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In memory of Tamil theatre

By Gopalie, Sify.com

When I was asked to write about Tamil theatre – both that was and that is – I felt I was in a uniquely privileged position because I have been a theater critic for more than 23 years.

I feel as societies evolve, the early beginnings are forgotten in the process of evolution – much like a butterfly forgets its cocoon. Only academics indulge in ‘remembering’ and, in some ways, it is useful.

In the second half of the 20th century, theatre came in a weak third after dance and Carnatic music. The disappearance of professional theater encouraged the emergence of sabhas – small groups of amateur actors who staged a play or two a month. Each group had its own playwright, who knew the artistic capabilities of the members and wrote plays accordingly. Over the years, the number of sabhas mushroomed from six or seven to 65.

Initially, the sabhas did not all do too well. If a play was well received or if it was booked by Mylapore Fine Arts, then the group was assured a minimum of 65 performances. The sabha recovered its costs only after a few shows. While the male cast of the play usually consisted of office-goers, the female roles were enacted by professionals – a tradition that is still practiced.

Film stars like Major Sundarajan, AVM Rajam and V S Raghavan had their own theatre groups. Komal Swaminathan, the better known among them, started Major. In fact, Shivaji Ganesan belonged to one such group.

Around this time, theatre also began its relationship with cinema. If a play was very successful, it invariably became a film. The rewards of this were manifold. For example, the lead actor was normally signed on to be the film’s hero and the playwright earned a good packet by selling the script.

The family theme was very popular, as was comedy and satire. Playwrights, including Raman, wrote comedy mostly based on the French playwright and actor Moliere. These plays, whose presentations are unforgettable, gave rise to many new actors.

Y G Mahendra and Prabhu were the notable actors of the age, who mainly did political satire. The actor duo of Visu and Mouli, who followed in the dramatic actor M R Radha’s tradition, also began an era of brilliant plays. But their reign came to an end when they left their sabhas and struck out on their own – their grip on their work slackened and the duo collapsed.

The advent of television changed the scenario. With the emergence of channels and their daily soaps, playwrights have almost disappeared. However, among notable playwrights, both Augusto and Venkat continue to write. Some ventured into films, with questionable success. This list includes Visu, who plays the Sutradar in his own gossip arena. Isn’t this an extended form of theatre?

The glory has died – proud traditions are in ruins. The habit of going to the theatre is now non-existent. The number of sabhas have gone down and in their place have sprung up new kinds of theater.

The new breed caters to a specific audience that enjoys a particular brand of comedy. And this brand is being defined by newcomers like S V Shekar and Crazy Mohan. T V Varadharajan also put up some plays mostly to boost his own image than to contribute to the theater movement.

The doors to great theater are closed for ever. It is irreversible. Though theater is still successful in states like Maharashtra, Kolkata and Karnataka, where are we? Quo vadis. My heart sinks as I write this – is it a memoriam or an obituary?

The writer has been active in the theater circuit for over two decades engaged as a tutor, critic and producer.with over two decades of experience. He was also a producer with Doordarshan Chennai and is currently the guest faculty on theater at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. His research work on Tamil Metro Theater from 1960 to 1985 is awaiting publication with the Union Cultural Ministry.

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