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A life in amateur theatre

S. Ramachander

When the history of theatre in Madras is written, the name of Madras Players, the first and for a long while the only serious English language theatre group in the city, will lead the rest of the pack.


Madras Players performs `The Lizard Waltz' in Chennai.

What to do with one's evenings and weekends is a familiar concern for anyone employed full time, in a high-pressure job. For the single person in a big city, this is a cry from the heart for a release from tedium. So when towards the end of 1969 a dear friend and colleague (similarly placed) invited me to watch an Arthur Miller classic A View From The Bridge at the Museum Theatre, in Chennai, in which he had a part, I jumped at the idea. We wandered off afterwards to a party mainly for the cast and crew and a few guests. He promised that I'd meet a group of people who, to his eyes as a newcomer from Bombay, were some very unusual madrasis connected with amateur theatre. And that is how one came into the fringes of this remarkably warm circle of fellowship and love for theatre, called the Madras Players, which one has enjoyed for over three decades.

One also met a young, and at first glance rather shy, assistant manager of the Oxford University Press Madras who played the tragically flawed but very human John Proctor in The Crucible, a story of prejudice, bigotry and witch hunting set in 17thcentury Massachusetts. His name was Girish Karnad. Someone told me later he was a budding playwright from Karnataka and also a Rhodes scholar.

The party was lively as most cast parties tend to be and someone went on to play some dance tunes on the piano while the group milled around and spilled over to the spacious lawns of the house, not far from the theatre. Both the house and the theatre have now been remodelled beyond recognition; but that remains a magical evening for me, because (no I didn't meet the girl of my life there!) of so many different types of people who restored my faith in the city then routinely written off as one that went to sleep at nine o'clock.

Those days the most exciting thing a young couple could do (if anything) was to go to a movie or stroll along the famous Marina — and hope not to be spotted by a neighbour's brother-in-law!

Of all that the boxwallah life brought me, the most cherished was the chance to get away from the stuffiness of office to the anonymity of the Players, with no regard for seniority in age or status. It took a while to get used to a diverse set of people from all over India and England with a wide-range of other interests. The critics, who saw it as a small coterie of affluent officer-class and anglophiles that hobnobbed with the expatriates, changed their tune once in the group! There were the inevitable sales managers who could keep to the rehearsal schedules with the greatest difficulty, only if they had an understanding boss; but there were also college lecturers, administrators, journalists, photographers, entrepreneurs and students.

Apparently the drama group was started as the Madras Dramatic Society during the 1950s by some British expatriates in search of cultural entertainment a little beyond the familiar philistine pleasures offered by the club. Its successor, the Madras Players, always enjoyed the support of a succession of friendly British Council staff, both Indian and British, who were theatre-buffs. Some also revealed their talent as poets or writers of occasional plays as one got to know them. One of them revived the now popular Christmas pantomime; another wrote a play based on Indian history; and a third put on a Shakespearean tragedy, a rare occurrence for the group that concentrated either on the avant-garde or very traditional Indian themes.

From the absurd drama of Ionesco, Sartre, and Stoppard of the 1960s, one moved on to a feast of Indian plays translated into English, many performed for the first time ever in India. This brought us into contact with a fresh new audience and invitations even from the sabhas, which traditionally distanced themselves from the English language audience. Among the many, Girish Karnad's Yayati, and Hayavadana, (in which we sang Kannada songs on stage and spoke the dialogues in English) Badal Sircar's Evam Indrajit, Vijay Tendulkar's Silence, The Court Is In Session (with the evergreen Vishalam in the female lead role) and Mohan Rakesh's Adhe Adhure (in which Dhanushkodi gave a stunning performance as four men in a woman's life) come to mind.

A fine line of producers who had an eye for talent and casting was needed to keep the group going — and here is where any amateur theatre group with professionals in transferable jobs was handicapped. Ammu Mathew, a Physics Professor, and Bhagirathi Narayanan, a lawyer, as well as Yamuna Prabhu, a multi-faceted person, all gave generously of their spare time to seek out new plays and actors and experiment with new formats or devices. The repertoire, however, was not always intellectual or faddish, and some slapstick comedies and bedroom farces were just as much grist for the mill, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Naushir Ratnagar and his frothy comedies drew large enough audiences to fill even the Music Academy hall. P.C. Ramakrishna's voice and acting lent its special touch whatever the setting or occasion, as did Mithran Devanesan's work with sets, lighting and much else backstage.

Apart from having fun at the rehearsals, which were like daily parties that went on from around 7.30 till past 10 or 11 p.m., we learnt a great deal about theatre — not in theory, but by making mistakes that were gently, (and sometimes as the evening wore on not so gently), corrected. One learnt where to pause, when to use a big gesture, how to synchronise a nod with a `yes' and a shake of the head with a `No' (never do it together, first the gesture then the word!) how not to anticipate but think the word as one spoke it, yet on cue, and so on.

Few realise that the biggest difference between amateur English theatre and more commonly known sabha dramas is in the acting and characterisation. One did not stand in front of a mike and deliver the dialogue but addressed the person spoken to in the cast; and did so often without a mike, by learning to project the voice, an art in itself.

For a long time, the courtyard of the British Council library was home to us aspiring thespians. Free of the constraint of learning lines while carrying on with demanding jobs, we could try out short play readings which needed only a few rehearsals and often permitted us to carry the pages of the script in the hand. It was also the scene of some exciting evenings of theatre workshops with experimental plays and lessons from experienced visiting theatre persons from abroad, such as Anita Kanzadian.

The trend of the British Council support and encouragement, one is glad to say, carries on to this day. A perennial headache, as any amateur actor or producer would know, is to find a place for rehearsals. We were blessed in this, because the centrally located bungalow with a lawn at the Nungambakkam home of Lakshmi and S.V. Krishnamurthy became the natural focal point, with an area identical to the playing area on stage at the Museum Theatre. It was so much a home away from home for some of us, who were single and footloose, that we used to go there even without an excuse of a rehearsal for a welcome cup of tea and a chat.

Latterly, the Theatre Club has taken to more frequent productions with smaller budgets. The burden of developing an interest in quality theatre is no longer carried by the Madras Players alone in any case, since there are younger and newer groups that carry on good work, each in its own style. Still, when the history of theatre in Madras is written, no doubt the name of Madras Players, the first and for a long while the only serious English language theatre group in the city, like Ben Adham's, would lead all the rest.

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