Interview with M. Ramasamy, Prof. of Drama
FIERY PERFORMER: M. Ramasamy, Professor of Drama
Professor M. Ramasamy shares his passion for theatre
He may be soft-spoken, but when he gets on to the stage, he undergoes a total transformation and breathes life into the character he plays. Actor, playwright and professor of drama M. Ramasamy is a respected name in the theatre scene of Madurai.
I first met Mu Ra (as he is fondly known in the drama circles) two decades ago at a residential workshop in my alma mater. I enrolled for the event just to spend time with friends but he totally changed my perception of drama. By the end of the four-day workshop, we were able to evolve our own scripts and performing better.
Mu Ra himself had no idea about drama until he finished his post-graduation. Growing up at a time when Dravidian movement was at its peak, his inclination towards Tamil language and literature was only natural. “Though I studied physics in undergraduation, my passion was to study Tamil which I fulfilled while doing M.A. I did Ph.D. under Professor Shanmugam Pillai, who asked me to work on ‘Folk Theatres in Tamil Nadu’. Thus, I got into the world of theatre,” he recalls.
As a research scholar he began documenting different “koothu” performances. “I used to run after performers to gather information. My friends even called me “koothu” Ramasamy. Once, a friend of mine invited me to watch a performance happening in his locality. But on reaching there I found that it was a leather puppetry show. It was a different experience for me. I never realised at the time that it would be the title for my doctoral thesis,” says Mu Ra, who did his Ph.D. in “Tamizhaga Thorpavai Nizharkoothu.”
His acquaintance with Professor Ramanujam and participation in a seven-day workshop in Gandhigram widened his understanding of theatre. Following which he along with his students and friends founded the ‘Nija Nataka Iyakkam’. “We planned to name our group as ‘Real Theatre Movement’, which we later translated into Tamil. We staged our performances on the foothills of Nagamalai,” he says.
Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ inspired him to focus on the skills of an actor and acting more rather than relying heavily on theatrical devices. “I opted for the street theatre form as it is like carrying a pen and pencil. You can carry your play anywhere and perform. It poses a different challenge as you have to demand the attention of the spectators. Retaining the audience for 20 to 30 minutes is tough task. The subject should be based on an issue of some public importance. Moreover, the play becomes more interactive with active participation from the audience,” he explains.
He met his wife Shenbagam, a Tamil professor interested in drama, at a conference. Her words of praise for his paper brought them closer. “She was so passionate about folk arts that she even sacrificed participation in the Dravidian Linguistic Association conference and donated the entry fee money to the ‘Thevar attam’ artistes from Andipatti. She initiated ‘Themmangu’, a centre for folk arts in the city. She translated Sappho’s poems, and also ‘Antigone’ and ‘Prometheus Bound’ from Greek into Tamil,” says Mu Ra, who stages a production every March to mark her death anniversary.
Impressed by Malayalam theatre personality G. Sankara Pillai’s works, he staged many of his plays in Tamil that included ‘Gangayin Mainthan’, ‘Pandithar Moovarum Mandathoru Singamum’ and “Padukavalan’, a translation of ‘Rakshapurushan’. They were followed by a production based on Gnani’s ‘Balloon’, which established his mettle in proscenium theatre.
Seeing his love for theatre, Dr. V.I. Subramaniam, the first Vice-Chancellor of Tamil University, Thanjavur, asked him to translate some of Bertolt Brecht’s plays and provided him the opportunity to participate in a music conference in Bhopal.
During this trip he had a chance to visit the Sangeet Natak Akademi in New Delhi, where he met its Assistant Director Dr. Bhargava. “He asked me to apply for a fellowship for promising young directors as there was no representation from Tamil Nadu.”
The fellowship helped him to stage Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ (‘Durgira Avalam’ in Tamil) using folk arts, which he presented at the National School of Drama South Zone festival in Bangalore. “The play earned me a good name among theatre enthusiasts, as we were able to create a big impact without any professional training. The contemporary relevance of the play was well appreciated. It got selected for the national level festival in Delhi,” he beams.
Crowd gathered in good numbers to see him performing. At the Badal Sircar Theatre Festival held in 1989, audience even braved early morning drizzle in the open-air theatre of the St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi to watch him stage Badal Sircar’s ‘Spartacus’ in Tamil.
As Nija Nataka Iyakkam’s aim is not only to entertain people but also to educate, he likes to stage plays that makes the audience think. ‘Galileo’ is one such play where he ignited scientific temper among the people.
‘Kalagakkarar Thozhar Periyar’ was a well received play. “Playing the role was more demanding because many in the audience bombarded me with queries. On stage as ‘Periyar’ I was more careful that I should not deviate from the great leader’s ideals. I managed to pull it off. We staged 48 performances. Gathering the actors and travelling as a team is a hard task,” he says, adding that many students who were part of the play benefited as it actually supported them financially for their studies. He has also worked with the transgender community and has produced ‘Vali Aruppu’, which involves them. His latest production, ‘Thozhargal’, was staged at the Classical Tamil Conference in Coimbatore.
Impressed by his performances in theatre, film actor Nasser offered him a role in his movie ‘Devathai’ and then in ‘Maayan’.
Presently, he is the Director, International Classical Tamil Tolkappiar Forum and is compiling an encyclopaedic dictionary of technical terms in Tamil drama. He plans to publish it in December.
Awarded Kalaimamani for his exemplary work in the field of theatre.
His last production ‘Thozhargal’ is published as a book.
Has acted in movies including, ‘Devathai’, ‘Maayan’, ‘Nanda’, ‘Pithamagan’, ‘Paruthiveeran’ and ‘Sandakozhi’.
Has performed ‘Nandan Kathai’ in New Jersey and Chicago.
Received The Booksellers’ and Publishers’ Association of South India cash award for his research works in theatre.
Received Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar Trust award for his book on Thorpavai Nizharkoothu.