Na. Muthuswamy — guide and guru

Na. Muthuswamy meshed the modern and the folk to redefine Tamil theatre

Updated - November 01, 2018 02:49 pm IST

Published - November 01, 2018 02:48 pm IST

Na Muthuswamy

Na Muthuswamy

“Sollungo” (Tell me), he would say whenever I called him to check some detail. He had a manner of speaking that was slow and appealing. He was a man of few words but what need of words when his plays spoke so much for him?

Na. Muthuswamy gave us theatre that was dynamic and yet reflective, marked by physicality and yet highly cerebral. With sharp insight and satire, he focussed on the many ills that plague contemporary life — in politics , in society or in the search for an identity. His plays were translated to the stage by him through imaginatively conceived action that fitted them as grandly as the elaborate headgear of the actors of the Theru-k-koothu, from which he drew his inspiration.

Muthuswamy was able to successfully mesh the modern text of his plays with the use of traditional folk performing art forms. Founder member and resident playwright of the Koothu-p-pattarai repertory that came into being in 1977, he was a creative force, which swept across the Tamil stage changing forever the face of alternative theatre, providing it with fresh impetus and a vital energy. From his love of (Tamil) New Poetry came the lyricism that marked his plays and through his love of the folk performing art forms came the vibrancy of his Koothu-p-pattarai’s productions.

Engrossing experience

The avant-garde Tamil theatre of the 1980s and 90s largely belonged to Koothu-p-pattarai. Quite a few of my evenings were spent watching Muthuswamy’s plays at various venues — the Alliance Francaise, the Max Mueller Bhavan (both of which greatly encouraged Tamil theatre), the Music Academy, the repertory’s premises in Kottivakkam and much later in Virugambakkam — in order to write about them for The Hindu. It was an engrossing experience — “Naarkalikarar,” “Appavum Pillaiyum,” “ Suvarottigal,” “England,” “Padukalam” and so on. The productions jolted you out of your complacency and forced you to introspect.

‘England,’ by Koothu-p-Pattarai

‘England,’ by Koothu-p-Pattarai

Muthuswamy, who was associated with the Tamil literary movement and was part of Nadai , a literary journal, also went on to contribute short stories to Ezhuthu and Kanaiyazhi. He then turned his attention to plays . He trained actors, brought directors from abroad, staged world classics and widened the boundaries of Tamil alternative theatre. Ford Foundation and Central Government grants saw the repertory grow. In interviews with this writer, when asked about charges that his plays were difficult to understand, his reply was that his focus was on providing a different experience — “like music.” And his actors in fighting trim translated his vision beautifully turning the stage into an arena of action and visual imagery. The contrast between rural innocence, as exemplified by his native village Punjai (“Enga Punjaiyilae…”), and urban venality remained a constant theme in his plays.

He forced audiences to take the leap to theatre of a different kind and revel in it — savouring its stylistic devices, being impressed by its energetic movements and choreography, and letting the beauty of the language wrap itself around them.

He was Muthuswamy Sir to almost all those who knew him. It was an address most suited to a man who was guide and guru to many theatre artistes, quite a few of whom have gone on to make a mark in the cinema as well. But who have never forgotten how much they owe him as I witnessed when they all gathered at the Music Academy to felicitate him on his 80th birthday three years ago. I will always remember him as he was that evening welcoming me with his shy, typical smile and handing me a copy of his collected plays .

Na. Muthuswamy was an extraordinary human being whose achievements and awards rested lightly on him and this enhanced his value as a writer, director and a pioneer. He imbued his actors with passion for his mode of theatre, a passion that one hopes will propel the group forward.

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