Theatre

Remembering Komal Swaminathan, whose plays focused on social issues

Tamil Playwright Komal Swaminathan.  

Komal Swaminathan was one of contemporary Tamil stage’s most powerful playwrights. Born in 1935 in Karaikudi, he finished his graduation in Madurai and came to Madras in the mid-1950s driven by a passion for theatre. While in college, he was a Congress activist who had made a name for himself with his fiery stage speeches.

It was a time when Tamil theatre was undergoing a metamorphosis of sorts, marked by the advent of amateur theatre. The genres of the plays being staged too started undergoing a change, with more social themes being presented, as compared to the earlier eras.

Against this backdrop, theatre legend S.V. Sahasranamam started the Seva Stage Nataka Kalvi Nilayam, a drama school in 1957 to teach aspirants various aspects of stagecraft. Komal Swaminathan joined the institution, which had 26 students on its rolls. Classes were handled by several well-known personalities in the field of Tamil literature and theatre such as Prof Khi.Va. Jagannathan, S.D. Subramania Yogi and Avvai Shanmugam, besides Sahasranamam himself.

Training included discussions on various aspects of theatre, workshops, and visits to performances. Sahasranamam considered Komal to be one of the brightest students of his batch. The duo shared a special bond, with Komal looking up to Sahasranamam as a true mentor.

In his memoirs, Parandhu Pona Pakkangal, Komal writes that his debut work as a playwright, Pudhiya Paadhai, was, rather interestingly, first staged by a group of Gujaratis (belonging to the Khedawal community) from Sowcarpet. Their forefathers had migrated to Madras decades ago and they were fluent in Tamil. Sahasranamam watched the inauguration of the play, which was staged as part of a month-long drama festival organised by theatre enthusiast Partha of the Sport and Pastime magazine. He suggested that it be staged by his group Seva Stage and thus began Komal’s formal journey into the world of Tamil theatre. He went on to write two more scripts for Seva Stage, Minnal Kolam and Thillainayagam. His association with Tamil cinema started around this time, when he joined as assistant to director K.S. Gopalakrishnan and worked on several movies such as Karpagam, Kai Kodutha Deivam and Suhaagan, the Hindi remake of Sarada.

His own theatre group

With Sahasranamam’s encouragement, Komal started his own theatre group, Stage Friends, in 1971, with many actors from Seva Stage. The first play under this banner, Sannidhi Theru, was inaugurated on January 23 that year. Over the course of the next few years, he wrote several comedies and family dramas such as Nawab Narkali, Jesus Varuvaar, Perumaale Saatchi and Kodu Illa Kolangal (which was actor Sathyaraj’s stage debut). En Veedu, En Kanavan, En Kuzhandhai was another successful play he wrote at this time, featuring legendary comedienne Manorama in a completely different avatar, that of matriarch of a large household. It was later shot and telecast by Doordarshan for Diwali in 1985 and became the talk of the town.

A scene from the Tamil play Thanneer Thanneer, written by Komal Swaminathan.

A scene from the Tamil play Thanneer Thanneer, written by Komal Swaminathan.  

Swarga Bhoomi, inaugurated in the late 1970s, dealt with the Naxalite movement. It was an important play in Komal’s career, as he started focusing more on social issues. His most celebrated work, Thaneer Thaneer, premiered in October 1980, running into controversy even before its launch, with the police refusing the mandatory permission that had to be obtained before staging a play, probably because it highlighted official apathy towards people’s issues. The permission eventually came through just a few hours before the inaugural show. The movie version, directed by K. Balachander, won the National Award in 1981 for best Tamil film. The success of Thaneer Thaneer was followed by several critically acclaimed plays such as Nalliravil Petrom, Oru Indhiya Kanavu, and Grama Rajyam. Komal wrote 33 plays in all, of which 27 were performed by Stage Friends.

Between 1991 and 1995, he also served as the editor of Subamangala, and it was under his editorship that it became a well-known literary magazine.

A recipient of several awards, including the Kalaimamani, Komal Swaminathan passed away in October 1995. In recent years, his legacy has been actively carried forward by his daughter Dharini Komal, who revived Thaneer Thaneer in 2013 and intends to bring back his other works to stage.

The writer, a heritage buff and amateur Tamil theatre artiste, is part of the cast in Dharini Komal’s latest production.

Reviving Komal’s classics

Remembering Komal Swaminathan, whose plays focused on social issues
To mark the golden jubilee of Stage Friends, Komal Swaminathan’s daughter, Dharini Komal, will stage some of her father’s plays.

The first in the series is En Veedu, En Kanavan, En Kuzhandhai. Directed by Dharini, it will be staged between October 1 and 17 at different venues.

Lavanya Venugopal plays the protagonist, a role portrayed by the legendary Manorama in the original.

The first show is on October 1, 6.30 p.m. at Narada Gana Sabha. Details of subsequent shows are: October 2 at Narada Gana Sabha Hall (presented by Brahma Gana Sabha and Parthasarathy Swami Sabha); October 3 at Narada Gana Sabha; and October 17 at Vani Mahal (presented by Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha). For details contact +91 9841062014.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 3:23:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/tribute-to-komal-swaminathan-whose-plays-focused-on-social-issues/article36754678.ece

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