PRALAYAN, the brain behind the Chennai Kalai Kuzhus success, had a passion for art and literature even in his college days. In 1979, he attended a theatre festival conducted by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association in Thanjavur.
This gave him an opportunity to meet renowned theatre personalities such as S.V. Sahasranamam, R.P. Prasanna (a pioneer in modern theatre and the founder-president of Samudaya, a Karnataka-based theatre group), and Komal Swaminathan of Chennai (whose plays such as Thanneer Thanneer and Nalliravil Pettrom, on burning contemporary issues, created waves in those days).
In an interview to Frontline, he said that staging a play was basically team work and so the credit for the success of the Chennai Kalai Kuzhu should go to the entire group. Excerpts:
You have produced both proscenium and street plays? How do you decide the form?
It is the content that decides the form. A subject that requires detailed discussion, coverage and performance suits proscenium treatment. Issues that can be portrayed in a short span of time are chosen for street play. But the norms have to be flexible.
There are also other aspects from the viewers angle. The proscenium audience comes prepared for a longer show and also pays an admission fee. In the case of a street play, the viewers are mostly passers-by, who cannot afford to spend long hours watching a play or to pay for it.
Sometimes, we have to present a subject requiring detailed performance in a concise form because of its importance and the need to take it to the masses. For instance, Payanam, which deals with the migration of landless labourers to the towns, a subject for detailed study, had to be presented as a street play in view of the urgency of the issue.
Do you have any plan to help promote Tamil theatre?
Many of the street-play groups formed in the past few years are not functioning. One of the reasons cited is the inadequacy of drama texts in Tamil. It is a big challenge. Tamil writers such as Indira Parthasarathy, Koothu Pattarai Muthusamy, Prapanchan, Sriram and S. Ramakrishnan have made significant contributions to this field. But a new generation of writers is needed. With this in mind, we are planning to organise a drama workshop in Tamil Nadu with the assistance of institutions such as the National School of Drama.
The Chennai Kalai Kuzhu has inspired the formation of many similar groups across the State over the years. How did it happen?
Thanks to the impact created by our groups performances, the authorities in charge of the literacy movement and the science movement sought our services in 1990. It was a state-sponsored, International Monetary Fund (IMF)-aided project, and I was the coordinator for Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry [now Puducherry].
Inspired by our group, many groups worked in this field by organising the Kalai Payanam [a journey of art], and staging scores of plays. The programme took the message to large sections. However, a paradigm shift has taken place. The excellent art form of street play has come to be used for product promotion by commercial interests.
It is distressing to see an act of militant protest being used to promote anything from condoms to mobile phones. But then, everybody has the right to perform. However, this has highlighted the need to redefine street play. We will continue to do street plays as a means of protest.S. Viswanathan