Prasanna Ramaswamy blends politics and theatre yet again, with 'Madhaiah the Cobbler'
Like Madhaiah, many of Prasanna Ramaswamy's works are set in a historical and mythological context, but there is also a contemporaneity about each play that she devises.
As Madhaiah struts across the Museum theatre delivering his dialogues in a deep and rich voice, somewhere in the audience sits Prasanna Ramaswamy, anxiety writ large upon her face. Madhaiah the Cobbler, staged for the first time in Chennai, is her 23rd full-length production, but for Prasanna this is as important as her first.
Written by Kannada playwright HS Sivaprakash and produced by The Madras Players, Madhaiah the Cobbler had Prasanna Ramaswamy take up the direction and choreography. The play is all about how the Guddas (elements of nature – displaced mountains, rivers and tribals) meet with a cobbler called Madhaiah (an incarnation of Shiva) and take up the task of saving Mother Earth from the tyrannical King Samana who had already enslaved the Moon and the Sun. Interspersed with songs on Shiva set to the music of guitars, Madhaiah is as contemporary as it is radical. It has a cobbler audaciously telling a mighty king to ask him to show respect so ‘he could learn’.
Prasanna’s strength perhaps lies in attention to detail. Despite there being many characters in the play, none seem out of place. With over 30 years of experience, Prasanna possibly does this with poise. “I started off in the 80s and learnt just by hanging around with Na Muthusamy (a theatre veteran who founded Koothu Pattarai). I used to help out in productions in different capacities, jumping into adapt, co-directing with a non Tamil speaking director, getting a show ready as the assigned director would come just a day before the show to brush up and refine the edges... And even playing a full-fledged role when we couldn't find an actor,” Prasanna reminisces.
It may look out-of-place for someone who has come a long way, but Prasanna says she has come full circle in a sense. “When I started off, I wanted to go to National School of Drama (NSD) Delhi or the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. But my family was so orthodox, they wouldn’t even listen. To think that I was invited to create a piece for the National School Of Drama Bengaluru Graduation programme and direct it... Doesn’t it make the circle complete?” she asks.
Like Madhaiah, many of Prasanna's works are set in a historical and mythological context, but there is also a contemporaneity about each play that she devises. If Madhaiah was about the ‘empowerment of the marginalised to resist the anti-people ruler’, her previous work Kandava Vanam portrayed as a story of Krishna and Arjuna’s brave deeds is more than that. It is a story of the natural owners of the forest who get displaced, torched and ruined because of the power-hungry, land-grabbing royalty.
Prasanna Ramaswamy calls this intertextuality. “My plays are known for their intertextuality. Mostly, I work on texts built and arranged by me, where I put together excerpts from Greek or Tamil classical texts, musical compositions, poetry, my own writing — all to evoke a resonance or rather resonances of the central thread, mostly dwelling on war, displacement due to war, and urbanisation; all stemming from the greed of political power. The mythological themes that I have worked on so far sprang from the political references and the contemporary readings they offer. It is not as if I attempt to present politics through mythology, but it is my way of 'reading' a text. In our times, I find it funny that we don't attempt to read into the polyphony of texts. For me, the text is sacred. I know Krishna only through the Azhwars and Jayadeva or Nataraja only through Manickavasagar or that great nameless sculptor. Those are for me art, not religion, and so is mythology; they are texts to be read and reinterpreted. Works of art are open for reading. And it is through art that I understand where I come from, how I am in a certain situation and why I am reading something in a certain way. I stop in my tracks and try and throw myself open to experience and get into the text, into the bronze of Nataraja. Then Panchali opens up a world where she becomes an embodiment of nature and the violation is not just physical, but much more; it magnifies the violent inadequacies of maleness and the extraordinary tenacity of femaleness,” she says.
For Prasanna, Karna is more than just a giver or a great warrior. He is an embodiment of all soldiers from ‘Tirunelveli to Bihar, standing at the LOC and taking a bullet just to glorify a government, and falling prey to arms trade’.
As a result, Prasanna’s plays are always political, irrespective of the genre they fall into. “I think all of us are political and all our acts are political, either this way or that. What my conviction is, which direction my interpretations of mythology take or or the way I build my intertextual text determine my persona, reveal where I stand. Over and above the form, the aesthetics and honesty of form, too, have their own politics. To make political statements in the name of art without transcendence doesn't serve the cause or the art,” she says.
Thamizhachi Thangapandian, renowned Tamil poet and thespian, argues it is precisely this quality that separates Prasanna from the rest of her contemporaries. “I first met Prasanna in the early 2000s and approached her on my own to work with her. What I find striking about her work is that she has a strong political message but she never compromises on the aesthetics of theatre. There is no propaganda in her theatre, no rhetoric in her works, but at the end of it, Prasanna leaves you feeling strongly about certain issues. While we continue to argue about whether art is for art’s sake or for people, Prasanna says both are possible through her works,” says Thamizhachi.
What is noteworthy about her plays is also that Prasanna intersperses them with poetry which adds different and deeper layers to the context. In Kandava Vanam, Prasanna says she had wanted to think and give form to the tale of Indraprastha, not by looking at its beauty but rather looking at the people who built it and how they are similar to the people of Bihar who leave their behind their home and hearth to build high-rises elsewhere. “Naturally a poem by Sithalingaiya on construction workers, which he wrote three decades ago, comes and sits in that play,” she says.
Thamizhachi says as a poet, she has found Prasanna’s use of poetry ‘extremely fascinating.’ “She has a strong sense of music and poetry. Prasanna is passionate about both. She could use a verse from Silappadhikaram and a modern poet, and still contextualise it. Prasanna is someone who could explore theatre in all its shades. When I work with her, I somehow feel it helps chisel my poetry too,” she adds.
For Prasanna, theatre should be exciting and full of surprises. “It should bring joy. This happens through the interpretation of a text in many layers. A poem, a song, a sound, a painting is as much part of the lingo, as valid as the spoken word for me. Also, we introduce our character into all that we do. I, too, am filled with all this art,” she says.
Nikhila Kesavan, an artist who is part of Madhaiah the Cobbler among many other plays, says it is both a challenge and treat to be part of Prasanna’s works as an actor. “That's because she works with music and dance in all her productions. Working with her is always a wonderful experience and always leads to learning,” she says.
Thamizhachi couldn’t agree more. “If you work with her, Prasanna is also concerned about your mental and physical health. Flexibility and fitness is very important for her. She wants her actors to be avid readers too,” she adds.
Is it not challenging to direct a play that is set in a mythological context, I ask Prasanna. “Theatre itself is a challenge. Nothing can be a greater challenge than making a text, an idea, a discourse transform into theatre. The only way is to keep on pushing oneself to find that interior landscape where one's own memories are embedded, revisit one's own times and cull out a performance text," she explains.
"Theatre is very liberating in itself. There is no discrimination there – no man, woman or body. Prasanna makes theatre more enriching for actors like us. She lives her life through theatre,” says Thamizhachi.
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