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Voice of the woman in mainstream theatre

With determination and self-confidence `Bombay' Gnanam has carved a niche for herself in Tamil theatre. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM talks to the actor-writer.


HER TALENT is indisputable. Whether she enacts a man's role in one of her plays or that of a dignified middle-class housewife in a TV serial, Gnanam Balasubramanian goes straight to the heart of the character. And the Mahalakshmi Ladies Drama Group founded by her has made an unusual phenomenon — generally confined only to a ladies club — a rule. All the male roles are performed by women in the plays presented by the group. And all the 12 productions staged so far have been written and directed by Gnanam. These have met with great success not only in Bombay where the troupe originated (and which has won the founder the sobriquet `Bombay' Gnanam) but also in Chennai where most of the members migrated a few years ago. The group has carved out a special place for itself in the Chennai Sabha circuit. You may not always agree with the manner the story is told or the presumptions on which the theme is based. But you have to hand it out to the playwright — the themes are varied and the dialogue well thought out with the spotlight always turned on the problems women face in their homes and society.

Gnanam who received the Nataka Choodamani award from the Krishna Gana Sabha recently is an outstanding example of what determination and self-confidence can achieve. Married at 15, a mother at 19, she is today a household name in Chennai. ``Women tell me that when they hear my voice on the television, they put off the stove and come to the drawing room to watch the episode I'm acting in," she says with a smile of satisfaction. ``And I have absolutely no formal training in acting, direction or playwriting!" She wrote her first play on the evil of dowry in 1988. When she sent it to Doordarshan, it was rejected. ``I took up writing and acting in plays as a challenge. I read an interview years ago in a Tamil magazine. Leading artistes such as R. S. Manohar and Komal Swaminathan in answer to a question, ``Why are there no women who write and act in Tamil theatre and are fully involved in it?" said, ``It is not possible for them to do so." I immediately made up my mind to prove them wrong." Though Gnanam's play ``Sindhikka Vaitha Seedhanam" was turned down by Doordarshan, it turned out to be a hit when she staged it at a Bombay sabha.

A couple of years before that, Gnanam had acted as the wife of Saint Thyagaraja in the play presented by S. R. Kasturi, founder of the Matunga Dramatic Society, Kasturi, and a pioneer in Tamil drama in Mumbai. ``I keenly observed all details of the direction, sets and other production aspects during the rehearsals. Dancer Kanaka Srinivasan, a friend, suggested I do a play entirely enacted by women. Cartoonist R. K. Laxman's wife was the president of the ladies club of which I was a member.

``At the monthly meeting, I asked for volunteers for the production. Some women came forward, though rather hesitantly. But after a couple of rehearsals they became totally involved in their roles." The Mahalakshmi Ladies Drama Group soon became very popular. From 1989 to 1996, Gnanam, whose husband was posted in Bombay as the Commissioner of Income Tax, managed to write and present eight plays. ``S. V. Shekher, who saw one of them in Bombay, was very impressed and he took efforts to introduce us to Madras audiences. It was through his help that `Akkarai Pachchai' and five other productions were presented by us in the city in 1991. And since then, the play we inaugurate each year receives a rousing response."

Gnanam has received the Mylapore Academy awards for her contribution to the Tamil theatre. Her themes are inspired by middle-class life and deal with a number of issues — widow remarriage, artificial insemination, adoption, immigration, postnatal depression. ``Anything can trigger off a theme," she says. ``Somebody recently mentioned the plight of eunuchs to me and that has set off a train of thought. Perhaps it will result in play. I have to wait and see."


Is the treatment sometimes insensitive? Gnanam replies: ``I have to satisfy many people in the audience. Sometimes, innovative thinking is opposed even in Chennai. When we staged ``Ellai Illatha Illaram" which was on unmarried couples living together, viewers in the moffusil areas asked me whether I was trying to corrupt the youth. I too feel that we should not let go tradition in certain issues. My plays are all centred round women but they do not blindly project the woman's point of view. `Paasathin Parimanam' was in support of men." She agrees that some of her artistes lack in the nuances of acting. ``While some of them are born actors, a few just don't have it in them. So it is quite a job to make them perform." Her honesty is also evident when she admits that though she likes most of the plays she has written, a few such as ``Uravin Urimai," and ``Unakku Thai Enakku Tharam" did not measure up to her expectations.

Gnanam thinks that some of the young women today misuse the freedom they have. ``Mutual adjustment is needed for a marriage to succeed. My husband is very broadminded and has been very supportive but he will sometimes place a `speed breaker' in my path and if I feel it is warranted, I comply. I have built up an image in the family whereby I get respect from the other members. In fact, my mother-in-law was very keen to attend the award winning ceremony recently." It is tough to consistently produce plays featuring only women. Most of my actors are housewives and there are great demands on their time. In-laws can also be quite hostile to the idea of their appearing on stage and spending so much time away from the family. But we have persevered." But then perseverance is the most striking quality of this gifted performer. ``I come from a very conservative family in Thanjavur and completed my B.A. in psychology at the Madras University through correspondence in my 45th year." Gnanam was introduced to TV serials by K. Balachander, whom she refers to as her guru. ``He introduced me in a good role in ``Premi." Since then I have acted in 20 serials of which ``Kudumbam," ``Chellamma," "Vaarisu" and ``Ippadikku Thendral" are among those I particularly like. Actually my ambition is to direct a TV serial."

Gnanam has acted in a few films too. "You can count them on your fingers — ``Yae Nee Romba Azhaga Irukkae," ``Nala Damayanthi," ``Aaha"...

But theatre remains a passion with this down to earth artiste with no airs, who remains in speech and behaviour true to the milieu she captures with such authenticity in her plays.

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