Is ‘realism’ a dirty word in Tamil theatre?

March 14, 2017 § Leave a comment


When Dr.Padma Subhramanyam decided to found an Institute in the name of Bharata, the ‘ legendary ‘author of ‘Natya Sastra’, the then Chief Minister of Tamilnadu suggested the name of Ilango, no less ‘legendary’ for that matter and the author of ‘Cilappadikaram’, one of the foremost epics in Tamil, be also included. The celebrated and scholarly exponent of ‘Bharata Natyam’ did not hesitate to add his name,( the more the merrier), as what we know ,as of now, about our ancient Indian theatre is primarily from these two books, though it cannot be ruled out that both names ‘Bharata’ (‘actor’) and ‘Ilango’ (‘younger prince’) could be fictitious.
Though it becomes a loaded political debate in the contemporary context to discuss to what extent these two ancient languages Sanskrit and Tamil influenced each other, there is no denying the fact that the concept of a pan-Indian theatrical vision, existed in the collective cultural consciousness of the people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari from time immemorial.
Sanskrit was never a spoken language but was only a ‘cultivated language’ to function as the lingua franca among the intellectuals belonging to the whole cultural region called Bharat, like English is in our contemporary India. There was a steady and uninterrupted flow of cultural exchanges in the field of Art, literature and theatre in those eras between the various regions of the country, ,which, then ,was not broken up by narrow linguistic walls.. The cultural integration between the various ethnic groups in this country had taken place in the dim periods of pre-history and proto-history.
‘Natya’ (Sanskrit) and ‘Koothu’ (Tamil) both meaning ‘theatre’ are as ancient as the literary culture of these two languages It is not impossible to believe that the Tamil word ‘koothu’ has its origin from the word ‘koorru’ ( speech). Tolkappiyam, the most ancient Tamil grammar, has codified under what circumstances and situation the hero can speak(‘koorru’), the heroine can speak, the friend of the heroine can speak, the foster-mother of the heroine can speak etc. So it looks like the entire gamut of ‘akam’ literature was
conceived as theatre by Tolkappiyam and the speech could be either a monologue or dialogue, in which case, the words ‘koothu’ and ‘koorru’ are synonymous.
The foremost and enduring aim of any Indian art form in Tamil or Sanskrit, be it theatre ,music, literature, sculpture or painting is to elevate the recipients by arousing their emotional response, which is precisely called or categorized as ‘rasa’.. The word ‘rasa’ has its etymological root in ‘ras’ (to taste, to relish) and these sentiments are enumerated as eight in number such as rati(love), hasa(mirth) soka (sorrow),krodha( anger), utsaka( valour), bhaya (fear), jugupsa (disgust) and vismaya (marvel) and this codification is with reference to theatre, according to Bharata’s ‘Natyasastra’.
The Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam calls ‘rasa’ as ‘suvai’ and also classifies it as eight and although, by and large the sentiments are the same as in Sanskrit, , Perasiriyar, the 14th century commentator for Tolkappiyam, includes ‘Naduvu nilamai’ (detachment) as one of the emotional states for a successful portrayal of a character in a drama. This is not ‘Santha rasa’ as prescribed for the epics in Sanskrit poetics but akin to the concept of ‘alienation’ as postulated by the German playwright and Director Brecht, as the bottom line of good acting. The actor should alienate himself emotionally from the character he is portraying so that he would be in a better position to consciously project that character well on the stage.
Rasa, the plot and the hero/heroine constitute the intrinsic aspects of any ancient Indian play. It is the main thread of the plot and the experiences of the hero/ heroine that generally determine rasa of the play and once the rasa is determined, it exercises in turn a strong influence on the other two effecting modifications in the plot and in the behavior of the principal character. Anything detrimental to the already established rasa of the play needs to be sacrificed and as such, the casualty is the individuality of characters. This is one of the reasons that in many of our ancient plays, characters are type-cast like the hero/heroine being endowed with all the good qualities and the villain as an incarnation of evil. This non-realistic nature of the plot and characters demands a histrionic art largely based on stylized and symbolic movements We are not very far from this dramatic convention in many of our so-called ‘realistic’ plays in Tamil produced now, as declamations and exaggerated gestures are seen much in evidence.

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