STICKS, rope, towels, broomsticks, bamboo baskets… these everyday materials that we associate with functional aspects of mundane lives became the balcony of a palace, a swing, a floral ceiling, a sceptre, a forest, a wild river and more in the hands of S. Ramanujam, the doyen of Tamil theatre who died on December 7 at his residence in Thanjavur. He made the props speak like no one else could. To him they were not mere props; “Nothing that appears on stage is lifeless,” he would say. He referred to this practice being similar to drawing a “kolam” on stage. Kolams are street art designs drawn outside the doorsteps of Tamil households, rich and poor, to welcome people into their homes and into their lives. So did his plays.
Ramanujam sir, as those who worked with him fondly addressed him, was an untiring theatre personality whose career was marked by decades of continuous work in theatre as a director, playwright, teacher and trainer. Fully conscious until the end, watching TV and joking about, he bid his exit, and did not return for the curtain call. Nothing can be as theatrical, and he probably would not have had it otherwise.
Born in 1935 in Nanguneri in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, he grew up with nationalist and leftist thoughts and influences around him. His Gandhian principles never wavered. And no one ever saw him wear anything but white kurta and pyjamas. His earliest career as a teacher at Gandhigram Rural University in Tamil Nadu, with his English literature background, brought him in contact with the veteran theatre artiste S.P. Srinivasan and the legendary Malayalam playwright G. Sankara Pillai. They never parted ways until the end. At the insistence of his friends, Ramanujam went to the National School of Drama, New Delhi, where he was a proud student of Ebrahim Alkazi, the maestro of modern Indian theatre.
He returned to Tamil Nadu in 1967 and along with Sankara Pillai held the first Nataka Kalari, or theatre workshop, at Sasthamkotta, Kollam. He was instrumental in conducting a similar workshop at Gandhigram in 1977. Ramanujam was the Assistant Director of the School of Drama in Thrissur from 1978 to 1985. The visionary academic Prof. V.I. Subramaniam invited him to head the department of drama at the Tamil University in Thanjavur, where he remained until his retirement in 1995. He also played a crucial role in the early years of the Sankaradass Swamigal School of Performing Arts in Pondicherry University, helping Prof. Indira Parthasarathy, primarily a playwright, set up the department.
Until the end, he was actively involved in some workshop or the other. He had actually committed himself to do a children’s theatre workshop in Kerala in December.
Kerala awarded Ramanujam with numerous awards, including the Prof. Sankara Pillai award in 2001 and the S.L. Puram award in 2013, apart from the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award. He also received the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award for direction in 2008.
In Tamil Nadu, he was closely associated with the Koothu-P-Pattarai theatre group and its director, Na. Muthuswamy. His two extremely different productions of Narkkalikkarar (The Man in the Chair), divided by almost a decade, speak volumes about his philosophy of doing theatre. In the first production, the cast consisted of children playing their games; the second had old men bored with life. But in both, the irony of electoral democracy, heritage and middle-class apathy were emphasised. In fact, Ramanujam wanted just that: do children’s theatre in which elderly people participated.
Ramanujam was associated with the progressive literary and cultural groups of Tamil Nadu, even though he did not claim any political affiliation. His role in the literacy jathas of Tamil Nadu Arivoli Iyakkam (Tamil Nadu Literacy Movement) has been recognised by Pralayan, one of the movement’s chief organisers. He titled a play dealing with female literacy Saraswathi , exposing the hypocrisy of the patriarchal system in one stroke. The Voicing Silence group was formed in 1992 to provide alternative images of women on stage. As the founding director of that effort, I remember how we went to him to discuss the possibility of doing feminist theatre grounded in our traditions. He chose the kurathi (gypsy), who comments on the mythical heroines of Chandramathi, Draupadi and Seetha. Maunak Kuram (Silenced Prophecies) that he directed for Voicing Silence was revived by me after 18 years as a Namma Theatre production of Stella Maris College in 2012. For me, it was an apprenticeship in direction. The ease with which he could traverse the world of myth, literature, folk and classical music and dance, material culture and emotional rhythms was indeed a treat to watch.
Most of the 12 plays Ramanujam wrote in Tamil have an interplay between mythical consciousness and contemporary sensibility. His plays also have a definite slant towards exploring female existence and experience. Somehow, the powers that be write their lines on female bodies. And the women resist however they can to survive and be.
At a memorial meeting held in Chennai on December 12, a young Koothu-P-Pattarai artiste spoke of how Ramanujam encouraged his mother, a schoolteacher, to practice theatre. When the boy met Ramanujam after almost three decades, he remembered her name and called the boy his “grandson”. It is true that Ramanujam trained three generations of theatre performers in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. And he achieved this without a banner for himself. He was a single-man battalion spreading passion for theatre across generations and across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.
“Almost all leading theatrepersons of Kerala who studied at the School of Drama in Thrissur between 1978 and 1985, when he was the Assistant Director, were his disciples. The late Jos Chiramel, the film-maker Shyamaprasad, Narippatta Raju, D. Reghoothaman, the film-maker V.K. Prakash, the actor Murali Menon, and P. Balachandran, playwright, film actor and former lecturer, are some of his illustrious disciples,” said Renu Ramanath, a Malayalam journalist and art critic. One can list Mu. Ramasami, ‘Pareeksha’ Gnani, Aswaghosh and Parambai Selvan, among others in Tamil Nadu, as people groomed by Ramanujam during the 1977 workshop.
Very often, the history of Indian theatre is seen in parallel to political history. Therefore, post-independent Indian theatre in its youthful anxiety to ward off the colonial hangover called for a return to the roots. It, however, did not acknowledge that the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in its glorious moments had done just that by deploying traditional forms from various regions into the service of the anti-colonial struggle. Also, the roots that they sought were Sanskrit-based. Therefore, Natya Shastra was the buzzword and the last word. In this context, for someone like Ramanujam, the epics of Silappathikaram and Tolkappiam were equally important. He kept returning to these two epics over and over again. He was also inspired by the poet Bharathiyar. Even his casual conversations had a poetic edge.
He also interpreted the “return to roots” in a more holistic sense. It was not a question of distilling the elements of theatre from the myriad forms prevalent in each region. He sought to understand the spirit of the forms without undermining the pragmatic aspects of the lives of these artists.
It was to his credit, along with the support of a dedicated team of Prof. Murugesan, Mu. Ramasami and many others, that thappattam of Dalits and devarattam of the Telugu-speaking “onpathu kambalaththaar” community have become the staple forms taught in theatre schools, groups and regular schools and colleges. He made sure that they were treated as artistes. Even though he did present these forms at Republic Day parades, he did not want the forms to become showcased, minuscule cultural artefacts. He saw them as evolving forms. He approached oppari , the practice of wailing at funerals, in the same vein. It was ritualistic. He made it performative. In Veriattam , an adaptation of the Greek play Trojan Women , we can find almost an ethnographic documentation of oppari executed as art. None of this aesthetic preoccupation robbed the way the audience could see this as the wail of Sri Lankan Tamils in the late 1980s.
Ramanujam spent two decades reviving kaisiki natakam, an art form performed annually at the Thirukkurungudi temple near his birthplace. With the support of the dancer Anita Ratnam and the TVS group of companies, he revived it as a performative form. While the text is performed at the temple and the intention is revivalist, this 15th century form is a rare document that helps one understand how caste was dealt with historically. I think the next step should be to bring this temple performance to a secular platform and to treat it as a modern play with a contemporary concern.
Even though he saw himself as Alkazi’s student by inspiration, Ramanujam had a close affinity with B.V. Karanth’s school of thought in theatre. In terms of the function of theatre, he never doubted its efficacy. However, he was critical about theatre’s role in addressing immediate concerns. He criticised the fact that Tamil theatre had become more auditory than visual with the success of the Dravidian movement. He insisted on a deeper experience of the senses and did not want theatrepersons to get used to any one mode of perception. Speaking to Chandradasan, a theatre exponent in Kerala, in 2013, he said: “Many feel I have lost out by not belonging to a particular school. But each play of mine is different from the other. My mind is not imprisoned in a pattern or form. Innovative methods or design is the distinguishing feature in my approach to theatre.” Indeed, he was a distinguished theatre personality of India, inimitable and inspiring.
A. Mangai teaches English at Stella Maris College, Chennai, and is currently a visiting professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been involved in theatre in Tamil Nadu for three decades. Her Acting Up: Gender and Theatre in India 1979 Onwards is published by LeftWord.