Drama of life

Print edition : December 19, 2008

At the Rehearsal of the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu's play "Payanam", which deals with the migration of landless agricultural labourers to towns.-S. THANTHONI

The Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, now in its 25th year, introduced political theatre in Tamil Nadu in the form of street plays.

When we perform a street play, the way people watch it, the way they respond to it, sometimes rejecting, sometimes applauding, sometimes criticising, suggests that it is very basic. It is also a form of normal, natural human expression. It is a sort of conglomeration of social, political and artistic expression.

Moloyashree Hashmi

STREET theatre as an instrument of political mobilisation has come to stay in India. It emerged over two decades, the 1960s and the 1970s, when theatre scholars and practitioners found both traditional and modern theatre, in their existing folk and proscenium forms, inadequate to deal with the complexities of independent India.

This inadequacy was felt even more in respect of the reach of the then-prevailing forms. The outstanding contributions of Badal Sircar and Safdar Hashmi in the evolution of street theatre into an alternative political theatre is still remembered by theatre lovers. Post-Emergency, with democratic aspirations and activities reaching their zenith, street theatre came to be acknowledged as an ideal vehicle for ideas and ideologies. With the dominant medium of television in the control of the ruling political group, street theatre became a favourite with the Opposition parties, particularly the Left parties.

In Kerala and West Bengal, the Left parties have been using this medium for more than three decades now. The Jana Natya Manch in Delhi, founded by Safdar Hashmi and others in 1973, led the street theatre movement, popularised the form, and inspired theatre artists across the country to take to it. The formation of the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu in 1984 marked the arrival of political theatre in the new form of street plays in Tamil Nadu. It was found by the Chennai district unit of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association.

The Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, which has gone a long way in taking social and political issues effectively to the people from a Marxist perspective, is now in its 25th year. In the last 20 years, the group has dedicated itself to the cause of peoples cultural movement, with emphasis on the development, understanding and propagation of street theatre as an art form with a distinctive language of its own, says Pralayan, its convener and director.

The popularity of the plays staged by the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu has inspired scores of young people to enter the field. Until recently, over 30 such groups were functioning in the State. The Chennai Kalai Kuzhu can look back with pride at its impressive contribution not only in making use of street plays for social purposes but also in enhancing the aesthetic value of this art form. Pralayan says the group does not restrict itself to any particular genre or mode of performance and is equally at ease staging a proscenium play or a street play. It has so far staged over 50 political plays, including a few proscenium presentations, each credited with 100 repeat performances in different parts of the State.

Although street theatre looks akin to the traditional Tamil theatre, Theru Koothu, which also means street play, the two have distinctly different features and were born under different circumstances, according to scholars. Street play is inspired by Theru Koothu, but it is not typical of Theru Koothu, says Pralayan. Street play emerged as a vehicle of protest in democracy, and its form facilitates the expression of dissent, just like demonstrations, hunger strikes and rallies. It is accepted as a democratic means for mobilising people to assert their rights and press their demands.

Street play is a modern theatre form with its roots in the plays staged on the streets of Britain by industrial workers in the late 19th century to win public support for their struggles. It was used later in countries such as Spain and Germany. The Indian Peoples Theatre Association took theatre to the people in a similar form in the 1940s for mobilising support for the freedom movement, but street theatre in its present form appeared in India only in the 1960s. Badal Sircar, Habib Tanvir, Utpal Dutt and Safdar Hashmi are among the dramatists who popularised street plays in the country.

The street play has a simple form. It does not require gorgeous dresses or expensive stages. It opens in a very casual way. The performers, both men and women, come as a group to the place, a street corner or a sea shore, chosen for staging the play. They beat the drums, thavil or tabela, which they bring with them. Attracted by the music, people gather around them. One of the performers makes an announcement about the play. Then the play starts. The subjects are contemporary, mostly political. The play lasts for an hour to one and a half hours. There is also interaction between the spectators and the performers sometimes.

Although it appears simple, a lot of effort goes into the making of the play. The choice of the theme, the script and everything is decided in a democratic way involving all the performers, says Pralayan (see box). The 1990s saw the popularity of street theatre reach its peak.

In Tamil Nadu, using theatre for political purposes has been in vogue for more than a century. Sri Arya Sabha, a Tamil play staged by M. Gopalachar in 1889, four years after the founding of the Indian National Congress, was perhaps the first political play. It took the message of the party to the people. Since then, Tamil theatre has made significant contributions to the freedom movement. Most of the plays, though based on the epics and the Puranas, were interspersed with patriotic songs that reflected the nationalist sentiment and inspired the people to join the struggle for freedom.

Scores of stage artists took an active part in the movement and courted arrest. Veteran actor S. Viswanatha Das (1886-1940) of Madurai faced state repression and spent many years in jail, having been arrested 29 times. Post-Independence, theatre groups headed by T.K. Shanmugam and S.V. Sahasranamam continued this tradition by highlighting social problems in their plays. The Dravidian movement took recourse to theatre, particularly stage plays, to propagate its ideology.

C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), wrote and acted in plays that spread rationalist and reformist ideas among the people. The communists also used this medium to a substantial measure. Pressed by electoral compulsions, they took to street theatre as an ideal form of travelling theatre or taking theatre to the audience in order to campaign for their candidates across the State. The plays that they staged in street corners, in front of factory gates, on riverbeds, on the seashore, and at marketplaces in the villages drew big crowds.

The Chennai Kalai Kuzhu entered the scene by staging a proscenium play titled Nangal Varugirom in 1984 and followed it up the next year with Bhopal A.D. 1990, also a proscenium production that dealt with the gas tragedy and its aftermath. Soon it switched over to street theatre, attracted by its potential and reach, and handled the form with extreme care. This shift enabled the group to explore the possibilities of greater creative expression of socio-political views.

One of the well-received political street plays of the troupe is Bush Vanthaar (Bush Arrived), an adaptation of Sudhanva Deshpandes George Bush in New Delhi. The skit was performed on Chennais Marina beach as part of a rally organised four years ago to protest against the Iraq war. The biting sarcasm and rubbishing of Bush & Co drew repeated cheers from the audience, says a review.

The most popular among the troupes proscenium plays was Upakathai (sub-plot). It made a bold attempt to re-interpret certain episodes in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and some Puranas. In the process, it exposed the discriminatory practices and meaningless rules and rituals that justify the caste-based and gender-based oppression of the weaker sections of society.

Talking about the groups silver jubilee plan, Pralayan says that the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu will soon put on board its ambitious play, Marutham, based on a 1968 incident at Keezhavenmani in the undivided Thanjavur district, where 44 Dalit agricultural workers were burnt alive by landowners. It will be a rereading of history, an attempt at a sharper study of the events during the period, says Pralayan.

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