In celebration of a theatre icon
There was a totality in the way the tribute to writer N. Muthuswamy was conceived at The Other Festival, observes KAUSALYA SANTHANAM.
Naarkalikarar... continues to be relevant after 24 years.
EVERY EVENING for seven days from December 1, the Centenary Hall in the Madras Museum Grounds offered the space for the staging of N. Muthuswamy's plays as well as for an interchange of ideas. The most valuable part of the event were the views expressed by him on the presentation of his work.
The influence of Theru-k-koothu on Muthuswamy's creative sensibilities is perhaps nowhere more manifest than in ``Kattiyakaran'' where both the title and form show his admiration for this traditional folk theatre. The man-woman relationship has been a major theme for the writer and in ``Kattiyakaran", the portrayal of a society obssessed with beauty and glamour where men regard women as mere sex objects comes through as a brilliant satire. The main artistes who participated in the reading of ``Kattiyakaran'' were Gnani and K. S. K. Prasad.
A selection of the writer's articles read by Mangai covered a fascinating range of his thoughts and reflections, from... why he chose to grow a moustache to the importance of his native Punjabi in his writing. An exhibition of paintings by artist P. Krishnamurthy was inaugurated by Muthuswamy who spoke of their long association and the joy his paintings give to the viewer. Through their discussion the next day, Mr. M. Ramaswamy of the Department of Drama, Tamil University, Thanjavur, Mr. V.Arumugam of the Sri Sankaradass Swamigal School of Performing Art, Pondicherry, Jnani, Director of the Pareeksha troupe, built up the picture of the writer and his work. Jayakumar in a personalised account traced his development as an actor, from a complete ignorance of theatre to maturity and as a sometimes uncomprehending but always totally involved member of the Koothu-p-pattarai repertory.
``Kuppai Medu", a street play written by Muthuswamy for a consultancy group on waste management was among the plays staged. Directed by Jayakumar and presented by Koothu-p-pattarai the play which tackled the issue of pollution and the filth had some striking theatre effects like the awesome figure of the non-benevolent god and the huge multi-coloured beast he summons to devour the wastes and cleanse them.
Though `God's' words came across clearly, the monster's lines were muffled by his mask and one had to be content with merely gazing at his ingeniously contrived rainbow exterior.
In ``Viragu Vettigal", presented by Arangam, Thanjavur, and directed by R. Raju, the approach was sensitive but the production had an unfinished look. The whys that rang out found a moving culmination in the director's tears that women are treated so unfairly in our society. The strong beat of the percussion instrument and the songs formed an integral part of the play that focussed on the have-nots and the victimised with some good directorial touches.
"Appavum Pillaiyum'' which won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for Muthuswamy was staged by Sri Sankaradass Swamigal School of performing Arts, Pondicherry University. A play that probes the mind and in which like an onion peel, layer after layer is unravelled -- relationships, memories, incidents -- remained on the level of mere props and stage effects in the production directed by V. Arumugam. The psychological insights and the beautiful sections of a complex father-son relationship did not come through. Like the solitaire vainly searched for in the village pond and which incidentally gives rise to a whole set of beautiful rural cameos in the play, the director appeared to have lost the thread somewhere and groped for it till the end. ``Naarkalikkarar'' as Jnani, founder of Pareeksha and the veteran director of the play, pointed out with a tinge of sorrow earlier, continues to be relevant 24 years after it was first staged as the political scenario of the country has remained unchanged. Focussing on factionalism, groupism and the rivalry that sinks to abysmal depths, the play with its parable of the pitcher and the pebbles is a strong indictment of present day politics.The play had quite a few moments of impact but some of the artistes let their enthusiasm get the better of them which resulted in some very unaesthetic moments. Both in ``Kattiyakaran'', and ``Naarkalikarar'' Jnani's ability as a performer came through impressively. His excellent delivery of lines and fine sense of timing set him apart.
Despite the totality of the exercise, quite a few must have assented with Muthuswamy's honest view that though there are some fine moments when his plays (which are conceptualised like music) are staged, it is not one long flow of melody of inspired performers who are able to stretch creativity and talent and travel beyond the faithful enactment of the text. The repetition of lines in the texts emerges as one of the major difficulties the directors and artistes face. The literal translation of the verbal into action leads to some very unpleasant depictions. In the short stories and articles where the writer speaks directly to the audience through the reader, the poetry of words and images came across with a moving immediacy especially in Mangai's well chosen excerpts. Actor Nasser read the short story but the reading fell short of expectations revealing a lack of preparation which the actor himself confessed. Krishnamurthy's paintings with their strong quality of drama and poetry hung around the circular hall seemed to fill the action in the centre with dynamism and energy which in a reciprocal fashion bounced off the proscenium space to the walls.
The Other Festival created a space for an event of this kind.
Artistic co-director Anita Ratnam said, ``I felt we must have a regional language presence in the festival and I've known Muthuswamy and admired his work for some years now. Prasanna Ramaswamy told me in 1991 what an important writer Muthuswamy is but it was rather early then for an event of this kind. Since he won the Sangeet Natak Akademy award recently, we felt this was the right time to organise the tribute''.
Co-ordinators Bhagirathi Narayanan and C. Annamalai felt that a major benefit of this festival is that it has attracted many new viewers especially students, to Tamil theatre. Both the physical space and the fact that it was only a part of the other appeared to bother some who attended. The physical space did not bother one. What did was the fact that neither Tamil mainstream theatre groups nor other theatre groups in the city made the effort to wend their way to the auditorium to join the voices in celebration.
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