Theatre

Language not a barrier

R.S. Manohar drama troupe performing a scene from "Thirunavukarasar" at the Music Academy in Madras on August 24, 1994.  

Envy, Machiavellian scheming, a sanguinary family conflict, and finally, the sobering of passions, and the gradual realisation that life is “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Sounds like a story that can provide ample material for umpteen plays and films, doesn’t it? Yes, the Mahabharata can be mined for hundreds of themes. So, for that matter, can the Ramayana and the Puranas. And that is one reason why mythology was the staple of Tamil theatre in its early days.



The social milieu of the time also helped. Children, as young as five, joined drama companies, which were like residential acting schools. Poverty was what brought children to these companies. But one must not imagine that the owners of these companies were cast in the mould of a Dickensian Mr. Bumble. “Far from it,” asserts actor M.N. Rajam, who joined Madurai Sri Mangala Bala Gana Sabha, at the age of seven. “We were looked after very well. Every Monday a feast was served - mutton for non-vegetarians and vadai and payasam for the vegetarians. The weekly oil bath was not forgotten either.”



Until they had proved their mettle, actors were not paid anything. “My first payment was just five rupees. When I became an established artist, I was paid 75 rupees for a show!” says Rajam. As a result of the systematic training they received, actors could handle any role with ease. Actors like K.R. Ramaswamy, who played Krishna in Krishna Leela, landed the main roles, because they could sing well.



Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai spared no expense, to ensure the success of his plays. When Nawab decided to stage a drama on Ayyappan, none in Tamil Nadu knew what Ayyappan looked like! “So Nawab sent artist Madhavan to Sabarimalai. He stayed there for a month and drew a sketch of Ayyappan. This was then sent to Mumbai, where it was photographed and the black and white image was sent to Chennai. Madhavan coloured it, and this went back to Mumbai, where it was printed. Nawab made many Ayyappa calendars and was mainly responsible for the spread of the Ayyappa cult in Tamil Nadu,” says Rajam.



My mother recalls that every Vaikunta Ekadasi, Nawab would stage Sampoorna Ramayanam, which would begin at 10 p.m. and go on till 4.30 a.m. the next day. Nawab, as Hanuman, would fall at the feet of the boys playing Rama and Lakshmana. At the end of the show, the boys would run to Nawab and fall at his feet, to seek forgiveness for having made their guru fall at their feet! Nawab’s company had punkah pullers, says my mother, to keep the audience cool and comfortable. Nawab was known for his quick changes of sets.



Innovations in stage techniques were introduced by Oviyanallur Madhavan Pillai, who did the Ayyappa sketch. My father used to talk about Sri Sakthi Nataka Sabha’s play ‘Kaviyin Kanavu’, for which Madhavan used two pillars cleverly to expand or reduce the space available to the actors, depending upon the requirements of the scene. My father remembered being taken by his aunts to Nawab’s inaugural of Dasavataram, at Chitra Talkies, in April 1945, presided over by Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. The play was so popular, that even the 10 p.m. show ran to a full house.



Even after professional companies like Nawab’s closed down, mythologicals were kept alive by R.S. Manohar’s National Theatres. “Manohar sir had 17 technicians. In addition we’d hire 20 people on an ad hoc basis, to play the roles of servants, soldiers, etc,” says Nagarajan, who was with Manohar from 1974.



Nagarajan talks of how back stage work contributed to the success of Manohar’s plays. For example, in one play, an arrow would metamorphose into a garland. The ‘arrow’ was an oblong box made of a tin sheet, electric bulbs inside illuminating it. When the arrow got close to the papier mache Hanuman, hooks attached to Hanuman’s thumbs would be manipulated, and would slowly pull apart the ‘skin’ covering his chest, showing Rama residing in his heart. Immediately, the lights illuminating the arrow would be turned off, and it would be flipped over. The other side of the arrow, which looked like a garland, would go round Hanuman’s neck. Naturally, to do all this without hitches required multiple rehearsals, which often went on till 1 a.m.



Three trucks were needed to transport the sets. The troupe had a ‘lorry broker,’ who would hire trucks for them. And when they toured outside the State, an entire carriage in a goods train would be booked for the sets. Visits to Mumbai meant at least 20 shows, in places such as Ghatkopar, , Goregaon, Mulund, Chembur and Kalyan.



Manohar continued to stage mythologicals till 1996, when he handed over all his sets and costume to Nagarajan. Can Nagarajan stage mythologicals now? “I’d like to. But sabhas won’t pay more than Rs. 25,000 for a show, and that won’t even cover expenses.”



Until 10 years ago, the Tamil Nadu Government used to provide grants for staging mythologicals, a practice that was later discontinued. Last year, members of Tamil Stage Drama Producers' Association approached the Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram, with a request to revive the practice. As a result, this year five troupes have been provided with Rs. 1.5 lakhs each for staging mythologicals.



The troupes’ take: “Cost is the major consideration when staging mythologicals, because of the elaborate sets. I have rented out a place in Guduvancherry to store my sets,” says Balasundaram of Tamilarasan Theatres.



Tamil Nadu Naadaga Nadigar Sangam, Madurai, is a group that performs only musical dramas with mythological themes, and is now entering its 93rd year. It has 400 members, all of whom can sing and act. They follow the scripts of Sankaradas Swamigal. Do such plays draw crowds? “In villages with famous temples, there is a demand for musical plays (Isai Nadagam),” says Secretary V.M.A. Muthuramalingam.



Arunagiri of Gangai Kalalaya, has been staging plays since 1974, and has trained many artists. The first thing he focuses on is their diction. Is the time of mythologicals past, given that they are now serialised on television? “No,” says Nandakumar. “If youngsters are made aware of how much effort goes into these plays, they will appreciate them.”



Devi Jarrina of Devi Kalaikoodam has been staging plays for 30 years, and used to act in Isai Natakam as a child. For this year’s play - Karaikkal Ammaiyar - she and her husband Chandbasha took the guidance of Sargurunathan, Oduvar of Kapali temple, with regard to the panns to be used.



At a time when lady artists are hard to come by, here is something encouraging.



S. Rajashri of Gangai Kalalaya, is a Kannadiga, who grew up in Mumbai. She learnt Tamil only after coming to Chennai four years ago, but speaks impeccable Tamil, and can read Tamil too! She finds the old world Tamil of mythologicals and historicals charming!



The plays list



Venue: Narada Gana Sabha; 6.30 p.m.



March 8: Tamilarasan Theatres - Sri Krishna Darsanam



March 9: Tamil Nadu Naadaga Nadigar Sangam - Bhakta Prahlada



March 10: Naadaga Kavalar Kalaikoodam - Sri Ramanujar



March 11: Devi Kalaikoodam- Karaikkal Ammaiyar.



March 12: Gangai Kalalaya- Killivalavan Kaadal

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