Many years ago, in the nineties of the last century, there was a big explosion in Chennai, in the first week of May, an explosion of theatre activities. Forty plays in fifteen days at the same venue, two plays a day, and three on Sundays, is no mean achievement. Quantitatively that is ‘aesthetic abundance’ for you.
The sponsors of the dramatic deluge, if I remember correctly, it was called Nataka Academy had this democratic concept in mind, when they organized this show, to bring the ‘minority theatre; and ‘majority theatre’ under one roof, literally and metaphorically.
The ‘serious plays’, as they were fancied, were to start at 5.45 pm to be followed by the ‘popular shows’ at 7.30 p.m. The idea was the ‘committed’ audience for each can get exposed to the other, if they choose to see both.
The categorization itself proved disastrous and counter-productive as the hall presented an empty look for the first part, what with ‘open-minded’ many yet to muster courage to sit through a ‘serious’ play.
Waiting for the audience (not for Godot) the ‘serious’ play started invariably late, and the ‘committed’ majority for the unpretentious popular stuff would occupy the empty chairs, when the ‘high brow happening’ was still on. Having no clue to what was going on the stage- every character stretched pronouncing each word in what appeared to be the most unnatural and archaic accent, the audience became restive and did not hesitate to give expression to their reaction in no uncertain terms. The organizers had planned a ‘matrimony’ between ‘popular’ and ‘serious’ theatre but what ultimately happened was the minority was minority and the majority was majority and the twain never met.
It escapes explanation why the ‘serious’ theatre guys acceded to the proposal for putting up their performance just before the regal pageantry of the comedy shows; one following the other, so soon. There is no denying the fact that even the committed few followers of the parallel theatre, after a heavy dose of ‘seriousness’ doled out to them by the preceding performance, stayed back to enjoy the comedy kings, with a willing suspension of their critical faculties, just to relax in the atmosphere of overwhelming insanity.
It is not being uncharitable to the parallel theatre. Dissent is born out of strong conviction and it has to have distinctive character and identity. In the West, the leaders of the parallel theatre movement are totally dedicated to the cause and even, if they fail in their performance, their sincerity is in evidence. One cannot be so sure of the sincerity and application of most of the avant-garde theatre persons, except in the case of a few rare exceptions, in Tamil Nadu.
Mostly it seems to be an elitist exercise or pampering one’s own ego that one is different from the rest. Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that an average theatre-goers’ preference is ‘for the old and familiar hat’. Theatre, being a social institution, it has to communicate.
In the west, a Brecht, a Beckett and Ionesco are all tall figures in their respective theatrical forms, because they were ‘ideologically charged’ and they had strong convictions. Most of the self-styled avant-garde theatre practitioners in our country do not have any basic artistic or ideological compulsion to make their own statement or stamp their signature by presenting a theatre that could confirm their identity. Most of them are pale imitations of the modern western plays, totally unrelated to our cultural heritage of the past.
In our theatrical tradition, music constituted the intrinsic part of the performance. A good theatre director, in my view, should be well-versed in all our past classical as well as folk theatre forms to get them integrated elegantly with a visionary conceptualization of modern theatrical production.
‘Silappadikaram’, though it is called an epic, is the finest example of a total theatre, blending classical and rural music and dance forms, obtained in all the regions of Tamil Nadu strongly supporting an excellent story of an ordinary woman challenging a king seeking justice for her husband, who has been put to death by a royal blunder. Those who perform ‘Silappadikaram’ as a music and dance theatre fail to do justice to the dramatic story line, to bring into focus every character of the story that has been subtly and beautifully portrayed by the dramatist.
Let us look forward to a Peter Brook emerging from Tamil Nadu to project this play in its multi-dimensional format that would be the finest illustration of modern Tamil theatre to give us a great theatrical experience.