged in 1976 in Delhi. It was directed by M.K.Raina, and Raj Babbar played the lead role. It was great success,” recalls the playwright. “Recently K.S. Rajendran directed the play for the Natwa Theatre Society so well that I felt proud I am the author,” he adds. Indira Parthasarathy’s plays reflect his liberalism and great empathy for the downtrodden. A deep knowledge of Tamil literature, philosophy and history also illumine his work.

Spending his early years in Kumbakonam, Ranganathan who later took his wife’s name as his pseudonym, obtained his Masters in Tamil literature and then his Ph.D. He taught Tamil in Delhi University for 20 years and in the University of Warsaw, Poland, for five years. His plays, like vast bridges of time, unite the past and present. His historical characters are fully fleshed out. “It not so much interpreting history as re-interpreting it,” he says.

“I didn’t write plays to bring about a revolution in modern theatre in Tamil or to fulfil a lacuna in the field,” he says. His first play ‘Mazhai’ was written in 1970.

“Czech scholar Kamil Zvelevil predicted it would revolutionise Tamil literature,” remembers the writer with a smile. And it did cause a great stir as the first modern Tamil play to be staged in Delhi, leaving a startling impact through its theme of a disturbing family relationship. The play, translated into Marathi, won an award. After ‘Mazhai’ came ‘Porvai Porthiya Udalgal,’ which was translated into English and published in the journal, Enact (as were his succeeding plays). “Then came ‘Nandan Kathai’ on the moving story of the “low born” farmhand, and ‘Aurangazeb.’ These were followed by ‘Eliattam’ based on ‘King Lear’ and ‘Suravali,’ an adaptation of ‘The Tempest,’” says the writer.

Tackling social issues

“I don’t believe in translations,” he says. “The work should read like a Tamil play for the common man who has not read Shakespeare.” The playwright has also tackled numerous social issues. The writer’s career took a new direction when the Department of Performing Arts was started in Pondicherry University and he became the Head. He looks back with much satisfaction to the time he spent there. “The South Zone Cultural Centre’s drama festival conducted by the department elicited excellent response. Plays in various languages were presented.”

He is quite unhappy that his plays are not staged as much as they should be — in Tamil — and that he has not received the recognition due to him in his home State.

Though his plays translated into other languages have done very well, he feels there are no takers for them in Tamil because today there is a paucity of talented actors on the Tamil stage, “Therefore we have stylised plays. The accent is on being different. In parallel theatre, ‘realistic theatre’ has become a dirty phrase. The parallel theatre movement is not able to attract youngsters. The same audience turns up repeatedly for these plays. Most of the parallel theatre groups are not fully involved with what they are doing, it is only for ego satisfaction,” he says.

Sabha theatre too is ailing, he feels. He attributes the honing of his playwriting skills to the fact the he was able to see good plays in Delhi.

“I enjoy writing plays. But only when a play is presented on the stage does it attain completion. What is the point of writing them if they are not performed? Which is why I turned ‘Aswatthama,’ ideally a play, into a short story,” says the writer who despite having achieved so much, forges on. He is now writing a book on ‘Tholkappiyam.’


Ramanujar won the Saraswati Samman

Aurangazeb was staged in 1976 in Delhi

Mazhai, translated into Marati, won an award