‘Ningalenne Communistakki’ turns 60
An old janmi (agrarian landlord). Steeped in old-world beliefs, but facing dwindling fortunes. He is cross with his Communist son’s new-age convictions. However, the new realities and the force of events turn him around and make him a convert to his son’s ideology. As the curtain falls, the old man demands: “Hand me that red flag, let me keep it aloft.”
You might step aside the play today and be tempted to dub it yet another Communist propaganda material. But 60 years ago, Ningalenne Communistaaki (`You have made me a Communist’) echoed the reality of the times. Kerala was steeped in feudalistic mores, superstitions, upper-caste arrogances, poverty and exploitation of the working class. Communism was the only hope on the horizon for the toiling masses.
Ningalenne Communistaaki , which deeply impacted Kerala’s society in the 1950-60s and helped propel the Communist Party into power in 1957, will turn 60 this week.
The iconic play, written by Thoppil Bhasi and staged by the Communist Party-backed Kerala People’s Art Club (KPAC), premiered on December 6, 1952 at Sudarsana Theatre at Thattassery in Kollam district. Apart from launching a people’s theatre movement in Kerala that drove backstage the then prevailing genre of theatre dominated by Tamil musical melodramas, ‘Communistaaki’ helped set the scene for the radical land reforms carried out by the Communist government and hastened the end of rural landlordism. Perhaps no work of art has had such an impact on Kerala’s social, political and cultural domains as ‘Communistaaki’, which has been staged more than 10,000 times.
“I still remember the exhilaration that G. Devarajan, who had scored music for the play, and I felt while walking home under a moonlit sky after the first staging of the play,” poet O.N.V. Kurup, who wrote the songs for the play, recalls. “On the way, we saw people excitedly discussing the play. We sensed that the play would go places.”
Asked to assess the impact of the play on the 1950s Kerala society, the poet said: “Communistaaki made the common people sit up and think how to remove society’s ills. It was the first play to have followed the Indian People’s Theatre Association’s (IPTA) mission statement: “People’s theatre stars the people.” Audiences could identify themselves with the play and it inspired the new generation to dream of a socialist future.
A bunch of young men, fired by Communist ideals, had wanted to present a play that would bring on stage the conflict between conservative and modern values and the ultimate triumph of progressive values (Communism). The young men — who included G. Janardhana Kurup, N. Rajagopalan Nair, K.S. Rajaamani, O.N.V., Devarajan and Kambissery Karunakaran — zeroed in on ‘Communistaaki’. They rehearsed for a year in a tent put up at the home of Kodankulangara Vasu Pillai, a theatre enthusiast.
Janardhana Kurup, one of the founders of KPAC, who was the play’s director initially, also donned the powerful role of the villainous landlord Kesavan Nair. Mr. Kurup’s daughter Sarada, a former professor at Cochin University, recalls that her father had put his body and soul into the play. “As a five-year-old, I used to accompany my father to the rehearsal camp,” she told The Hindu .” She remembers K.S. George and Sudharma rehearsing some of the songs in the play.
Dr. Ambili, another daughter of Mr. Kurup, recalls that her father had portrayed the wicked landlord’s role so realistically that at one point where he had to slap his daughter Sumam (actor-singer Sulochana), Mr. Kurup had forgotten that he was acting on stage and hit Sulochana so hard that she writhed in pain.
Kambissery Karunakaran had played the role of the janmi Paramu Pillai initially (and later by P.J. Anotny and Premji). Sudharma took the powerful role of Maala, the peasant girl, who is secretly in love with Paramu Pillai’s son Gopalan who has fallen in love with Kesavan Nair’s daughter Sumam (Sulochana).
“My mother acted and sang as Maala in over 100 performances of the play,” Sudharma’s daughter Chitra Gangadharan, who teaches at Madappally Government College, told The Hindu . “She was very passionate about the role and very committed to the Communist movement.” Sudharma, a fine singer and actor, was a music teacher in a government school. Her actual name was J. Gomathy; she had renamed herself for the stage to hide her identity.
“My mother used to act in the play at night and during the day she would work at school, for several days on end,” Chitra Gangadharan recalls.
“Those days, no glycerine was used for sobbing on stage and hence she had to actually weep after whipping up real emotion. She actually lived as Maala on stage and the huge emotional stress used to shoot up her blood pressure. She became hypertensive (high BP) from her early twenties because of the emotionally-charged acting.
Break with old theatre
Playwright and director Chandradasan notes that ‘Communistaaki’ marked a break with the then prevailing theatre practices in terms of content, text, acting, and staging.
“It was Kerala’s first indigenous theatre performance,” he told The Hindu . “In fact, Communistaaki later on set the formula for the professional theatre in Kerala.”
Sajitha Madathil, actor, theatre researcher and author of `Malayala Nataka Sthree Charithram’ points out that a play cannot be evaluated out of its social context. ‘Communistaaki’ had provoked its viewers to think of social change, and that was a great achievement. “But, the depiction of women characters is problematic — it smacks of male-chauvinistic construct of female roles.”