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Viewing Drama At Every Stage

The Hindu has over the years focussed on the potential of Indian theatre, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

King George V and Queen Mary enter the royal box to see a play in Drury Lane, “all the ladies wearing white or in mourning, though his Majesty looked much more cheerful than he has done for some time past” (1916). In the early years, The Hindu published news from West End, London, and reviews on plays such as “Julius Caesar” and “Beggars in Hell” (set in frontier India, with an Indian villain, but played by an Englishman, of course). The “state of contemporary British drama” is scrutinised, the decline in English theatre regretted. But `native’ theatre soon finds voices.

A hilarious account of a European’s response to small town all night Indian theatre of myths and legends appears in 1929. Sitting close to the footlights, the writer is beside a man with a harmonium “playing single notes with both hands, in unison never a chord. Another slaps his bass and treble drums, a third scrapes a violin. On the stage, Kabir or Chandrahasa or Draupadi or Arjuna is declaiming one of those endless Hindu ragas one comes to love somehow without in the least comprehending.” The story is always the same. “A virtuous lady — married of course, this is India — in the power of an evil man and delivered eventually— but only after hours of assault and remonstrance — by her own virtue and divine intervention it has merited… The heroines are usually the exact colour of pink powder; most deities are blue.” A noble in Ayodhya sports a wrist watch, a Pandava wears spectacles, a buffoon mimes a chugging train in the middle of the Ramayana.

CLASSIC REVIVAL: Magic Lantern’s `Ponniyin Selvan’.

N.D.Varadachariar records how “the private lives of the actors are freely canvassed and private quarrels settled on the stage. I once had the queer experience of seeing a male actor impersonating a Christian female of the 1st century, sing a song about the war of 1914, and that when the villain had just severed the martyr’s hands” (1933).

An Indian voice notes improvements in electric illuminations (1921), but is aghast at the vulgarity in speech, and the modification of religious stories to pander to lewd tastes, which `wound honourable men’s feelings’. He urges rigorous censorship. The Brown sahib riles against the length, shabbiness, and clumsiness of south Indian plays compared to the natural and tasteful scenes in English theatre.

Shakespeare Day in Madras, and T.V.Seshagiri Iyer discourses on “The Tempest”, with Miranda as “the ideal (Hindu) housewife with all virtues, and Gonsalves (sic) the prototype of Mahatma Gandhi”. Thereafter we lose track of Shakespeare and gain Gandhi, “a selfless man with no axle (sic) to grind, an avatara like Prahlatha”. Shakespeare continues to be holy gospel for the degree-holder in India. On another occasion, we come across this gem: “This gentleman had expounded from the few sutrams which were available, the navarasams or the nine beauties as found in Shakespeare’s drama.”

There are many who condemn the crudities and absurdities of early Indian theatre, but perceive the potential of the medium in promoting nationalism and moral values. Says The Hindu (1885) of Govindasawmy Row and his Manamohana company, “The impression he produced upon the pit and the gallery made us vividly alive to the vast educative power of the stage.”

SHAKESPEARE AGAIN: The Madras Players in “Twelfth Night”.

The writer adds that Sanskrit drama is an ineffective educator. The mythological plays of south India, meant to amuse and elevate, were also poor specimens of the dramatic art. Moreover, in current practice, acting was violently divorced from the stage. But with the example set by the Parsee company and a troupe of Poona Brahmins that toured the Madras Presidency, and the steady efforts of Govindasawmy Row, “monotony and monstrosity are fairly at an end, and a new era has commenced in the development of the dramatic art in this Presidency.”

The next step is the formation of amateur dramatic societies such as the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, or Kallolasini Sabha, whose productions heighten music and acting with `technical finish’. Such shows restored drama to its holy home (religion), from which it had been exiled due to `medieval degradation'(1915).

Motivating examples come from other States — such as the musical comedy “Abu Hassan”(1918), where the acting and singing of Harindranath Chattopadhyay draw repeated applause. Annie Besant commends the Chattopadhyay family’s patriotism in her speech during the interval. Theosophist poet James Cousins introduces the Javanese shadow play to Madras in 1925, as an offshoot of Indian culture across the seas.

Theatre as a tool of education is a recurrent theme with Indian and European writers. In P.E. Richards’ description of a college skit (1925), we learn of current endeavours to gain social approval for dramatics: an ascetic is on his way up a Lahore street to the temple, a student to a play. Saraswati appears and says both are coming to worship her.

In 1917, a speaker at a teacher’s college urges the setting up of theatres in every town as part of national education. He attributes the revival of Telugu and Tamil literature to the resuscitation of drama.

TITANS OF TAMIL THEATRE: S.G.Kittappa with brother Kasi Iyer on the harmonium.

In 1929, A. Ramaswami Mudaliar and C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar suggest that municipalities and corporations should promote theatre for social reform and welfare.

“Stage mechanics” (1925) are also part of the picture. Snow from the sky `whirls and drifts exactly like nature’ with the aid of boracic acid crystals. A rope passing through pulleys rocks V-shaped trough `aloft,’ raining confetti; an electric fan `blows it helter skelter’. Aural tricks include the dragging of a cart over sand piled at the back of the stage to simulate a passing coach. Footlights? Doesn’t New York now have a single control board, with 1900 switches for countless lighting effects at your fingertips?

Sets and props are noticed in reviews of mythological plays, as in Manohar’s extravaganzas. We are also introduced to “Studio Alliance” in New York (1950) which designs prefabricated interiors for Broadway (“Annie Get Your Gun”, “Pygmalion”).

Tamil theatre legend Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar appears intermittently through the years. Lecturing in Madurai (1927), he regrets the non-existence of dramatic literature in the Tamil world; not even corresponding plays from Sanskrit were available. The first Tamil play “Manonmaniam” was unstageable. Mudaliar’s account of past practice shows how the actors played stock characters and improvised the story on the spot, with neither playwright nor written text.

The work of theatre companies (such as his own Suguna Vilasa Sabha), had to start in a vacuum and build up both texts and techniques. He believed that the days of puranic tales were over and that theatre had to turn to historic and socially relevant themes to take a leading part in the progress of the nation. Experts recognise Mudaliar’s work as original, modern and relevant to the times.

T.K. Shanmugam and T.K. Bhagavathy.

Reflections on Bengali drama (1929) attribute its relative maturity to literary traditions, though still incompetent in production values. Incongruously, though they used native sources, the playwrights could do nothing beyond adapting European dramatic principles to Indian subjects. A further drawback is their penchant for idealised visions unconnected with ground realities. Until this anomaly was resolved, “their work will remain as useless as the ultra realistic drama of modern Europe.”

Through the 1920s and 1930s we hear about the `superstitious objection to the appearance of respectable women before the footlights’. Men don the `stri part’ to make `stentorian’ heroines. Some believed that “actresses withered away like hothouse plants before being discovered’ (1929); others insist that artistic excellence can be reached only with women playing women. Some shudder at female presence on the stage.

The traditions of folk theatre are little understood, even by critics. Street theatre is practically unknown. The Mahabharata koothu is disparaged for `overacting and wild gesticulations.’ The pioneering work of Tamil thespians such as Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai and Sankaradas Swamigal leave hardly a ripple. The newspaper mourns the death of the acclaimed actor M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagvatar. In its tribute to singing star S.G. Kittappa, who died at the age of 28, The Hindu recalls how Lord Willingdon, Governor of Madras, drove in state to watch his performance and congratulated the young actor in the green room for his outstanding ability. The achievements of T.K. Shanmugam and T.K. Bhagavathy find mention. They managed to survive into the 1960s with their repertory of 65 artistes — engaged on a drama-to-drama basis in leaner times. The Hindu commends their ambitious production “Avvaiyar,” with Shanmugam playing the aged philosopher-poetess of Tamil Nadu, for its “pleasing music, attractive decor, forceful dialogue and clean delivery.” Likewise, S.V. Sahasranamam, whose “imagination was fired” by the TKS brothers, is remembered for providing meaningful entertainment through his Seva Stage.

Local theatre begins to get frequent attention from the 1960s. Now the West is noticed only on special occasions such as James Barrie’s centenary (1960), when the delicacy and charm of his “Peter Pan” are noted, as also the author’s quips at a dinner hosted for the Aussie cricket team. We hear of theatre workshops with foreign experts in Madras, of a fascinating theatre architecture exhibition curated by E. Alkazi. It has drawings and models of Greek and Japanese theatre to theatre-in-the-round, and exotica such as a sea-shell shaped auditorium.

Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai.

Ploughing through the copious reviews of mainly Tamil productions in the 1960s and 1970s is to recall popular names — Cho, K. Balachander, Komal Swaminathan, Poornam Viswanathan, Marina, Muthuraman, Sowcar Janaki, Manorama, Shrikant, Major Sundarrajan, Kathadi Ramamurthy,Y.G. Parthasarathy, Nagesh, Manohar, Mouli, Visu… They offered different kinds of theatre — political satire, family drama, social commentary, comedy, farce, and mythological spectacles. The Hindu‘s columns on drama show that these varied activities on the Tamil stage did not succeed in creating a body of dramatic literature.

In the last two decades, the newspaper has not only covered commercial theatre, but alternative streams as well — the Subhamangala festival of the 1990s, Gnani’s Pariksha productions, the Voicing Silence workshops of 2002-03, and the Other Festival. The productions of Chennai’s theatre groups such as Koothu-p-pattarai and Magic Lantern, the English theatre of the Madras Players and younger companies, are previewed and reviewed regularly. But trends in regional theatres, even Tamil theatre, have rarely been assessed in a national context.

From the mid-1980s the focus widened to include major events like the annual Bharatrang Mahotsav of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, The Natyaparva of the Pune Theatre Academy, Prithvi Theatre festivals in Mumbai, and the Poorva festival of Asian women directors (2003). With the increase in the daily’s supplements and editions, regional theatre and theatre activities in the metros began to get more attention. The Hindu obituaries of thespians Shombhu Mitra and P.L. Deshpande, as also interviews with leading Indian theatre personalities such as B.V. Karanth, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad have been republished elsewhere and translated into other tongues.

The Hindu has not covered Indian theatre with the depth and scholarship it has brought to its scrutiny of Indian music. However, it offers a wealth of information on the subject for stage buffs and theatre historians.

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