As evening falls on a street in Pushpanagar in Nungambakkam, Chennai, tucked well into the one of those arterial enclaves of lanes and by-lanes that take off from the main road and remain invisible for the commuters on the main thoroughfares of the metropolis, it presents the routine sights and sounds of another day winding down. Children are making the most of the light left of the day to squeeze in another quick outdoor game before they are summoned indoors; passing vendors ply their trade; the dogs with their turf sense of the street bark occasionally and tentatively at the few strangers who are setting up lights for one of those numerous impromptu occasions that make an Indian street come alive. A fight in a tenement block is gathering choral body and momentum.
Suddenly, a strong, raw, rhythmic percussion, that is so quintessentially folksy Tamil, strikes up and slices through all this, heralding a procession of about 16 performers who swing and sway into the street keeping time to the beat. They complete a circle and in the process, eke out the space and setting for their performance. There is no audience ready and waiting. The play begins and within the first few minutes, a crowd has ringed around the performance area as naturally and spontaneously as the actors who have got the act going.
It is one of the over 50 plays conceived and directed by the ace playwright and director (and himself an accomplished actor), Pralayan and his very talented group, Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, who have pioneered and sustained a progressive, politically and socially purposive, culture of theatre in Tamil for over three decades now.
“The play is about families uprooted from the villages, travelling to the city in search of a better livelihood. ”
Not all of them are street plays. Some are cast for the proscenium stage. But the street is clearly Pralayan’s métier. The abandon and instantaneity that take hold of the actors becomes infectious and makes the viewers interlocutors rather than just passive witnesses of a spectacle. Children watching the play are laughing helplessly. Women are nodding in emphatic approval as the punch lines on gender discrimination and need for rebellion, are driven home. The men begin by looking faintly amused but can’t help becoming transfixed by the energy and fervour with which an injustice is exposed, or a cause espoused. Their identification with the theme is total. The play is clearly working. You can see it on the faces of those who have gathered and stay on their feet, engaged and responsive, through the entire hour of its duration. That instant and palpable feedback seems, in turn, to re-energise the actors and drive them to push the limits of their resourcefulness. It is a frisson of organic mutuality.
This particular play, ‘Payanam’ (Journey) was first staged 17 years ago. And yet, astonishingly, it seemed scripted for now. So little has changed since. It is about families uprooted from the villages, travelling to the city in search of a better livelihood, and the ever so many ways in which the city rejects and reviles and ghettoises them. Their pain and suffering come poignantly alive through songs that are wrenchingly evocative and hauntingly melodic; through percussion that sets the heart pounding with anxiety or anger; through graceful, choreographed movements that weave a spell and draw us as if into an epiphany; through alternately intense and throwaway mock dialogues that underscore a political or social home truth and find a sure responsive chord in the viewers. And when it ends, it is as if one journey has ended and another that sets us in search of answers has begun deep within our hearts. It is as if the journey has become a rite of passage.
(The writer is a well-known media personality and Chairman, Asian College of Journalism.)