Imagining Imayam in theatrical realism

Prasanna Ramaswamy details the plans in place for her next production, Kathaiyalla Vaazhkai — a theatrical expression of some of Imayam’s short stories
Imagining Imayam in theatrical realism

For as long as the written word has been adapted into physical expression, it has invited the criticism that there is always something lost in the translation. Perhaps, so. Yet, for as long as the criticism has survived, artistes and auteurs across the world have continued to keep at that endeavour — to bring words alive, to create the perfect make-believe that transcends the original medium. And so it shall be with Prasanna Ramaswamy’s theatrical expression of Imayam’s short stories, Kathaiyalla Vaazhkai. 

Stories of resonance

The play promises to offer “a bouquet of short stories that look at social and interpersonal tensions, ranging from casteist hierarchy to subtle shades of oppression of women even as the ‘empowerment’ is at work, from the commodification of education to the insane and crony commercialisation of media, all these are transformed into a theatrical experience.” And so, it is all set to showcase the stories Offer, one that examines the private school ‘industry’ through a farce which strongly rests on reality guarantees a few laughs even as it evokes a sigh about the commodification of education; Manalurin Kathai, which trips on the television media ethics through its protagonist, the story almost evokes a Faustian situation; Veedum Kadhavum, a tale that brings forth a conversation between two middle-aged women childhood friends — meeting after a gap of few years, one, a panchayath president and another, a school teacher; Nanmaran Kottaikkathai, a story that juxtaposes the celebration of the annual bull race in a village and the after effects it has on one family. 

Picked from across Imayam’s literary timeline, these stories still have plenty to offer for the people in the here and now, it seems. And that is the reason for mounting this entire production on such material, notes Prasanna, the play’s script writer and director. “Universal themes like ecology, destruction in the name of development, life in exile, miseries of war, fundamental fanaticism, and intolerance — women’s life in all these — have played the central part of my plays. I feel that the contemporary issues of the Tamil milieu that these stories (by Imayam) are highlighting are important to be voiced and heard,” she reasons.

A matter of medium

However, unlike her usual productions that are marked by a maze of music, poetry, dance and paintings, this one will rest completely on the spoken word. The challenge has been to retain the realistic story and its linear progression, yet crack the realism to a certain stylisation as she is convinced that ‘realism’ too is a style that is far away from naturalism. Yet, where do you draw the distinction between realism and naturalism? “I think the moment you go on stage, nothing can be ‘real’.

There are theatres that are fitted with all kinds of technical possibilities like a revolving stage, something that comes up (to the stage) from the basement, etc. Places like the National School of Drama revel in its department of design; they don’t accept anything that happens without a designed backdrop or stage. Again, these are also make-believe, right? I would like tradition; I don’t believe in antiquity but I mean tradition in a very ‘contemporary’ manner.

For me, an empty stage is a place where I want to create. If I have to construct a set to make it look ‘real’, I don’t believe in it. I have to create realism. There was a play I did seven-eight years ago that showed a communal riot after which the Muslims were huddled in one spot. It is namaz time and they are praying but in complete silence. How do you create complete silence on stage? You have to bring in a particular sound to indicate that silence; what I brought in was the sound of the heartbeat. That is the style of realism,” she elaborates. 

To bring these visions to life, Prasanna has a whole crew of talented actors and technicians. There are NSD graduates Antony Janagi and Melody Dorcas, Koothuppattarai Repertory actors Prasanna Ram Kumar and Kamaldeep, BOFTA and of NSD Bangalore graduate Raghavendra, street theatre artiste and activist Jenny Bharathi, film-TV-stage actors Janaki Suresh and Smrithi Parameshwar. The play is presented by Chennai Art Theatre; its founder B Charles will be managing the lights. And there is Gurunathan on props duty. 

Ask her what she would name as a big takeaway from the play and she is quick to quip that she isn’t offering an assembly line product that will have a uniform effect on its audience. After all, the audience is not one homogeneous customer, she points out. “Each one is an individual with their own intellect and sensitivity. My audience is as intelligent or more intelligent than me and our actors. Each one of the actors must be taking away something that is different from the others and I must be taking something different. Just because I am creating the play, it doesn’t mean I am the know-all of this, right?” she says, leaving the task interpretation open to the audience willing to take the chance.

The play will be staged at Medai, Alwarpet, on April 2 at 4 pm and 7 pm. Tickets are available on BookMyShow

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