G. Kumara Varma, who has been in the thick of the theatre movement, is looking homeward after his innings in Panjab University. K. Pradeep has a chat with him
I HAVE EXPERIMENTED WITH ACTORS AND SPACE BUT ALWAYS BELIEVED THAT UNLESS IT IS USED TO COMMUNICATE THOUGHT, THERE IS NO MEANING IN SUCH EXPERIMENTS G. KUMARA VARMA Professor G. Kumara Varma, familiar to die-hard theatre enthusiasts of Kerala, is set to make a return to Malayalam theatre. After a long teaching stint at the Panjab University, this reputed theatre director will be back by the end of this year. Planning to settle at Tripunithura, Mr. Varma hopes to get back to where he belonged. Teaching was certainly not a career that Mr. Varma aspired for, especially after being so actively involved in the Malayalam theatre movement during the late sixties and early seventies. Surprisingly, he slipped into the teacher's role quite smoothly and soon began to love this new responsibility. But did it blunt his creative potential? "Certainly not. See, these courses in the University were all production-oriented ones. Teaching was not all about books and lectures. It demanded a lot from the teacher and the students. There were so many productions that we did, experimented with so many new trends, styles. So many of our students have made it big on stage and screen. We always had a very willing group of students. Personally, it was a very rewarding experience," says Mr. Varma.Ask him to list out some of his illustrious students and Mr. Varma becomes hesitant. Probe him further and he reels out a few, "Anupam Kher, Kamal Tewari, Pankaj Berry, Mangal Dhillon, ... I cannot do this, I may miss out on someone. Anupam Kher was initiated into acting at the University. Then there are so many behind the stage artistes, directors, art directors, who have done extremely well for themselves."
The Nataka Kalari movement that flourished in the late 60s and 70s was a renaissance that was marked by deviations in text, grammar, style and presentation. And Mr. Varma played a pivotal role, organising workshops and directing plays in those days. He gave a fresh, new touch to direction, interpreting the textual inputs of eminent playwrights like G. Sankara Pillai, C. N. Sreekantan Nair and Kavalam Narayana Panicker. Some plays like 'Bandi,' 'Saketham,' and 'Saakshi,' are still considered touchstones in the art of direction."That was a wonderful time, those five years. Theatre was alive and vibrant. For someone like me who has just come out of drama school this was real fertile ground. I would have continued had it not been for a call from my teacher, Ibrahim Alkazi, who was head of the National School of Drama then. I was asked if I could assist Balwant Gargi in setting up the department of Indian Theatre at Panjab University. I decided to go ahead and accept the offer."This was the beginning of an exploration into theatre studies. Mr. Varma went on to study at the Rome University and travelled all over Europe as part of the Berliner Ensemble. The Ensemble, founded by Bertold Brecht, survived his death to become the guardian of Brecht's legacy and also often staging innovative, contemporary and classical plays. This experience, along with three long decades of teaching, helped him view Indian theatre in a new perspective. The whole process of transformation in Indian theatre has not met with the approval of this theatre scholar.
Focus on movements
"The focus today is more on stylised, physical movements rather than the thought process. There is a firm tendency to follow the Grotowski system. Under this system the actors, in an effort to redefine the relation between actor, stage space and the audience, rely on extensive physical training that eliminates thought. It over emphasises the importance of the actor and trivialises the role of the playwright and all other essential elements of theatre. For them the watchword is don't think, only 'act'. I have experimented with actors and space but always believed that unless it is used to communicate thought there is no meaning in such experiments."Mr. Varma has already chalked out his comeback plans. He hopes to renew his theatre connections and get into the thick of things. And perhaps to get a feel of that experience, the language, the life, he adapted and directed M. Mukundan's 'Oru Dalit Yuvathiyude Kadana Katha,' recently, at Jaipur. "All these years I had wanted to do a Malayalam play but somehow never got to doing it. Then this happened. It was done for the National School of Drama's Repertory Company and was staged twice in Jaipur. This Hindi adaptation of the novel was faithful to the original text. The narratives were retained and the monologues dramatised. Thankfully it was received well," winds up Mr. Varma.