Kathaiyalla Vaazhkai by Prasanna Ramaswamy: A play that says a thousand words

Mindful of the freedom offered by the visual and incredibly physical medium, Prasanna takes the risk to push beyond
A still from 'Kathaiyalla Vaazhkai'. (Photo| EPS)
A still from 'Kathaiyalla Vaazhkai'. (Photo| EPS)

How do you keep a bare bones, no-frills-attached theatrical adaptation of literature from becoming an emotive reading session? How do you inspire your audience to hang on to every word while leaving everything else to their imagination? How do you get them to resonate with this make-believe?

Leave it to Prasanna Ramaswamy and her ensemble of artistes to figure out just how. According to Prasanna, it all begins by trusting the audience. "My audience is as intelligent or more intelligent than me," she points out and decides to go from there with her latest production Kathaiyalla Vaazhkai

From the page to the stage

And so an empty stage in a dark theatre turned into the living room of a middle-class family, a marathadi and a mighty aaru, a school premises and the aftermath of a bull race. There was not a shed of disbelief.

When a teacher from an MNC-like school shows up offering admission for the child who is barely of preschool age, you know it isn't an exaggeration. The egregious contortion of what makes a good 'village story' for a TV journalist would have you cringe but you’ve been witness before.

When two seemingly empowered women - a school teacher and a panchayat president - present the darker side of their personal prisons, it may give you pause; for how many of us look beyond statistics and second-hand stories for reality?

When a Dalit woman recounts a harrowing tale of her husband's murder, you are hit with the heaviness of such a life; even as you remember one news report after another of similar suffering. Four of Imayam's short stories - Offer, Manalurin Kathai, Veedum Kadhavum and Nanmaran Kottaikkathai - provided the genesis for this production.

Yet, there was plenty of Prasanna written across it. Be it in the rendition of a familiar Tamizh song as a widowed woman remembers her life with her lost husband; the personification of an average man’s mind voice as he assesses the stranger at his doorstep; the creative use of masks as metaphors.

Mindful of the freedom offered by the visual and incredibly physical medium, Prasanna takes the risk to push beyond Imayam;s words - bring to life what's left to the silence between the lines.

And so you get a dramatic recreation of a lone man;s helplessness against the violence of an angry, upper-caste village, his love for the maadu he bought with the last of his money and raised with all his love, the wife's resistance as she is forced to admit that the murder she witnessed of her husband was a freak accident, and her agony as she gives in to save the lives of her children.

Within the confines of the compact theatre, Melody Dorcas' wail shocked every member of the audience into stark reality. Imayam himself was moved to tears at the reproduction of his work. 

Of risk and rewards

After the lights came on and the actors had made their bows, praise came pouring in. For Prasanna Ram Kumar's singing, Janaki Suresh and Smrithi Parameshwar's discourse, Antony Janagi and Kamaldeep’s casual brilliance, and Raghavendra and Jenny Bharathi’s deft presence.

And most of all, for Prasanna’s grand experiment to trust in the linearity of the story, without the crutch of stage design or props. How does she feel with the success of the experiment, I ask. "I'm glad it worked," quips Prasanna.

"Half the time, when you discover that you can crack something, make something work - that is the excitement. Then, the excitement takes form when with actors who can bring it together. The challenge is walking the bridge; you have to make the actors walk half the bridge and make it theirs. Then, it becomes complete," she shares. 

On his part, Imayam was glad that the stories he had written years ago still find resonance and rapture in reproduction. And he couldn't be happier with this particular adaptation.

"All I do is give them (Prasanna and team) some words; they bring it to life. When words take form as scenes, that affects the audience in a whole other way. That is the strength of the visual medium," he points out. If this will take his stories to those who can't come to it by page, that's all he needs. 

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