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Vol. XXIX No. 6, July 1-16, 2019

The Rhodes scholar who took to the Madras stage

Vishalam Ekambaram and Gayatri Krishnaswami, Founding members of the Madras Players

Page 7

A scene from The Private Ear and Public Eye (1967), Girish Karnad and Vishalam Ekambaram.

In 1965 Girish Karnad literally walked into the Madras Players to play a walk – on part in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. He had just come down from Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar to join the Oxford University Press in Madras (now Chennai). To quote Girish ‘’ Before that unremarkable debut, I had only acted in college skits and although i had already written my first two plays, they had remained on the shelf. The gratifying thing about ‘ am dram ‘ is that one is always needed and can fit in within its chaotic goings on in some capacity or the other, regardless of one’s ability.

During the next few years, as I acted, directed and made myself useful as a prompter, stage-hand or light assistant I learnt everything I know today about the craft of theatre. I was fortunate. most amateur groups are content to indulge the popular demand for ‘light entertainment’ although even that, I now realise, is not very easy to do. But the Madras Players were never short on ambition and we voyaged through some of the best plays in the world – Six Characters in Search of an Author, A View from the Bridge, The Caretaker, Uncle Vanya, Private Ear and Public Eye, Krapps Last Tape. Being with The Madras Players was like going to an elite Drama School. I was with them for five years. During my last couple of years in Madras new plays had begun to appear on the vernacular stage in India and we plunged into translation. We discovered that even in English, Indian plays received from our audience a response far more electric than that generated by our productions of Western plays. Evam Indrajit, Shantata Court Chaloo Aahe, Hayavadana …. it was exciting to be with The Madras Players as they played midwife at the birth of Indian drama in English, and again, as they broke through the circumscribed world of ‘ am dram “ to provide the launching pad for Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s, Samskara, which went on to win international acclaim”.

To us in the Madras Players Girish always remained a friend, As his reputation and fame grew and he became one of India’s foremost playwrights we found him encouraging and generous when we staged his plays. All of us have fond memories. Here is what Vishalam Ekambaram has to say:

Much has been written about Girish Karnad the playwright, the actor and director both in theatre and films,the winner of many prestigious awards and Head of important national institutions. I would therefore like to recall a couple of anecdotes of my personal interaction with him during his early years in Madras.

My first play, with the Madras Players, in 1967 was Private Ear and Public Eye with Girish and Bruno Castalino as my leading actors. I later went on to do Uncle Vanya and the Crucible with Girish as the lead. I remember now with great amusement how Girish and Ammu Mathew had to come home to get permission from my rather orthodox family for me to act. It was given with great reluctance on condition that both Girish and Ammu went to pick me up and drop me home after rehearsals.

The one very important and profound piece of advice which shaped my growth as an actor with the Madras Players was given by Girish. After one of my early plays with the group – No Exit by Sartre he rang me up the day after the first show and told me that while he had no major complaints about my acting abilities I tended to up stage my co-actors which was not good for the play. This is a lesson I have always remembered.

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