Abiding passion for theatre
A pioneer in Tamil theatre, N. Muthuswamy has fused the movements and techniques of traditional folk art forms with modern texts to provide a rich contemporary theatre experience. A week-long tribute to the playwright-director is being organised in the city.
A MAN of few words, his brilliant writing speaks for him. A pioneer in Tamil theatre, he has fused the movements and techniques of traditional folk performing art forms with modern texts to provide a rich contemporary theatre that offers a new experience.
A weeklong tribute is being paid to playwright-director N.Muthuswamy at the Other Festival organised by dancer Anita Ratnam of the Arangham Trust and entrepreneur-theatre personality Ranvir Shah of Prakriti Foundation at the Centenary Auditorium in the Madras Museum premises.
The celebration consists of readings of his short stories and articles, discussions by theatre personalities and the staging of his plays "Naarkalikaarar", "Appavum Pillaiyum", "Thai Sei", "Kuppai Medu" and "Viragu Vettigal". The coordinators of the event are Bhagirathi Narayanan and C. Annamalai.
N. Muthuswamy is a recent recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for playwriting. No one who knows him is surprised that he is unaffected by the honour. Those who regularly attend the events of Koothu-p-pattarai, the theatre group he founded in 1977 are familiar with the tall man with the luxuriant moustache who will detach himself from the corner of the hall to unfailingly greet friends and acquaintance, for, Muthuswamy is both cultured and child-like in his simplicity.
Muthuswamy began his literary career as a short story writer and then made Tamil theatre history in 1969 with his "Kaalam Kaalamaga", which is considered the first modern play in Tamil. He went on to write a number of plays, which dealt with the fragmentary nature of urban life, its corrosive elements and the pervasive ugliness that forms part of our daily existence.
All his works are characterised by a rare and stunning blend of the poetic and the intellectual. The well-spring of his inspiration is Punjai, his native village in Thanjavur, recalled in a creative nostalgia but never descending to a mere descriptive romanticism.
His modern experimental plays are staged by actors trained by him at Koothu-p-pattarai which became a repertory in 1982. Fascinated by the centuries-old folk performing art form Theru-k-koothu, he worked for its revival and this ranks as an achievement. Impressed by Koothu and the martial arts and influenced by music, painting and dance, Muthuswamy serves up a dazzling agile display of theatre which seeks to transcend the physical and the verbal. The writer-director also became interested in other Tamil folk performing art forms such as Kanniyam Koothu and Thevarattam and has contributed to their revitalisation.
Grants from the Ford Foundation helped the repertory strike out in fresh directions. A number of adaptations of Brecht's plays as well as of others such as Garcia and Siegfried Lenz have been presented by the group.
The writer who has produced two collections of plays, numerous articles and short stories says his all-consuming passion is theatre.
When this correspondent meets him for an interview at the Koothu-p-pattarai office in Pottivakkam, he is immersed in the rehearsal of Brecht's "The Good woman of Setzuan" to be staged at the Max Mueller Bhavan later this month. He takes time off to share his views on theatre, Theru-k-koothu and the future of Koothu-p-pattarai.
The Sangeet Natak Akademi award in itself does not mean much to me personally but it is good for Koothu-p-pattarai for it will enable the group to gain visibility on a national level. Awards are necessary when you need impetus and encouragement for your activities. But you do not generally get them then.
The role of a writer
A writer helps in spreading social consciousness. Writing is like meditation; it reveals subtleties and gives you insights. There is another type of reality in what you write. The writer has an overall vision and the ability to foresee events. Today, for instance, the learning of Sanskrit may be opposed because it is viewed as a sign of the dominance of a particular group. Some time later, society may find it necessary to turn to it to gain knowledge and the writer is aware of this.
Theatre is a wonderful art form. It is a spiritual journey on which you embark, and learn to understand various characters and portray them. It is akin to psychiatry or meditation. An actor creates a character but does not become the character; he is not an ordinary human being. If you practise theatre properly, it will take you to a higher plane. There will be a demand for theatre one day and this can happen almost overnight. Was visual communication offered as a course ten years ago? But it is now part of the curriculum in many colleges and a time will come when there is as much demand for the subject as for engineering or medicine. Man yearns for a face-to-face contact and interaction with other human beings, for, only this can give him satisfaction. So live performances will never lose their appeal; cinema alone will not suffice. Theatre has an important role to play in society and the audiences will return to theatre. Even the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, offers a 72-hour workshop on theatre, music and yoga in order to present perspectives on life, another side to management.
Theatre is multi-dimensional and can help people in different walks of life. It can guide a teacher on voice projection, delivery of lessons and the manner in which he can effectively communicate with students.
Communication in theatre
If you teach society that theatre is equivalent with entertainment, people will seek only this element, which is why television serials are so popular. Even mainstream Tamil theatre does not have takers today because it only tells a story and this is available on TV.
But theatre is a completely different experience and we try to create this in our plays. We take every effort to make it understandable. Audiences too should make the effort to understand. Pudu Kavithai (New Poetry) was also blamed initially for being abstruse.
Poetry is not profitable at all. Only if 2000 copies of the book of poems are sold within six months, will it help those involved in publishing. But it doesn't sell well. Poetry, like serious theatre, is an experience and you have to be able to appreciate its nuances. Nobody teaches us how to do this; the education should start at school.
Theru-k-koothu has evolved beautifully and is a wonderful concept. Understanding it is similar to the process of understanding poetry. When I first saw Natesa and Kannappa Thambiran's "Karna Moksham" in 1975, I was amazed by the philosophical content of the play, especially the segment after Karna's death. I now feel Theru-k-koothu will endure as rural people are searching for an identity and Theru-k-koothu provides this. All castes and classes participate in the temple festivals of which Theru-k-koothu, a ritual, forms an intrinsic part.
Adaptation of Western works.
You don't have well-structured plays like Brecht's plays with all its features in Tamil. It is necessary for a society to develop so that it can write plays for its own requirements. We have very few playwrights in Tamil Indira Parthasarathy and Ambai are among the few.
When you stage a western play, you also get monetary support. Otherwise, finances can prove a major problem.
The institution, I am sure, will do well in the future too for many actors have been created here and we have enough resource persons as well.
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