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The King and the playwright

Academic and playwright John Mathew at his home in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: Saraswathy Nagarajan

Academic and playwright John Mathew at his home in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: Saraswathy Nagarajan   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

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Academic and award-winning playwright John Mathew is writing a play on Uthram Thirunal, a monarch of erstwhile Travancore

John Mathew (“spelt with a single ‘T’”) redefines the word versatility. John enjoys blurring the lines between his many interests. To prevent being pigeonholed at work or play, the genial biologist and historian wears many hats with ease and sees no incongruity in doing so. “I dislike being straitjacketed and I feel that children being forced to specialise so early in life means they are being forced to betray their childhood,” he says during a brief visit to his home, Vishranti, at Muttada.

By following his heart and taking up whatever catches his interest, John, an INK speaker, continues to play many roles – as academic, playwright, author, poet, music composer, scientist and researcher. “I have known many people who regret not following their childhood passion. But I have no such regrets. That means my effort may have been scattered but that is the way I like it,” says John, his words echoing the accents of his travels and stays abroad.

As he walks you through his interests and thoughts, John’s child-like enthusiasm is evident but so is his painstaking research that has gone into each of his works. Lately, John, who is teaching at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, is working on a play that has made him an explorer of erstwhile Travancore. In Harvard, he happened to read George Woodcock’s Kerala: A Portrait of the Malabar Coast and was mesmerised. “Although I had heard stories about Marthanda Varma, Velu Thampi Dalawa and so on, I found there was so much more to be discovered when I began reading it sequentially. I found that the city I was visiting frequently was taking on a different hue. And I wanted to know more. I began reading P. Sankunni Menon and eventually met Gouri Lakshmi Bayi and Swati Tirunal,” he explains.

The story of the only queen of Travancore who had ruled in her own right caught his attention. He was struck by the rapport between the queen, a staunch Hindu, and John Munroe, a devout Christian. He was planning to write a novel or play on them when he came across the life of Uthram Thirunal (1814-1860), the brother of Swati Tirunal, who succeeded him to the throne of Travancore. “He seems to have had a scientific bent of mind and was quite happy to pursue his study of chemistry and medicine. Finally, I decided to write a play on him,” says John.

He travelled to Colachel, Padmanabhapuram Palace and Udayagiri to get a feel of the scenes of many of the important milestones in the history of Travancore. “It was surreal to go to Colachel and find this column commemorating a victory over the Dutch in 1741. In Udayagiri Fort we saw the grave of De Lannoy, who was actually Flemish.”

As is his wont, he also explored the cemetery of the CSI Church in the city where some of the protagonists of his play were laid to rest. “This was history in the time of peace, a time when a society was on the cusp of great changes. It was not about the conflict of swords. So how would one show the conflict of ideas on stage…? It is a challenge. My ambition is to stage it in Thiruvananthapuram,” says John.

But work is in progress and John is at his writing table in his house, where much of his writing has taken place.

His oeuvre reflects a childhood spent in different countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Libya, United Kingdom…, an upbringing that exposed him to many cultures and widened his horizons. His mother read poetry and plays to him and his sister initiated a long affair with words in John who seems to be writing all the while – prose, poetry and plays.

From playing an angel in a play while in school in Libya, John moved centre stage during his student days in MCC, Chennai, when he wrote a musical Olive that was staged in the Music Academy Hall in Chennai. John, one of the founders of the Scrub Society, Madras Christian College’s environmental organisation in 1990, was also secretary of the Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network in Madras (“the first such student initiative anywhere”) that organised a hatchery for Olive Ridley sea turtles.

“I wondered how we would be able to create awareness about the need to protect the Olive Ridley Turtles. With all due respect to creative work by great writers, I wondered why we could not write play and books with an Indian context when we are so rich in material. That was when I came up with the idea of a play based on the turtles. The entire musical was written in this house when I came for a vacation,” he remembers.

In 1995, 24-year-old John came under the arc lights when his play Grave Affairs (also titled A Sunset in Purple) was selected as the best play in the category ‘English as a second language’, for a BBC radio-drama contest and was broadcast worldwide. It also premiered on the stage in Harvard in 2001. Grave Affairs, based in Kerala, was about a Hindu caretaker who looked after adjoining cemeteries (one Christian and one Muslim) in north-central Kerala.

“When I write, I weave in my different experiences chronologically and thematically together,” he says. Right now, John is busy exploring the heritage of the city that he calls home.

The academic and wordsmith

* John has a doctorate in Ecology from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, and in History of Science from Harvard.

* John has written five full-length plays and four short plays. Recently, he won an e-author prize for best novel (2008) in an all-India competition for his manuscript Origins and Descents.

* B(e) Minor Blue, is a musical on being young, while the The Original Anglo Indian, another play, is an elegy to childhood.

* John is the co-founder of South Asian American Theatre (Saath), the first South Asian theatre company in Boston, and was its artistic director from 2002 to August 2007.

* All of John’s plays have a colour in the title.

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Printable version | Dec 12, 2019 3:06:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-king-and-the-playwright/article6933125.ece

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