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Vol. XXVII No. 16, December 1-15, 2017

The culture divide

Nowadays, it would seem if you are not outspokenly “for” something, you are taken to be “against” it. The middle path is pitfalls for the unwary. Express admiration for English, protagonists of Hindi exchange dark and meaningful looks. Criticise Indian films, and promptly someone within hearing dares you to declare that you are in favour of “Hollywood vulgarity”. And so it goes. Sitting on a wall (if only because you happen to like the view on both sides) is a precarious occupation, and there is always someone around hoping to pick up the pieces when you fall.

This instinctive desire to define your loyalties and stick at any cost to your own side of the fence is, I think, unfortunately becoming more and more evident in cultural field. It is no exaggeration (however much you wish it were) that except for a few uncommitted ones – and, of course those who get free passes – the audience at a Bharata Natyam is quite different from the one you might encounter at a Kathakali performance. The two are, by and large, mutually exclusive, if not antagonistic. And the division is still wider when it is a question of, say, a Tamil drama, on the one hand, and a local production of an English play, on the other. Even when there exists no problem of language, a self-imposed barrier seems to cut off any mutual interest or exchange of ideas.

From the point of view of attendance, the English play suffers most – and this is sometimes a pity. The Night of the Iguana, staged recently by the Madras Players, definitely deserved a larger, if not a more responsive audience. In appeal, it was admittedly not in the same class as Server Sundaram, but, all the same, you noted with regret that, from the demure (and, alas, so persuasive) programme-sellers, to the company executive disporting himself in the front row in a disarmingly informal bush-shirt, local patronage for the play came almost exclusively from what one might call the “smart set”. No doubt their loyalties are also fixed. Quite uncharitably, you felt that a good number of them came there to like – but only to like – what they saw. The comments you overheard during the interval were “frank”, and occasionally the present show was compared to the “one I saw in New York last time I was abroad.” Not being in a position to verify this assessment (but otherwise only too conscious of the drawbacks a producer here has necessarily to face) you turned away, a little sad that local initiative and talent had been found wanting.

But in actual fact, local talent did acquit itself rather well on that occasion – and that is why, I think, the production would have proved of interest to a larger and more varied audience. In choosing a Tennessee Williams play, particularly soon after the film had been exhibited in Madras, the producer perhaps revealed a rare measure of courage. It is certainly to his credit that, after the show, you came away with your respect for that courage still intact. Competent (if not brilliant) acting, imaginative use of stage props and lighting, and deft direction set Iguana free from the limitations you normally associate with “amateur” productions in this country. Top acting honours go to Snehalata Reddy, whose sensitive rendering of the role of Hannah won enthusiastic praise from critic and layman alike.

I do not mean to imply that Iguana was the most significant cultural event of the season. Its failings (apart from your own reservations regarding indigenous talent) were obvious. To begin with, you felt that the choice of an open-air theatre (situated almost on the seashore) was not a particularly happy one in this case. It somehow put you “out of touch” with Williams, let you escape that sense of being trapped in a situation. Whatever advantage the production gained from a setting remarkably close to the one visualised by the author, a great deal of the impact was destroyed by, of all things, a strong, cross-wind from the sea, which distracted the audience and worse still, snatched away the words almost before the actors had a chance to utter them. Even when the script did not warrant it, the people on the stage seemed to be shouting at one another.

And while the curtains flapped convincingly in the wind and the lights flashed ominously to simulate the storm outside, too often had you to strain to catch the rumblings of the “inner storm” which gives point and purpose to the Williams play.

Iguana, according to some, is one of the less successful plays staged so far by the Madras Players. If that is indeed the case, the contention that this gifted and enterprising group deserves greater attention gains weight. The Madras Players present an aspect of the theatre, however limited or “alien”, which promises good entertainment for the discerning, and worthwhile lessons for many producers of Indian plays I can think of.

Balaji Cllipping path

K.P. Balaji (1926-76) died in an air crash in Bombay. From Kathakali in Kerala, he moved to Marg, that cultural journal in Bombay. JoiningThe Illustrated Weekly of India, he was with it from 1954 to 1961. He then got into advertising with S.H. Benson’s and rose to be one of its Directors.His son, K.P. Karunakaran, settled in Australia, put together a collection of his writings and published them as a commemoration of his father’s 40th death anniversary. Over the next few issues, we publish a few of Balaji’s Madras-focused articles that appeared in The Illustrated Weekly in 1964-65.

TODAY’S ARTICLE IS ON THEATRE IN MADRAS.

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