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Playing for 50 years

Madras Players is celebrating its golden jubilee with Girish Karnad's ``Nagamandala." ELIZABETH ROY traces the beginnings ...

THE MADRAS Players go back 50 years in time and to two women, both very young, full of guts and a great gusto for theatre. Grace Krishnaswami and Yamuna watched from the outside the Madras Dramatic Society, an exclusive group of expatriates mounting comedies and bedroom farces. With a half-wicked chuckle, Yamuna even recounts the couple of times they allowed her to don a cap and apron for bit parts as a maid! Their involvement in theatre became more serious when they joined the play-reading group organised by the British Council.

In the late 1950s British Council brought down Robert Newton to direct ``Othello" and a cast of Indians and Englishmen worked together for three months. It was great fun and the group had no intention of giving up theatre, which had become a way of life for them.

The Madras Players was born and among the founding members, leading the way, were Yamuna and Grace. They enjoyed a great deal of support and encouragement from the British Council in their ventures — Terence Rattigan, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Osborne.

This was the 1950s and it was a little unusual, to say the least, but here were young women standing their own not just as equals but even as leaders, and being accepted in their roles by the men, to boot.

The Madras Dramatic Society disbanded with the members returning home, but not before bequeathing to the Madras Players their props and odds and ends and a great big box of makeup, which Yamuna (herself a great makeup artist) put to good use for several years.

It was now the early 1960s and the Madras Players had become a mostly Indian group.

Joining Yamuna and Grace were Thambi Kadambavan, V. Gopi, Snehalata and Pattabhi Reddy, Lakshmi and S. V. Krishnamurthy, Ammu Mathew, Girish Karnad and Stewart Melluish, all of them professionals with strong personalities, meticulous in their work. They had envious academic backgrounds and clear ideologies. As Grace puts it, ``All of us in the group got on. We had a common interest in literature and theatre and we did good theatre."

The British Council continued its support. Directors like John Shepherd and Peter Coe were brought down so the Madras Players could get better at theatre. They performed at the Museum Theatre and at the British Council. They chose scripts that were contemporary in India. They were partial to the socially relevant and oftentimes to themes which they felt needed attention.

Those days going to a Madras Players production was a rewarding experience. They were the only local English theatre group. The scripts were of great quality, the acting superb, sets and lights and costumes were meticulously put together, and the tickets cost next to nothing. You went home feeling good that the Players had given of their best. They respected their audience.

The early 1970s were watershed years for the Players. They turned their attention to Indian plays in English translations, which were just becoming available. Girish Karnad translated his plays into English for them.

Other playwrights were also appearing in translation — Mohan Rakhesh, Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar, Gurucharan Das. The Players were ecstatic in their newfound freedom and in being grounded to their own reality.

The audience responded magically to them. ``We felt a new blood, a new enthusiasm. We were relating to a new context, our own context," says Yamuna. Indian plays were also hugely cost effective in terms of props, sets and costumes, all of which were easy to find, right at home. Even as some of the Players moved out of Madras following their careers, other outstanding actors, such as A. V. Dhanushkodi, S. Ramachander, P. C. Ramakrishna, Vishalam Ekambaram and Bhagirathi Narayanan joined the group. Mithran Devenesan offered them the most exquisite of designs. Brilliant and powerful actors like Vimal Bhagat and Rhonnie Patel gave them their years in Madras.

Today the Players' repertoire includes mega productions including ``Alice in Wonderland," ``Sword of Tipu Sultan" and Chetan Shah's ``Lizard Waltz." Along with Mahesh Dattani and El Kunchwar they do Steve Martin and Shakespeare.

Over time the core group has grown older, many of the earlier members are no more, some others have had to relocate to other cities and countries. They are less prolific with their productions on hand.

But their spirits, however, are as strong and as young as ever. They have opened their doors to a younger brigade. Grace, who is the current president of the Players says, "What we would like is for the younger members to take responsibility. We'd like to see them as sincere and committed as we used to be."

Looking ahead, Yamuna is ready to let go and with much grace says, "We'll take it as we have taken it these last 50 years. We don't know what place or role the younger members will assign us as we age. We'd like to be there to help in whatever way we can..."

It's Not Quite Over!! The Madras Players will be celebrating their long innings on the boards with a multimedia production of Girish Karnad's ``Nagamandala," directed by Bhagirathi Narayanan at the YGP Auditorium from August 19 to 22, 7 p.m. Playwright and member, Girish Karnad will be there to recall the good times and watch the Players put his play on the boards.

Its only once in a very long while that a group can look back and be proud of over 200 productions and a 50-year old relationship with a city's theatre lovers.

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