Saturday, 7 September 2013

Bring down the House Lights!

P C Ramakrishna’s book evoked golden memories

By V. Ramnarayan

(First published by Sruti in 2005)

“Is that a Madras Players production? Then it must be some pseudo highbrow stuff.” This was the remark an ardent supporter of music and drama made, when invited to watch an English play last year. It turned out he had never seen a single play by one of the oldest amateur theatrical groups in India. His view was based on his impressions made through hearsay back in his schooldays, when the Players had inherited the props and make-up box left behind by The Madras Dramatic Society—whose members were expatriates working for the British Council.

Some of the young men and women to have been seduced by the lure of theatre and included in the cast of those early productions are still around—and still contributing to the Madras Players, which celebrated its golden jubilee with Nagamandala in 2004.

The man who wrote the play, Girish Karnad, now an internationally known playwright and actor, was a young member of the Madras Players in the sixties. Bhagirathi Narayanan, who directed the jubilee production of Nagamandala, months before her death on stage in April 2005, had been with the group since 1969. N.S. Yamuna, Vishalam Ekambaram, Grace Krishnaswamy, Ravi Baskaran, Gopi Nair, P.C. Ramakrishna, S. Ramachander, Mohamed Yusuf, Mithran Devanesen, A.V. Dhanushkodi... the list of the Madras Players veterans, still associated with the group in varying degrees of involvement on or behind the stage or as devoted supporters in front of it, is long and impressive. And their long journey with the troupe has been one of amateur passion for theatre, and the several stops on the way have been varied and inclusive. From Ibsen and Shakespeare, Shaw and Rattigan, Mohan Rakesh and Badal Sircar, down to home-grown talent from Chetan Shah and Poilie Sengupta to Anupama Chandrasekhar and Anushka Ravishankar, the range of playwrights has been far too egalitarian in its sweep to be dismissed airily as pseudo high brow. Through the decades, the Madras Players’ contribution to worthwhile theatre in Chennai has been as significant and sincere as the best that the few surviving serious Tamil groups have offered.

Some of the founding members of the Players are no more with us. Snehalata Reddy, later to become a victim of the Emergency, and her husband Pattabhirama Reddy did great work in cinema as well, Pattabhi’s Samskara, based on U.R. Ananthamurthi’s novel going on to win national and international awards. V. Gopalakrishnan was a successful character actor in films. Ammu Mathew, president of the group from the 1960s to her death in 1984, also directed some of the most powerful plays of the period, including Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajit, Tendulkar’s Shantata Court Chalu Ahe and Sakharam Binder, Tiger, Tiger, based on Bhagwan Gidwani’s Sword of Tipu Sultan, and Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhey Adhurey.

In his tribute to 50 years of the Madras Players, Bring down the House Lights, P.C. Ramakrishna describes Ammu Mathew as the Queen Bee. According to him, she ‘had the sultry Kerala good looks—olive skinned, tall, stately, smoky eyed.’ He calls Lakshmi and S.V. Krishnamurty the First Couple of the Madras Players. They were ‘the links between the founders... like Snehalata Reddy, and the ‘newcomers’ like Ramakrishna and Co. ‘Today, they have settled down in Bangalore, but none of us who knew them and their wonderful hospitality can ever forget the great times that were had at 18, Pycrofts Garden’, the couple’s Madras home. To the couple, theatre was their life breath. Both were outstanding, demanding directors and superb actors. Lakshmi’s role in Samskara was unforgettable.’

‘Come on, Tiger, you’ve got to be heard by the deaf old lady in the last row!’ This is the opening line of the chapter, The Decade of the Tiger on the late Vimal Bhagat. ‘Anybody who has had anything to do with the Madras Players in the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember this familiar roar, as a co-actor was admonished at rehearsal’, Ramakrishna continues. ‘It was a compelling voice, the voice of authority’.

Bhagat was a strong presence in Madras theatre for over a decade, doing some memorable roles in ‘Poor Murderer; ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and ‘A View from the Bridge,’ for example. Bhagat also played another important role—of taking the group’s plays to Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Calcutta, and making theatre commercially viable while doing so.

An endearing character from the 1970s theatre scene of Madras, Ambi Harsha, is now a US citizen. ‘Everything about him was long. He had a long face, a long nose, a long frame, long legs, and the longest thumb I’ve ever seen (I should know, for he accidentally poked me in the eye with it, gesticulating frenetically at rehearsal),’ Ramakrishna remembers this ‘permanent fixture’ of Madras Players productions of the seventies for his ‘unique brand of comedy, full of facial tics and windmill gestures’, and his ‘stilted kind of English on stage, which seemed to go with his personality.’ Anybody who knew Ambi in his Madras Christian College days, his wacky sense of humour, his passion for cricket and his stint as radio and TV commentator, will know exactly what PC means.

Of Casanovas and teddy bears

Ronnie Patel, whom P.C. Ramakrishna calls Casanova-70—obviously for obvious reasons—Mohamed Yusuf, ‘the Great Big Teddy Bear,’ again obvious to anyone who has met Yusuf, and Mithran Devanesen, the ‘Don of Design’ are some of the other pillars of the Players remembered in this warm and delightful jubilee book.

‘Mithran began his theatre career under Ammu Mathew (who didn’t?) by initially sweeping the stage for her productions,’ worked on the technical side of all Ammu’s productions, picking up the dynamics of theatre along the way, and played a few roles, if reluctantly, starring in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. In Tiger, Tiger, he was Maqbool Khan, the rapist, but gradually shifted to design and production. Ramakrishna thinks Mithran’s work as a set designer was outstanding in Dance Like a Man, Mangalam and Mercy, treating three widely different backgrounds with expertise—one the ancestral home of a dancing couple in Bangalore, full of period furniture and artefacts, another a lower middle class agraharam home in Kumbakonam and the third a comatose woman’s music room with her husband the sole character. The last was the first solo performance (P.C. Ramakrishna) in English in Chennai.

Salim Ghouse is another actor from the seventies, a powerful practitioner of method acting. Ramakrishna calls him Madras’s Marlon Brando, brooding, solitary, fiercely introspective. This is what he says about Salim, who went on to become a well known name in Mumbai theatre, and Hindi and Tamil cinema (though many will also remember him as Bharat Sinha in a TV serial based on Sivasankari’s novel and as Krishna in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj):

‘He finishes a scene with me, and exits. I have a bit more to do before my own exit. As I walk into the wings, I find friend Salim wrapped around a pillar crying copiously, with the crew cluck-clucking in chorus about him. Imagine our utter surprise, when he announces between heaving sobs, ‘Yaar...I was so good...I was so good...!’ Salim Ghouse is a brilliant actor and a passionate theatreperson, but we all know that this particular scene is typical of Salim, the man.’

Ramakrishna’s book lists all the plays performed by the Madras Players in the last five decades. What an impressive list that is! Every major playwright figures in the list: William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Terence Rattigan, Peter Shaffer, John Osborne, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Luigi Pirandello, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Mahesh Dattani, Gurcharan Das, Timeri Murari... who hasn’t been performed? Every kind of play from the theatre of the absurd to merely absurd theatre is represented in this vast repertoire. True, there have been some plays that fit the description of ‘pseudo high brow,’ but it would be grossly unfair to label so the impressive body of work the group has attempted with devotion over the decades.

Particular mention must be made of the young or first time playwrights the Madras Players has featured in the recent past: Sreekumar Varma, Sabitha Radhakrishna, Sunipa Basu, Anupama Chandrasekhar, Harsha Dandapani, Krupasagar Sridharan, Reshma Nichani, Poilie Sengupta, Anushka Ravishankar, KR Usha, Chetan Shah, Mohan Narayanan and Gowri Ramnarayan are among the talents showcased by Madras Players, some of them before they became well known names. This year, the Players presented its first full-length musical, Rural Phantasy, a huge risk that paid off.

The Madras Players, like every other institution, is a product of the times. Ramakrishna says in the introduction to his book that it ‘will continue to be the ‘grand old lady’ of theatre in Madras, looking on with a benign eye, as the young Turks take energetic steps forward, pushing at the boundaries of new discovery.’ He refers to the restructuring taking place with people like T.T. Srinath, Ejji, Shankar Sundaram, Rajiv Choudhry, and Kaveri Lalchand contributing their own impetus to the group’s committee, and others like Chidambaram, Y.G. Rajendra, Bharat Raman and S. Ramachander also joining in. To a disinterested observer, it is also apparent from recent productions that the grand old lady is trying to merge with current trends, not all of them welcome. Much of today’s theatre is no more’ than mere fluff, and it will be its old supporters’ hope that the Madras Players will continue to be the grand old lady.

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