‘The stories reflect a city that’s constantly in a state of flux’


Using a visually rich style and spirited ensemble, playwright Ramachandran K’s Bombay Sketches unspools from the meshing of glamour, crime and development that dominates the city’s history

If there was one key indicator of the geographical spread of the Malayali diaspora across state borders, it is the slew of amateur drama competitions organised by the Thrissur-based Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi — perhaps the most industrious of state cultural organisations. Apart from regional contests and the state-level competition, there are zonal rounds for pravasi (migrant) groups in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad, which culminates in an all-India finale. For good measure, there is also the Gulf edition for expat populations in the Middle East, with Kuwait even boasting of its own chapter. Several plays of note emerge from the melee each year, and all of it makes for a frenetic and combative backdrop to a popular strain of theatre-making in Malayalam both in Kerala and beyond, quite distinct from the state’s symbiotic experimental and traditional theatre eco-systems that characteristically eschew these state-sponsored diversions.

Urban vignettes

Slated to be staged this week in Mumbai is the winning play of the All India Pravasi Amateur Drama Competition, organised earlier this year, in what was only its second edition. Bombay Sketches is a production from the Nerul-based New Bombay Keraleeya Samaj, that dubs itself a socio-cultural organisation. This is the group’s first foray into theatre in the 40-odd years of its existence. Written by Ramachandran K and directed by Prasanth Narayan, the play puts together a series of vignettes dealing with the contemporary history of Maharashtra. Although staged in Malayalam, it isn’t specifically about the Malayalis of Mumbai, but includes, within its ambit, an entire spectrum of local populations. “It can be called the living history of uprooted people. The stories reflect a city that’s constantly in a state of flux,” says Ramachandran, of his play’s distinctly anthropological gaze. He has been at the forefront of Malayali cultural outreach, with his Keli series of festivals, that have brought exponents of classical music and dance, and contemporary theatre to Mumbai’s shores. These events have been attracting a growing crossover audience.

For this weekend’s performance of Bombay Sketches, subtitles will be provided for the benefit of those who do not understand Malayalam. The play is Ramachandran’s first script for the stage in more than 17 years. “It is a manual that I have handed over to [Narayan], to be moulded into any kind of stage language with the proviso that the politics must remain intact.”

Political hues

The playwright first came to Mumbai in the early 1990s. The stories he was told have acquired political underpinnings with time. In the suburban sprawl of Matunga, tales abounded of underworld kingpin Varadarajan Mudaliar and his excesses. Ramachandran was particularly interested in the opulent Ganesh pandals in Matunga that became of a show of strength for Mudaliar. Bombay Sketches begins with a Ganesh Chaturthi sequence, which puts together a history of how a very personal and private tradition became such a public spectacle — from Lokmanya Tilak’s political master stroke to Mudaliar’s hubris to the commercialisation rife in latter day Ganpati pandal culture.

Similarly, the collapse of the cotton mills in Mumbai in the mid-1980s lends itself to another set-piece. Another story highlights the plight of bar girls, working women left reeling in the aftermath of a governmental ban that robbed them of their livelihood literally overnight. “The stories are not connected but they constitute a contiguous history of the Maharashtrian people,” says Ramachandran. Director Narayan was new to Mumbai, and his impressions of the megapolis was mostly shaped by big screen portrayals. “In Kerala, Mumbai is famous for the massive slum of Dharavi on one hand, and also the ‘richness’ and gloss of its unique urban landscape,” he says. During rehearsals, he was able to discover a thought process that strikingly emerged from Ramachandran’s stories, and it is this thinking that he has tried to faithfully represent on stage, employing a visually rich style and a spirited ensemble.

Bombay Sketches, December 7, 5 p.m. & 8 p.m. at Agri Koli Auditorium, Nerul (West). Donor passes will be with Jayaprakash PD (9833074099) and Varughese George (9324621753)

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 4:46:02 AM |

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