It is New Year’s day in 1989. Communist playwright and actor Safdar Hashmi, and his fellow actors from Jana Natya Manch (People’s Theatre Front) start performing a street play called Halla Bol (Attack) in Jhandapur, a village near Delhi. The performance is interrupted by an actual attack by mobsters backed by the Congress party. Hashmi, gravely injured in the attack, succumbs to his injuries and dies the next day.
It is now 2016, 7am in Kovilpatti, a village 100 km away from Madurai. The actors of Manal Magudi theatre troupe start trickling in to the courtyard of playwright and director Muruga Boopathy’s ancestral house, which also serves as a rehearsal space. Helping themselves to a potent tea made with ginger and jaggery, they line up outside the four bathrooms to perform their ablutions. After an intense round of warm-ups, they rehearse for their play, Maayakomaligalin Jaala Kannadi ( Illusional Clown’s Mystique Mirror ), directed and devised by Muruga Boopathy.
From Delhi to the deep south of India, Hashmi’s death reverberated loudly, shocking and angering many people, amongst them Boopathy. Incensed by the brutal display of violence, he formed a street theatre group called the Safdar Hashmi Nataka Kuzhu. The group, which went on to stage their plays of protest and activism all over Tamil Nadu, no longer exists. In its place, Boopathy runs a group called Manal Magudi, which has come to be recognised as one of the finest theatre companies in Tamil Nadu, if not India.
Boopathy firmly believes that he doesn’t have to look far for art. Inspiration, he told me, is so close. In terms of literary figures that inspire him, the influences are indeed nearby. Boopathy comes from a family of literary scholars and playwrights: his grandfather, Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas, was a theatre practitioner and Tamil lyricist, many of whose songs were set to tune in yesteryear Tamil talkies. Bhaskaradas infused his writing with political activism, mostly geared towards the Independence struggle in the early 20th century. As part of his PhD research, Boopathy compiled his grandfather’s diary entries into a book, which was published in 2009.
Boopathy’s father and brothers are also writers. His older brother, Konangi, is a revered writer in contemporary Tamil literary circles. He is also an avid supporter of Boopathy’s work, often travelling with him to workshops and plays.
For Boopathy, it is not just people that are close by, but also subject material and artistic influences. He possesses extensive knowledge of ritualistic practices in southern India, particularly the areas in and around Madurai district.
For more than 15 years now, he has travelled to temples in Tamil Nadu, both large and infinitesimally small, observing their rituals. He visits the same temples each year to gain a deeper understanding of the practices, and to observe changes.
In Kovilpatti, Boopathy, a man I have just met, introduces me to his troupe. Here is Kumar Shaw, a man who is a self-described nomadic storyteller, with a habit of getting on a train with little money and no idea of what he is going to do once he gets to his destination. There is Murugesan anna, who cooks the standard morning breakfast of idli, and who typically performs a cameo as the komali or joker in all of Boopathy’s plays. I am yet to meet one of Manal Magudi’s few female performers — Asha. She is due to arrive in a train from her home town in Kanyakumari district in the afternoon.
Muruga Boopathy is a short man, with sharp and piercing eyes. He is quick to smile and slow to raise his voice, directing his actors with a combination of self-effacing humility and utmost confidence in his art.
Under the shade of a neem tree in his family’s courtyard, the actors start rehearsing for Maayakomaligalin . They are staging it tonight, for the ninth time, at a local literary festival in Kovilpatti. When Boopathy found out that they would be performing at the festival, he called his actors and asked them to come to Kovilpatti two days early and brush up on lines and cues. In response, a collection of 10 or so actors trickled in from various cities and villages in Tamil Nadu, each of them finding space in Boopathy’s family house to put down their bags and a straw mat to sleep on for the night.
The actors gather their props: masks, cloth, various instruments, most of them indigenous to the region. Boopathy settles down with a djembe, providing musical and vocal cues offstage. The neighbourhood children are seated in the stairs overlooking the courtyard, while one woman walks in with a plate full of idli and sambar, looking for her child who disappeared mid-breakfast.
The play recounts a series of stories using masks and clown movement and dolls as inspiration. Boopathy describes the play as a “parody of the politics of surveillance using the language of clowns.” There is no linear narrative, and the Tamil is poetic and lyrical. Devoid of plot and verbosity, the actors use movement and facial expression and music and poetry to recount tales of woe and joy, about oppression and freedom.
Like Maayakomaligalin , Boopathy’s other plays, rather than forming one linear narrative, consist of chapters. Each of these chapters or segments narrates a different story: women looking for their clothes after the floods that ravaged Chennai in 2015; workers lamenting their plight as they toil endlessly and thanklessly in low-paid jobs; farmers bemoaning the lack of seed diversity with the advent of modern agriculture. Boopathy’s plays are visual and sensory experiences that elicit visceral reactions from the audience.
Maayakomaligalin Jaala Kannadi is a culmination of many years of research into the ritualistic performances and lives of clowns and gypsies in Tamil Nadu. As part of the rehearsal process, which spanned across months, the actors participated in a workshop with 15 mask painters from Tamil Nadu, learning about their craft. They also travelled with Boopathy to meet and observe traditional komalis or clowns. Boopathy devised the script, wrote the songs and set them to tune during the rehearsal process.
After one run-through, the actors break for lunch. Dharaneedharan, or Dharani as he is called by his peers, is an actor who works with Boopathy and who has travelled with him on some of his research trips. Dharani calls himself an “artist who is in search of the root”; somebody who is interested in the history of performance in his community. “I believe that theatre is ritual,” Dharani told me. “And the person who helped me understand that is Muruga Boopathy.”
Performance arts in southern India, Dharani says, have a history that goes back almost two millennia. These forms, such as therukoothu , kathakali and bommalattam , are all ritual-based. As an example, Dharani tells me about therukoothu . Therukoothu literally translates to “street theatre,” and is performed in villages around Tamil Nadu. Replete with costumes and music, most of the performances are theatrical narratives of stories from the Mahabharata. In one particular performance called the Arjunan thabasu, the actor playing Arjuna climbs atop a pole that has been planted on the ground while singing devotional songs. Meanwhile, pregnant women in the audience gather around the pole. Once at the top, Arjuna throws fruits to these women who catch it with the ends of their saris. Dharani believes that these ritualistic performances are important influences for theatre and that contemporary theatre should borrow more from such practices.
Boopathy’s plays reflect his relentless pursuit to take ritual into the realm of contemporary theatre. Spirit possession is not an uncommon feature at temple festivals in Tamil Nadu. Driven by music and chants and invocation to gods, some people suddenly take on the demeanour of a possessed person. After observing such displays at various festivals, Boopathy and his actors used this idea of possession in a scene in Maayakomaligalin .
“We should not use the rational mind to think about things like spirit possession,” Boopathy tells me. “That would be an insult to our history and to our artistic practice.”
Boopathy’s work is widely renowned in Tamil Nadu, and in India. In 2013, he was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards in recognition of his contribution to Indian theatre. In March this year, his play Kuhai Mara Vaasigal ( Cave Tree Dwellers ), travelled to Delhi to perform at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) where it won the award for best choreography. His plays are performed in various locations around the country, mostly in Tamil Nadu. I have watched them in small makeshift auditoriums in his hometown of Kovilpatti, in large auditoriums in Delhi, in the small courtyard in his house, and in the large sports ground of a university in Madurai. Wherever his plays are performed, there is a crowd of people eager to watch them. Some of them are academics and theoreticians who travel long distances to watch his thought-provoking work. Others are students and frequent theatregoers. Yet others are neighbours and curious inhabitants of the cities and villages where the plays are performed.
Boopathy’s actors are a motley assortment of people who are bound together by not just their passion for theatre, but also by reverence for their director. Not all of them are trained actors, and many of them have other jobs. The plays are not always ticketed events, and whatever money is collected is distributed among the actors. However, it is often not enough for the actors. Asha, whom I eventually meet, tells me that she works as a hairstylist when she is not rehearsing. The oldest daughter of a fisherman, she found herself financially responsible for her family when her father passed away a few years ago. While she recognises that working with Boopathy is not a lucrative endeavour, she chooses to do it because she finds it to be a satisfying and meaningful experience.
In February this year, Boopathy organised a puppetry workshop where he hosted members of the Salem Ramakrishna Puppet Company. During an informal Q&A session, many members of the troupe broke down while describing their financial woes and the government’s lack of support for folk artistes such as themselves. By the end of the session, there weren’t many dry eyes amongst the audience. Sighing, with a gentle smile on his face, Boopathy looked up and said to me, “We need to find a different way to talk about poverty in art. Instead of complaining, we need to recreate it so that it can become powerful art.”
Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a Chennai-based writer and theatre practitioner