Though the ancient cultural grammarians of the Tamil language have included ‘theatre’ as one of the in the intrinsic aspect of ‘Muthamizh’, many of us in Tamil Nadu, especially in the capital city, are inclined to treat ‘theatre’ as the poor cousin of the other two, namely, music and dance. Even during the ‘cultural explosion’ that takes place in December and January, even the few ‘popular’ plays that are being performed are not given the prime time but relegated to the morning session by the sabhas that conduct these festivals.
As such, how many of us would know that a young playwright-director from Tamil Nadu was the first Tamil to have won the Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar (Sangeet Natak Akademy) for playwriting in 2012 at All-India level?
The recipient of this prestigious award is Murugabhoopathi, who holds a doctorate degree in Drama. He is a dedicated theatre activist, performing in the rural areas of the southern districts of Tamilnadu. This could be also one of the reasons that he is not much heard of in the urban Chennai, assumed as the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu in the last few decades, though Madurai had that distinction earlier. Murugabhoopathi has the theatre in his blood, as the grandson of the legendary stage-music composer Bhaskardas, who during the twenties and thirties of the last century, challenged the British Empire by his patriotic lyrics sung on the stage by fearless actors, although the plays were mythological! When one is seized by patriotism logic becomes the casualty!
It is very difficult to classify Murugabhoopathi’s theatre. ‘Good theatre is complex in its simplicity’ wrote Wyspianski, the famous Polish painter and playwright. Though it sounds as an Oxymoronic statement, I could comprehend its meaning only after I saw one of the plays of Murugabhoopathi. He needs only an open place for his performance, apparently ‘simple’ in his approach to theatre. But, his emphasis is on this ‘place’ having ‘cultural’ and ‘historical’ memories, which is the complexity of it. He does not call the performing area as ‘stage’. For him, it is ‘Nataka Nilam’ (‘the land for a play’.) The theatre is associated with agriculture in the Marxian sense. Most of his plays are related to this issue of Man’s alienation from Nature, who tirelessly deprives the latter of all its bounties.
His play ‘Semmoothaai’ (The Primordial Mother) which represents the personification of the agricultural land as a feminine entity. In a way it looks like a celebration of the ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’ because of good harvest along with being seen as a visual elegy in times of drought and deprivation.
The ‘place’ for the performance he chooses for each play is very significant, His characters are all ‘non-persons’. They are just physical bodies in the literal sense, charged with brutal energy, but no ‘persona’ to conceptualise.
Perhaps, he first creates in his mind ‘verbal’ sounds that precede meanings and later, non-verbal images, which he gets imprinted on the bodies of his group of actors, that eventually evolves into a linguistic text for which he gives a form and direction.
In one of his interviews, he has said that ‘sounds are more meaningful than sense’. To illustrate, when one sees a tiger face to face, the outburst of animal cry emanating from him, would be more meaningful than a statement from him, ‘I feel scared’.
He chose ‘Therikadu’, for his play ‘Koonthal Nagaram’ (‘City of pigtails’), in a southern district, an arid land now, but once, perhaps, had a rich, cultural geography to which the natives living there could relate nostalgically. When he staged the play at that ‘place’ the aesthetic distance between the performers and the spectators vanished. Once he, as the director, provoked them by his innovative theatrical projection, to kindle their primaeval and genetic memories, that the past became one living reality of a continuous ‘present’. Those who saw the play said it was a unique experience.
His play ‘Miruga Vidhushakam’ (‘Animals and clowns’) is a sad post- modernist fairy tale in search of a lost Paradise inhabited by clowns, trees, flowers, birds and all that represented fertility and innocence. A clown is an important character in Sanskritic and Shakespearean plays, as sad wise characters condemned to entertain the audience. But, in Bhoopathi’s play, they are the protagonists, who get lost as clowns but assume different roles to play. They become the agents of destiny to fight for a seed that would become a field to feed the humanity. Beautifully choreographed visuals of white-robed human shadows haunt the stage in perennial search of freedom, food and God!
It is apparent, that Bhoopathi is still in his search for creating a post-modernist theatre that has all the native air of ritualism, shamanism and innumerable other folk elements, well-integrated along with the western concepts of Richard Schechner, Jerzy Grotowski and others.