Ramu Ramanathan, raconteur extraordinaire, on the stories he'd love to bring to the stage
Ramu Ramanathan's deep understanding of India’s social and cultural heritage, eagerness to research documented and undocumented realities, and a remarkable ability to weave it all into an engaging narrative makes him one of India’s finest playwrights today
Editor's note: This interview is part of a series where playwrights talk about the script/s they never managed to stage.
A conversation with Ramu Ramanathan is like traversing an atlas, a history book and a world politics journal simultaneously. His deep understanding of India’s social and cultural heritage, eagerness to research documented and undocumented realities, and a remarkable ability to weave it all into an engaging narrative makes him one of India’s finest playwrights today.
The acclaimed playwright-director is renowned for works such as Cotton 56, Polyester 84; Jazz; Comrade Kumbhakarna and more. Writing and editing is a big part of who he is. He published a collection of eight plays titled 3, Sakina Manzil and Other Plays, helmed Prithvi Theatre’s newsletter PT Notes and is currently also the editor of PrintWeek India and WhatPackaging? magazines. Furthermore, his mind serves as an archival vault for unstaged plays that remain at different stages of research and ideation. Ask him about any unfinished work that he wants to complete, Ramu laughs, “Yes, lots. They’re all in my head. There are some I know I’ll do a 100 percent, the research for them is underway. Then there are some that I want to write but haven’t gotten around to researching them. I have two unperformed, partially published plays. I might chisel them a little but not really do a massive rewrite.”
These two plays are based on real-life personalities who have had profound impacts in the arts and social spaces in India. The first one is a bio-sketch portrait of KH Ara, a significant part of Mumbai’s Progressive Artists’ Group and founder of the Artists’ Centre. The play is set in the '40s when Ara, whose career began with landscapes and social themes, gained much popularity for his female nudes and still life paintings. “He was a houseboy, a car cleaner, a Satyagrahi, an artist and such an influential member of the PAG. He was a contemporary of Raza, Souza and Husain, and yet remains largely unknown amongst these luminaries today,” says Ramanathan. Acclaimed director Jaimini Pathak is set to direct this play.
Overlapping with this timeline is another play set in 1944, based on the life and legend of Godavaribai Parulekar. An extraordinary woman from a “highly protected Pune Brahmin family, Godavaribai was part of the major Warli uprising post World War II". “The civil agitations you see even today in Palghar and Dahanu are all part of the legacy of her and her husband’s works. Her presence on the ground and in mass agitations was phenomenal. Her privileged background aside, she was instrumental in mobilising the aggrieved and giving them a voice,” Ramanathan says.
While the two plays on real-life luminaries will undergo some level of refining, Ramanathan’s mental archive is replete with decades worth of information for two other plays he’s itching to write. Being a journalist too, research is a big part of his raison détre. And the process of doing research essentially involves a lot of reading, something he enjoys immensely. “Doing research has become a habit now. I’m not a historian or a scholar so to speak; I suppose I’m compensating for some deficiency from my student days. One of the plays that’s just been completed is set around the time of World War I in India. While doing the primary phase of research that involves collating neutral information available about what transpired in Mumbai at the time, a few other aspects emerged. One was the question of Indian nationalism set in the time between 1850 and 1925, coming down all the way to the sort of ultra-nationalism one sees around the world today,” adds Ramanathan.
Around this time, there were about 7-8 political affiliations being formed in the city, interestingly in its southern tip. The RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha, Communist Party of India, arrival of Gandhiji and Dr Ambedkar into the city — creating a sort of tussle for affiliation. This happened while unknown peasants and farmers were put on ships and sent off to Flanders to fight a war for the British that nobody understood. He says, “If you study that time, look through the speeches of some of these guys (some of whom were booked for sedition or were under the gaze of the British police), what emerged is that theatre was an adhesive to seemingly unrelated events in Mumbai. A lot of these plays were staged in South Mumbai, in the red-light areas… some of them were official, some other unofficial… I’ve spoken to two important scholars who have studied this time. These stories are so fascinating.”
Ramanathan admits that like any good journalist, if you’re writing a 300 word story, you do research for about 10,000. There was a lot of fun in reading up on the personal stories of the people who fought on the continent, people who fought in Mesopotamia etc. “Going through those letters and archival material that were with the then British police (now Mumbai police), it’s astonishing just how much information there is.” Ask him at what point does he decide to stop delving deeper and moving on with the writing, he says, “I’m trained to be a playwright. So I might research like a journalist, but I think like a playwright. I know that this will ultimately be a play, it’s a form that I’m seeking and looking at. There will come a time when you know just what makes for good storytelling on stage.”
Another story that Ramanathan wants to write finds its roots in the Mathura rape case of 1972. The story of the custodial rape of a young Adivasi girl by two policemen saw much public anguish. The High Court set aside a sessions court judgment that stated her being habituated to intercourse, therefore making her consent implicit. The high court held that passively submitting out of fear cannot be construed as consent. While this judgment was historic, the Supreme Court of India’s ghastly reversal of the high court judgment on grounds of no visible signs of struggle, saw the acquittal of the accused. This led to much public outcry and gave birth to many women’s rights groups whose activists went on to become leading voices in matters of gender equality over the years. “Every single time I sat down to write about this, something else was playing on outside that would make me stop. Whether it was the cases of the '90s, the bar dancers in the subsequent decade, or even Nirbhaya, there was something even more horrific happening simultaneously. The idea to write this play was to contextualise the independent women’s autonomous movement. Over time the sexual violence of that play got diminished because of what’s been happening. One wouldn’t want to be seeing as tapping on the hysteria that surrounds such major movements,” he says.
Ramanathan has worked out all the characters and situations, with the tone of the play needing some more time and thought. Over three decades, Ramanathan has accumulated copious notes, while meeting extraordinary women who have participated in various movements that sought better rights and justice for women. “It is undoubtedly a play about what happened to Mathura and the aftermath, but it is the kind of atrocity and travesty of justice that has manifested again and again through various instances, each time questioning the middle-class morality of a woman’s identity. As recent as the Pinjar Tod autonomous movement in Delhi, there are young college girl students finding unique and effective ways to raise their voices and question society’s need to pigeon-hole them. I’ve imagined this play to open with a rock song, because what better than rock to be a voice of protest!”
BEST WRITING LESSONS:
Ramanathan’s strong social conscience permeates through his works though over the years he’s learned to detach from his writing once it’s published. The enthusiasm of a first-time playwright-director saw him travel a lot with the play The Boy Who Stopped Smiling. “The play had a lucky run of many shows, typically doing a lot of houseful shows. Noted Indian playwright Vijay Tendulkar came for one such show. After the performance he met me and said ‘Your job is that of a playwright. Focus on the writing. Don’t get too caught up with the magical world of shows. You need to detach yourself from it once you’ve written it.”
Like most theatrewallahs who consider themselves to be children of Samuel Beckett, Ramanathan says he’s learnt to minimalise, to enjoy the simplicity of theatre from the acclaimed playwright. “How plays can be constructed, how effective you can be in all that you do, how you don’t need the spectacular or too much drama, all these are vital lessons from Beckett. The point at which he wrote became a good point of departure for all of us.”
There are still so many fascinating stories that Ramanathan is set to revive. Let’s hope this conversation of unfinished works will be another good point of departure for one of the best raconteurs of India.
Listen to Ramu Ramanathan read from Sangeet Gavrilo Princip: