The early days

It was a fashion in the early 1970s to drop names like Che-Guevara, Pablo Neruda to project yourself as different and progressive. It was a kind of branding in a soft form. In recent times Koothu-P-Pattarai has become a sort of brand for many. These days, many new actors in movies make it a point to declare their association with Koothu-P-Pattarai or their training there. I am indeed happy about the publicity it generates for the organisation, but it amuses me when I reflect on the beginnings of Koothu-P-Pattarai. 

It was sometime during 1976-77 that Na. Muthuswamy supported by ‘Pragnai’ Rangarajan (aka Veerachamy) was crusading the cause of Terukoothu, with the cooperation of Cre-A Ramakrishnan. (Na. Muthuswamy’s Naarkalikkarar was published in Pragnai magazine.) Their immediate task was threefold. The first was to mobilise resources to rehabilitate Terukoothu. The second was to work towards gaining acceptability for Terukoothu in the ‘cultural space’ of Chennai. The third was to persuade Purisai Kannappa Sambandham to return to his village and learn whatever he could from his father Purisai Kannappa Thambiran instead of driving an autorickshaw in Chennai for his livelihood. Na. Muthuswamy and Cre-A Ramakrishnan provided financial cushion to Sambandham during that period; it was a wonderful gesture given their personal constraints. Their efforts were not wasted, going by the recognition Purisai Kannappa Sambandhan enjoys today as a leading Terukoothu exponent and the recognition gained by Terukoothu in the classical milieu of Chennai. There was some criticism that Muthuswamy was trying to remove the rustic element and raw beauty of Terukoothu and that he was killing the true spirit of the form. There were others who hailed and compared his endeavour with Dr. Shivarama Karanth’s efforts in reviving Yakshagana in Karnataka.

I first came to know about the activities of Koothu-P-Pattarai in 1977 through a pamphlet in the possession of Dr. C. Ravindran with whom I was sharing one of three rooms at Naiwala Gali, a narrow bylane of Gurudwara Road, Karolbagh, in New Delhi. Ravindran was working as a lecturer at Venkateswara College, South Delhi campus. He later joined the Department of Modern Indian Languages, University of Delhi when Dr. Indira Parthasarathy who was there left for an assignment to Poland. 

I remember the pamphlet was brown in colour and an appeal for donations to support the activities of Koothu-P-Pattarai in reviving Terukoothu. There was no indication that they were also involved in contemporary theatre activities. This was the time when Venkat Swaminathan, in his writings, was highlighting the lack of initiatives for new experiments in the field of art and literature in general, and in the field of theatre and cinema in particular in Tamil Nadu. In his famous book Paalaiyum Vaazhaiyum (Desert and Oasis), he laments the Tamil environment that lacks the urge to improve its quality in artistic expressions, and the lack of will to strive to be at par with works presented in other regions of India and abroad. He was also critical of the lethargy of Tamils in making efforts to expand their inventiveness in artistic expression. His observations were the result of his exposure to varied works of art (fine arts and performing arts) facilitated by his living in Delhi for nearly four decades. He used to express similar sentiments in the meetings of the Delhi Tamil Writers Association which met at member of parliament K.A. Krishnaswamy’s quarters on North Avenue. I used to be there as a friend of Rajaram of AIR who was organising the meetings. It was an assembly of great names in literature like Ka.Na. Subramanian, T. Janakiraman, Kasturi Rangan, N.S. Jagannathan, Venkat Swaminathan, Indira Parthasarathy, Aadhavan, Kalasri and Rajamani.

Venkat Swaminathan introduced me to the plays of the National School of Drama presented in NSD’s small indoor auditorium and at the Purana Qila. There were plenty of programmes at other venues like Kamani Auditorium, Mavlankar Hall, and Safdarjung House. Street plays by the likes of M.K. Raina and Safdar Hashmi were staged at the university area or in Connaught Place. As I had lived in the ‘sabha culture’ as a resident of Triplicane for nearly 21 years, my exposure in Delhi convinced me that there was truth in Venkat Swaminathan’s concern. I could experience his sentiments that we had not moved any further in the field of theatre and cinema. The works of people from West Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka and even from a small state like Manipur were simply overwhelming. Most people working in the field of theatre in Tamil Nadu do not make sincere efforts to know or experience what is happening the world over. Some of them may not have seen some of the experimental work happening even in Chennai! It is unfortunate they are not dissatisfied  with their lack of exposure or their stagnation. They are oblivious to the fact that there exists a huge gap between what they have been doing and what is happening around the world. Stagnation by itself is not a problem but not being aware of it, should definitely be a matter of great concern.

I returned to Madras in 1978 after six years of Delhi life. The theatre scenario was by and large the same. The Street Plays of Gnani and ‘Veedhi’ Ramaswamy were the only new additions. Dr. Rajendran was part of the Veedhi Nataka Iyakkam. He went on to qualify from NSD, where he is now Director-Research. During this time, Na. Muthuswamy’s Naarkalikkarar was translated by Alfred Franklin and staged by students of Guindy Engineering College, Madras, consisting of Sri Ram, Belliappa, Shyam, K.C. Manavendranath and others. The style was influenced by Polish Theatre Director Jerzy Grotovsky’s ‘Poor Theatre’.

This was also the time Na. Muthuswamy was working to form a modern theatre repertoire. He brought K.C. Manavendranath and P. Krishnamoorthy to work together. Manavendranath, an engineer by qualification, is the son of the late ’Sameeksha’ Govindan, an important figure in Malayalam literature and P. Krishnamoorthy is an artist who qualified from the College of Fine Arts, Madras. A contemporary of Adhimoolam, R.B. Bhaskaran, Santhanaraj, Dakshinamurthy and Nandagaopal, he is one of the early entrants in cinema as an art director.

I too joined the group. It was decided to stage Suvarottigal – Na. Muthuswamy’s new play – which was also available as a book, published by Cre-A. Initially we were just the four of us, and we needed more players. We roped in Kasi and Sambandhan – sons of Purisai Kannappa Thambiran – along with their cousin Mani. We were still in need of a few more people. I managed to bring one of my colleagues Bernard Chandra and Kasi persuaded his colleagues Panneerselvam, Kumar and Radhakrishnan to join the group. There were two other members – one was distantly related to Kasi and another was Vasudevan working for Canara Bank.

Our meeting point was the Lalit Kala Akademi Regional Centre on Greames Road, Thousand Lights, which had recently come into existence. In fact construction work was going on for one more block. There was always a huge mound of sand, bricks and other construction material. Rajaraman, husband of one of the ‘Bombay Sisters’ (of Carnatic music fame), was the Regional Secretary. He was very kind, encouraging and accommodating. If there was rain or a strong breeze, he would permit us to work inside the building. We often worked on the terrace if there was a painting exhibition or workshop below. The two office assistants Gunasekaran and Gowri Shankar (now a senior tambura player) were always present during our training sessions and also lent a helping hand whenever needed. As Lalit Kala was a meeting point for artists, some of them observed our activities. V.V. Ramani, Muralidharan, Achuthan Koodalur and Dakshinamurthy were regulars.

Our team met around 6 pm every day for our training. I was working at faraway Thuraippakkam, but Bernard and I somehow managed to reach Lalit Kala Akademy in time as we were both working as Assistant Professors and our class work was over by 3 pm. Muthuswamy was working for Tafe India on Sterling Road. Kasi and his friends were usually the last to join us. Invariably all of them were tired and hungry due to the nature of their work but we could not afford more than a ‘single tea’ and half bun or porai (hardened, bland, bakery product peculiar to Madras). We would work till 9 pm and disperse. KC would walk down to his home at Chintadripet and the rest of us up to Thousand Lights mosque, to go our ways. Muthuswamy always gave me a ride on his bicycle right up to my house on Big Street, before proceeding to his home at the other end of the street.

For the first three months our group simply worked with the body, not on dialogues. The exercises were a blend of a few Kalari movements, flexibility exercises, workouts for strength and stamina improvement, developing balance, tumbles, and  inversions. We were totally drained out. Most of us were not used to such workouts and ended up with severe cramps and even went absconding after a few days. It took some time for us to ‘acclimatise’ ourselves. We were also introduced to theatre games, trust building, and voice throw.

The play was jointly directed by KC and Krishnamoorthy. KC was to take care of the actors’ training,movements, blocking and dialogue modulations and Krishnamoorthy was to work on stage design, props, costume and take charge of overall presentation.

 Suvarottigal could mean ‘posters’ or ‘persons pasting the posters’. This is the play in which Na. Muthuswamy started using Terukoothu elements which resonated in all his subsequent plays. Like his Naarkalikkarar, this play too was a commentary on society with particular reference to the poster culture of Tamil Nadu. The essential message of the play was that social behaviour was conditioned by posters in all aspects of life, and it showed how the politics of posters snowballed into the politics of poster boys. Muthuswamy was really prophetic. The poster culture, special and peculiar to Tamil Nadu, has in recent times taken different forms like graffiti, digital banners, and flexiboards. Street battles and murders take place on account of the poster wars. Society as a whole seems to be governed by the posters, for the posters and of the posters. 

Lalit Kala was our natural option to stage our production, because we were quite at home there and two, because we had very limited funds to stage the play at any other venue. The money we had came from contributions from all of those who were part of the play. This being the first official production of Kooth-P-Pattarai, we decided to have posters. The expertise of Natesh (Muthuswamy’s son), who had attended a workshop on screen printing, came in handy. It was a black and white 3’ x 2’ poster. We did the hand printing in Muthuswamy’s house – a narrow, small, three-room portion on the second floor on Wallajah Road, Triplicane. It turned out that the hand printing and drying were more challenging and dramatic. Heavy winds from the beach and untimely drizzles added to our anxiety. The family of Muthuswamy, Krishnamoorthy and I spent the whole night assisting Natesh. 

Two days before the event we had to paste the posters at vantage points. Around 9 pm, after dinner, we started out on two bicycles. While Panneer pedalled one, I sat on the carrier of Muthuswamy’s cycle, holding the posters and a bucket of paste. By the time we finished, taking short breaks at roadside tea shops, it was already 5 am. Not only did the people look at us strangely, but even the night patrolling police stopped us near Panagal Park to find out what we were up to.

After nearly six months of hard work the D-Day finally arrived. We performed the play on the lawns of Lalit Kala Akademi. There was no arrangement of ‘lighting’ in the theatrical sense. I think we just had two high voltage bulbs tied to two bamboo sticks to increase the visibility of the theatre actions. The acting space was at the centre of the lawn and spectators were made to sit all around and in the pathways. There were some stone sculptures in the spectators’ area. The open space, stone sculptures, trees and the construction material together created an out-of-the-world ambience.

The play, in its written format, was branded as abstract. The abstraction was further intensified by the use of wooden frames as props for mirrors and hand-made masks for the characters for situational usage. The actors’ faces were coloured like those of Terukoothu artists. Everything presented in the play was new in the context of the Tamil environment. The movements of the actors were stylized in selective areas, while the rest of the play had realistic movements with a natural flow in those sequences. I personally felt that the use of the body and its dynamics in production were not in proportion to the kind of training we had.

At the end of the play we invited the audience for a discussion. The educated and informed spectators told us they could not understand the play but concurred that it was definitely a different experience. Surprisingly, the feedback of the children and women from nearby slums and the police quarters was more appreciative – they were comfortable in following the spirit and message of the play without any difficulty!

(ERG is a yoga teacher, consultant, and former actor/director, Koothu-P-Pattarai)

Interviewed By

Top