Path-breaking plays

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

The Kerala People's Arts Club, or KPAC, which has undertaken many a bold experiment in political theatre, celebrates its golden jubilee.

The excessive stress on the political angle - and it is not our work, but the disharmony in current social conditions which makes every sign of life political - may in a sense lead to a distorted view of human ideals, but the distorted view at least has the advantage of corresponding to reality.

- Erwin Piscator, Basic Principles of Sociological Drama.

CULTURE occupies an important place in any revolutionary political strategy that has as its objective a radical transformation of society. Such an awareness has spawned various counter-cultural groups and movements, mostly as the result of initiatives taken by political formations of the Left. In fact, radical Leftist politics often shaped and determined the evolution of such cultural movements. Being the most didactic and popular of all art forms, theatre became the natural choice of many of these cultural movements as a medium to propagate their ideas. Theatre groups such as the Nuova Scena in Italy, the Workers' Theatre Movement in Britain, the Artef (a Yiddish theatre group) and the League of Workers' Theatres (a coalition of left-wing theatres) in the United States and the New Theatre in Australia were closely associated with working class parties and movements. Writers such as Maxim Gorky, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Pablo Neruda, musicians such as Hanns Eisler and playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht, Erwin Piscator and Dario Fo, all activists of Communist parties, made substantial contributions to the formation of progressive cultural alternatives.

In India, Leftist cultural activism achieved a pan-Indian platform with the formation of the Progressive Writers' Association (PWA) in 1936 and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) seven years later. Interestingly, when IPTA was formed on May 25, 1943, in Mumbai, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was holding its first Congress (May 23-June 1) in the same city. The global struggle against fascism, the anti-colonial movement in India and the Bengal famine broadly defined the contours of IPTA's activities in the 1940s. Ravi Shankar, Utpal Dutt, Ritwik Ghatak, Balraj Sahni, K.A. Abbas and Kaifi Azmi were among the leading figures associated with IPTA. Borrowing liberally from traditional and folk art forms, IPTA's productions such as "Nabanna" (Harvest), "Hitler Parabhavam" (The Downfall of Hitler), "Spirit of India" (1944) and "India Immortal" (1945) propagated the ideas of anti-fascism, anti-imperialism and socialism.

It was in such a background that the Kerala People's Arts Club (KPAC) was formed in 1950. "It is a cultural organisation with a political purpose," said Dr. Vayala Vasudevan Pillai, Director, School of Drama, University of Calicut. The brainchild of a group of youngsters - G. Janardhana Kurup, N. Rajagopalan Nair and K.S. Rajamani - associated with the CPI, KPAC staged its first play, "Ente Makananu Sari" (My Son is Right), in 1951. The play, which dealt with the ideological conflict between a progressive student leader and his conservative father, was a new experience for theatregoers. It differed, both in form and content, from the musical dramas and social satires that were in vogue.

It was with "Ningalenne Communistakki" (You Made Me a Communist, 1952), its second play, that KPAC became a force to reckon with on Kerala's cultural scene - as a progressive counter to conservative and reactionary forces. Thoppil Bhasi, a young Communist activist who was then underground as he was wanted by the police in connection with a murder case, wrote the play under the pseudonym Soman. It portrayed the transition of an elderly man from a conservative upper-caste Hindu family into a Communist. The path-breaking play was first staged in Chavara Thattassery Sudarsana theatre in Kollam district on December 6, 1952. The organisers faced a number of problems - most of the members of the group had little or no prior stage experience, and there was dearth of funds. Yet with all the drawbacks, the play caught the people's imagination. After the first show itself the play was booked for 36 performances. "Overnight, an amateur play became professional," said O. Madhavan, one of the actors in the play and a former secretary of KPAC.

However, the play soon ran into trouble with the authorities. There were allegations that it propagated "subversive ideas" and encouraged the people to "rebel against the government". A mass petition seeking a ban on it was filed before the Thiruvananthapuram District Magistrate. The Magistrate banned the play in March 1953 under the Dramatic Performances Act. Defying the ban the troupe staged the play at Kovalam, near Thiruvananthapuram. All the artists were arrested and a case was registered against them. But the CPI initiated and led a mass movement against the ban. The Dramatic Performances Act was challenged by the CPI members in the Travancore-Cochin Assembly. Two months later, on a review petition filed by G. Janardhana Kurup, the High Court declared the ban illegal. The Act itself was abolished later. The ban and the incidents that followed heightened the play's popularity. "Ningalenne Communistakki" made history in Malayalam theatre by becoming the first play to be staged more than 10,000 times. It was staged not only in Kerala, but in several cities across the country including Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

Almost every play of KPAC, which became the Kerala unit of IPTA in 1957, has dealt with some social or political issue. "The Communist Party played the role of a coordinator, but it never tried to control KPAC. The party provided it with all the necessary help, infrastructure and guidance. Actually one of the secrets of KPAC's success and its survival for half a century is the support and advice it received from the Communist Party," said P.K. Vasudevan Nair, president of KPAC, a national secretary of the CPI, and former Chief Minister. As distinct from other cultural groups, KPAC had a democratic way of functioning and decision-making. "Once a month a general body meeting was convened. All artists attended it and made suggestions to improve the play that was being staged. Problems and differences within the group were also discussed and solved," said Madhavan.

KPAC also had a party unit, which reported directly to the State committee of the undivided CPI. After the party split in 1964, KPAC continued to be with the CPI. In the initial days, almost all artists of KPAC were members of the CPI, and from their salary of Rs.500, gave Rs.40 as levy to the party. On several occasions, especially during election time and when the party faced financial problems, KPAC gave the party the entire proceeds from its performances.

KPAC also actively intervened in public life, taking up the people's cause. In 1963, the Congress-led State government increased bus fares and the entertainment tax. Both these hikes affected KPAC's functioning. On July 23, 1963, KPAC artists, led by Thoppil Bhasi, sat in dharna in front of the State Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. The police tried to remove them but the artists resisted; they were beaten up and arrested.

THE plays reflected the social realities of the day and the aspirations of the downtrodden for a society free of exploitation and oppression. Theatre transcended the realm of entertainment and took on an agitational and propagandistic function. The plays projected the existence of an alternative and explored the possibilities of achieving it through conscious political praxis.

Mellifluous singing, an attractive story line and impressive acting by talented artists added force to the political message. Gifted artists such as KPAC Sulochana, K.S. George, G. Devarajan, M.S. Baburaj, K. Raghavan Master, P.J. Antony, Kambissery Karunakaran, K.P. Ummer and KPAC Lalitha and poets such as O.N.V. Kurup and Vayalar Rama Varma, to name a few, were either associated with the KPAC or began their career in it. The songs of KPAC Sulochana and K.S. George, sung for the plays staged in the 1950s and 1960s, are still popular. Apart from the plays of Bhasi, KPAC staged the plays of veterans of Malayalam theatre such as N. Krishna Pillai, Thikkodiyan and N.N. Pillai. Popular theatre groups such as Kalidasa Kala Kendram, Kayamkulam People's Theatre and Samskara owe their existence to KPAC - for they were formed by artists who were once active in KPAC.

Two classical Sanskrit plays, Shudraka's "Mrichchakatikam" and Kalidasa's "Abhignana Sakuntalam", were translated into Malayalam and staged in 1985 and 1987 respectively. Despite its close relationship with the CPI, KPAC staged plays such as "Ennale, Ennu, Nale" (Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, 1972), whi-ch took a critical look at the party and its struggles; "Kaiyum Thalayum Purathidarathu" (1980), dealing with the problems created by unnecessary strikes and excessive trade unionism; and "Layanam" (Merger, 1978), which highlighted the necessity of the re-unification of the Communist parties in India. Popular plays such as "Ningalenne Com-munistakki" and "Mooladhanam" were made into memorable and successful films. Under the banner of KPAC Films, KPAC itself produced two films - Enipadikal and Neelakkannukal. The troupe toured the Gulf countries in 1986 and the U.S. in 1989 and staged plays.

Some critics and writers have argued that the treatment of social issues in KPAC's plays is rather superficial and that character development is weak in several plays. For instance, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, in his essays "From 'Pattabacki' to 'Ningalenne Communistakki'" (1954) and "Malayalam Theatre: 'Ningalenne Communistakki' and After" (1973), wrote that one of the major flaws of "Ningalenne Communistakki" was that the Communist characters in the play failed to impress and did not correspond to real Communists. "They are puppets with no relationship to living Communist activists," he wrote.

EMS attributed this flaw to the playwright's failure to study how class relations in a society affected personal lives and the development of individuals. "Even if one is an intellectual or a factory worker or a peasant, one becomes a Communist by fighting against one's circumstances. Moreover, in that struggle itself one has to pass through several phases. Only by studying these developments can a playwright portray a real Communist," wrote EMS. He found the same flaw in other socio-political plays - "Pattabacki" and "Raktapanam" by K. Damodaran, "Nammalonnu" by Cherukad and "Inquilabinte Makkal" by P.J. Antony.

Others disagree. "Bhasi's plays may not stand the test of play analysis. But he did not conceive them to be analysed in such a manner. They were not written for a theatre class. He wrote his plays to be presented on stage by a troupe and he wanted the people to appreciate and understand them," said Dr. Vayala Vasudevan Pillai.

FIFTY years and 45 plays after, KPAC is still active. Its 45th play, "Manaveeyam", is now being staged in various parts of the State. A 13-member board of directors, with P.K. Vasudevan Nair as president and M. Gopi as secretary, coordinates the day-to-day activities of KPAC, with its base in Kayamkulam in Alappuzha district. It has two drama troupes and conducts music, dance and drama classes for students and artists. KPAC also runs the Kambissery Memorial Library and Thoppil Bhasi Memorial Theatre and Auditorium at Kayamkulam.

The one-year-long golden jubilee celebrations of KPAC were inaugurated in May 2000 in Thiruvana-nthapuram by Vice-President Krishan Kant. The golden jubilee was celebrated outside the State too. Various associations of Malayalees in Tamil Nadu jointly organised a two-day seminar on Malayalam theatre and a cultural conference in Chennai on February 3 and 4. Several prominent personalities, including Kerala's Minister for Culture T.K. Rama-krishnan and Kerala State Film Development Corporation (KSFDC) Chairman P. Govinda Pillai, participated in the celebrations. Artists who were once part of KPAC were felicitated on the occasion. "KPAC is an integral part of the Kerala model. Along with the progressive writers' movement, the library movement and other movements of cultural renaissance, KPAC contributed to the success of the Kerala model of development, the main indicators of which are high standards of living, hundred per cent literacy and so on," said Govinda Pillai.

What lies ahead for KPAC? Its survival is closely related to the larger question of the future of the theatre movement as a whole. KPAC's plays may be no match to the spectacles and "cultivated addictions" of the electronic media, but as a leftist theatre group it has a future - as a conscious response to the demands of a particular historical moment.

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