Chat with Velu Saravanan on Children Theatre
Every time Velu Saravanan acts, kids burst into giggles and snorts. He tells Akila Kannadasan that children’s theatre is everything to him
Kids follow Velu Saravanan everywhere he goes. Even during the interview, curious faces peer at us. A boy runs up to him and taps his shoulder; another gazes at his face, fascinated by the white paint on it.
They believe it is Gori who is sitting there — a character he played in ‘Kadal Bootham,’ a while ago. It was a short and hilarious skit about a little boy who goes fishing one day, only to return with a pot with a sea demon inside it. The play was staged during the launch of a children’s library in Uthukuli.
“I first produced the play in 1989,” says Velu. “My thatha told me the story when I was a little boy.”
Velu says he wanted to become a film actor. He left Pudukkottai for Puducherry to follow that dream. “My first teacher in acting was Devaraj, the warden in our college hostel. He was hearing-impaired, but was an amazing actor. He emoted through signs. Being a big fan of actor Sivaji, he made us act in skits adapted from his movies. The man had a gift for acting — with his fiery red eyes, he could bring Sivaji in front of you.”
Velu was among the first batch of students to study theatre in Pondicherry University when the department of performing arts was first established in 1988 by noted writer Indra Parthasarathy. Initially, he was mostly backstage, helping with the props and make-up. But a seminar in his department one Thursday morning was the aha moment for him. Velu enacted ‘Kadal Bootham’ in the seminar and Indra Parthasarathy watched him perform. He commented that Velu was good with children’s theatre. That was all it took for young Velu to decide then and there that he would do just that.
But after the course, Velu found it hard to find a job. “Those who studied theatre struggled,” he says. He went from school to school in Puducherry, asking for an opportunity to perform. He says he often had no food to eat or even a place to stay in.
He tagged along with some friends who stayed in a bachelor’s hostel. He and a friend’s brother, his co-actor, practised on the terrace every evening. Teachers in the hostel who saw them perform, recommended them to a few schools.
It was during one such performance that the educational director of Puducherry spotted him. He authorised the team to perform in schools and advised them to form an official theatre group — Velu named it ‘Aazhi Children’s Theatre Group’.
His life took a different turn when he went to Chennai. He was invited to Karikaattu Kuppam for an art and craft workshop for children of fisher-folk.
“I was asked to take care of make-up and masks. Every evening, a cultural team would perform for the people. One evening, when a team did not turn up, we staged ‘Kadal Bootham’ instead.” The audience just loved it. “For 15 days, they treated me to wonderful feasts of fish in each of their huts,” he smiles.
From then on, opportunities poured in. The actor performed all over the country, and was also invited to Europe, Canada and Kuwait. Velu now teaches children’s theatre at Pondicherry University. But he travels during the weekends, performing in schools and colleges elsewhere. He wants to use theatre to educate children. He also writes — he has written four anthologies of plays in Tamil for kids and a children’s novel, Ira Pasi.
Velu was also involved in a rehabilitation project with UNICEF after the tsunami in 2004. He had to do something to bring a smile to the faces of the children who had survived the terrible ordeal. He performed plays on the seashore. Hundreds of children and grown ups laughed, oblivious for the moment to grief and loss.
Velu says it’s easy making children laugh, but at times they have faced tricky situations! “Once, when we performed ‘Kadal Bootham’ in an anganwadi, a little girl in the audience burst into tears when she saw the bootham! We didn’t know what to do!” he laughs. “But after she was pacified, she continued watching the play with the tears still in her eyes.”