A corpse sits in the center of the stage under the spotlights.
But it is not wrapped in white cloth. Instead, there are rings and gold chains, a friendly pair of sunglasses and the occasional toothy smile. Unusual? yes Funny? The Saturday afternoon audience must have thought so too, because they were laughing uproariously for the entire 10 minutes. Sethum Jaichidichu Meesaistaged at the recently concluded Short + Sweet South India 2022 event.
Through a non-linear monologue in Tamil, the 10-minute play follows the relationship between an angry son and his egocentric father hours after his father’s death. At the festival, he received awards for best production, best screenplay and best actor (male). Similarly, Jayachandran of Tamil group Kael Theater bagged the best director award for the punchy, impeccably timed, Iruvarexamination of P. Jayaraj-Bennix’s death in custody case.
Camera from Sethum Jaichidichu Meesai at the just concluded Short + Sweet Theater Festival 2022 | Photo Credit: MOHAN DAS VADAKARA
Case in point: Contemporary Tamil theater in Chennai is having its moment in the sun.
It is undergoing transformation at the hands of young theater groups and individuals, all experimenting with form, themes, dialect and dramaturgy, while maintaining a sense of language at its core. By moving away from traditional and folk formats and embracing modern themes, it also appeals to a younger, urban audience.
Vijay Babu and his 69-year-old father Hari Babu, a former national boxing champion, who play son and father in Sethum Jeichidchu… or rather, they have been gathering fans since the first performance. Vijay, who also co-wrote the screenplay with first-time director Thiruvia Sankar, has not performed much outside the Short + Sweet festival over the years. He says that he is a “runaway guy” who found himself through the theater in 2015. His father, Hari, however, has no stage experience.
They are among a growing group of up-and-coming directors, writers and actors who are rewriting how audiences perceive the medium. “With avenues like Short + Sweet, there are more opportunities for people like us to perform. There is room for development. I am still in the learning phase,” says Vijay.
Camera from Iruvar
| Photo Credit: MOHAN DAS VADAKARA
The exemplars stand upright
“We saw it for the first time naveena natakam was Na Muthuswamy sir. He brought a new idea that Tamil theater can be done in a modern way,” says B Charles, a lighting designer and member of the Chennai Art Theater who is also one of the founders of the black box Medai – The Stage in Alwarpet. He was compared to veterans like Prasanna Ramasamy and A Mangai, who tackled radical and important themes in the regional theater setting. He adds, “Muruga Bhoopathy and bands like Perch and Koothu Pattarai took it to the international level.” The current crop, or at least most of the experimental directors and writers, come from similar schools that boast years of experience on the stage.
Created in 2017, Akku Theater’s Vetri comes from Koumaran Valavane’s Indianostrum Theater in Puducherry. “When I came to Chennai after a tight schedule at Indianostrum, I felt empty. I started watching the rehearsals of other groups: both established and amateur ones,” he says. Their first game, Adavu, is derived from the life of a therukoothu artist, an inspiration that struck Vetri when he observed the work of Purisai Therukoothu led by Kannappa Thambiran at Purisai. He then played 26 shows.
Traditional Tamil theater has deep roots in the city. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of great growth – from folklore groups to organized groups; until the ascent sabha games that were mainly based on religious and epic games Mahabharata and Ramayana, and doyens like Sankaradas Swamigal, Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar and recently S Murugabhoopathy, Na Muthuswamy.
As a modern band, Akku does not follow the traditional principles of designing a performance. What begins as a discussion between the actors is improvised to form a loose structure. Komaligal ( an anthology of four plays in Tamil that deals with the sexual oppression and abuse of women by inferring real events), on tour since 2020, is a testament to this process.
“Thanks to the digital age, a certain expectation is now also present in the theater. We must meet these expectations. That’s the only way we can get a regular audience,” says Vetri.
Being modern is not only limited to content. The way in which it is implemented is important. Collaboration with other existing groups would also lead to the creation of new formats, says Vetri. “Art is supposed to be democratic. If theater can reach people, nothing like it. This would even mean holding private performances for a group of 50 or 75 people in a community hall,” says Vetri. Comalygal he traveled to schools, public spaces, orphanages, detention centers and other unconventional stages to reach audiences who do not have access to the theatre.
While curating for every six plays at Medai, Charles makes sure that at least two to three plays are in Tamil. “Short plays tend to come from local writers, and there’s definitely a greater connection with the audience,” says Charles. This year, the number of new Tamil games hosted at the venue alone was higher. “We have hosted about 12 Tamil plays at Medai, all directed by young writers and directors,” he adds.
The fact that mainstream stages are not accessible in the city is partly responsible for the birth of Idam, Akku Theater’s new performance/workshop space, admits Vetri. Commercially, renting a main stage like the Egmore Museum Theater is unthinkable for an up-and-coming band, says Vetri. “Even when selling tickets, we try to make it economical and accessible. Therefore, we may not achieve the profit margin all the time.”
Idam, which has not yet officially come to life, is a small, theatrical space. With a bookshelf, murals and seats that fold into the walls, the space is designed for any form of workshops, performances and even rehearsals.
A frame from the play Dhik Dhik
| Photo credit: PRADEEP R
New audiences are looking for renewed visual experiences, a departure from sabha a culture that relied heavily on the written word. In the digital age, the production quality of a show is always under scrutiny: from acting, set design, lighting to costumes, everything is under the scanner. “Even if you don’t have an outstanding set, there has to be something new to offer,” Vetri says, adding that it’s important to attract new audiences.
“Besides the already existing theater community in the city, audiences are now looking for good Tamil contemporary plays. For every 100 people, at least 80 people come because of the content and the language,” says Charles. The idea is to penetrate a niche and grow a community rather than looking at it as a sub-community. “Even within Tamil theatre, there seems to be a gap between traditional or folk forms and contemporary ones. If these two worlds can come together and bring a new style, it will be very interesting to see,” says Vijay.