From Delhi to the Deep South

Hello everyone! Hi from Mumbai/Bombay!

I’ve spent a little over a week in the city and have met some incredible people who are doing some fascinating work in the theatre. But, I want to save my experiences in the city for my next blog post, where I’ll definitely have more than just some wide eyed enthusiasm to share.

What I do want to take you through today is a series of experiences that kept me busy in February and March. Every week, I would pack my small bag, lug my tripod and get on a train to go to the deep south of Tamil Nadu, to follow the work of a theatre company called “Manal Magudi.”

This company was founded by a man called Muruga Boopathy. He hails from a family of writers and poets, and was inspired to take up street theatre/activist theatre when Safdar Hashmi was killed in Delhi.  When I read about this, I was absolutely intrigued by the strong political reverberations that emanated all the way from Delhi to a sleepy village in Tamil Nadu.

I first read about Boopathy in a newspaper article that I stumbled upon during my research. I reached out to him via email and one of his company members invited me to Boopathy’s “theatre house” in a village called Kovilpatti, in southern Tamil Nadu. My friend Radhika and I walked in to his house rather groggily after an overnight train journey. Under the shade of a neem tree, Boopathy and his company of actors did yoga and warm ups, and then moved straight into their rehearsal. They were performing the next day for the people in the  village.

The Tamil word “Manal” means sand, or earth. The actors of Manal Magudi practice in a rectangular clearing on sand. In their heavily stylized and physical theatre, they are encouraged to interact with the “Manal.” This involves picking the sand up and letting it fall through their fingers, rubbing it on their chests and flinging it at other people and objects. The next day, when the actors moved to a wooden stage for the actual performance, some of them felt their performance was lacklustre because of the absence of the sand.

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At the Theatre House, in Kovilpatti, rehearsing in the “Manal”

For each of his plays, Boopathy uses a long devising process, usually about a month or so long. Actors live together and do chores at his ancestral home, referred to as the “theatre house.” They work with indigenous instruments and art forms (such as puppets and dolls) that Boopathy has learned about through decades of travel and research in the most interior parts of Tamil Nadu. During the festival season of the Tamil calendar, he travels to various villages and observes temple rituals.

Each of his plays is usually built around a theme. I’ve seen three of them, and with their poetic language and highly physicalized movements, they evoke stories of oppression and injustice. Actors lament about the plight of construction workers who have been driven to suicide by hunger, about the shrinking seed diversity because of the use of fertilizers and genetically modified crops. Some of the concepts are quite abstract, and the Tamil so dense that it’s difficult to follow the story (despite my fluency in the language), but the visual images and the sounds still evoke a very visceral reaction.

In the ensuing weeks after my first visit to Kovilpatti, Boopathy invited me to various events and workshops. One was a workshop conducted by local puppeteers who recount various tales from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. This particular group is a travelling group. In a Question and Answer session, a few of them got emotional and spoke about the financial tolls of their profession. These puppeteers only have secure employment during the festival season of the Tamil calendar, which is about six months long. During the remainder of the year, many resort to contract work in farms or construction sites. Many lamented about how retirement wasn’t really an option because the government typically never kept its promise of a monthly pension of Rs. 1500. Usually, the paperwork drags on for many years, and these artists don’t start receiving their pension until they are about 70 or so.

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Setting up for the puppet show

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Getting ready for showtime

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One man, seeing me take pictures with my camera, spoke about how he wanted to buy his son a similar device and couldn’t even dream of affording it. For me, this was the most jarring aspect of travelling between Chennai and these villages. Most of the artists in Boopathy’s troupe are not very well off, financially. When they are not rehearsing for a play with Manal Magudi, they either work for other groups or they freelance. Many of them talked about debt, about how they didn’t have enough money to send home to their families. It’s a shocking shift to come back to Chennai and be invited for a meal that costs far more than what some of these actors make in a week.

After my interviews and travels with Manal Magudi, I was invited to join the troupe in Delhi, where they were performing a play at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META). I boarded a plane with about twenty other people, some of whom had never been on a flight before. I am not a frequent flier, but I’ve travelled enough to acquire a sense of near-haughtiness on flights. I’ve picked up some rules that accentuate that trait –  seat must be near the exit, only aisle seats for flights longer than one hour, don’t invite the wrath of the stewards by asking for too many things (bring your own water), look busy or fall asleep. But when I travelled with these first time fliers, I was infected by their enthusiasm. Much to the chagrin of the stewardess, there was a lot of standing up and selfie-taking and a barrage of Tamil phrases being exchanged across the length of the plane. But when the plane was ready to descend, everybody went hush and just enjoyed the view. And I realized how much of a jaded person I’ve become. When my sister and I were kids, we would be so thrilled by the prospect of flying to India to see our relatives. We would hold each other’s hand excitedly during take off, amicably decide that one would have the window seat on the “to” journey, and the other on the “from” journey. We would pilfer the in-flight magazines and look at them longingly for months afterwards, wishing for longer flights that would take us to cities more exciting and exotic than Trichy. I was served a granola bar for the first time on an in-flight meal, and I saved it for about a week. When I finally did eat it, it tasted like cardboard. I was underwhelmed. When I did eventually fly longer distances, I was struck by how everybody seemed to be in a bad mood, and so I also adopted the same attitude.

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At the META Awards, March 2016

I’ve met people across this urban-rural spectrum who are very committed to theatre. The theatre that they’ve dedicated hours of their time and creativity to is quite different in each of their cases. Boopathy’s theatre is not conversation, dialogue or plot based. In Chennai, I’ve watched plays where the playwright shines through with her dazzling use of wit and plot and structure (the kind of theatre that I’ve watched the most in all my life). Each of these theatrical practices contain a world within themselves, with very different realities for their creators and actors.

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About Sindhu

Sobti Family Fellow 2015-2016 at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India. Currently in: Chennai, India Researching English theatre in India Website and blog: www.sindhurin.com