Born in the turbulent 80s, when theatre groups had hundreds of cases slapped against them, Chennai-based playwright-activist Pralayan’s troupe finds even more reason today for cultural expressions of dissent
At 60, street theatre activist Pralayan has no plans to retire. “In fact, now is the time when we should be doing more work,” he says. “For things that are happening around us, shouldn’t we have at least four street plays every day, telling people what it is all about?” For him, theatre — especially street theatre — is all about showing a mirror to society.
Flipping through the pages of Halla Bol: The Death and Life of Safdar Hashmi by Sudhanva Deshpande with characteristic tenderness, Pralayan, a member of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association (TNPWAA), appears unconcerned about his own group, Chennai Kalai Kuzhu, turning 35. Since its inception in 1984, Chennai Kalai Kuzhu has worked on contemporary issues, amplified marginalised voices and brought a new, refreshing dimension to theatre in Tamil Nadu. “You cannot still call it a pioneer,” he says. “There were many people who did street theatre before us, but Chennai Kalai Kuzhu was perhaps more detailed.”
After college in Tiruvannamalai — where he ran a film society — Pralayan moved to Chennai in 1984, to learn computer programming. But life had different plans. He and his friends became involved in organising a strike against a garment factory. “My comrades gave up their cushy jobs for this and for other protests. It was stunning. And inspiring.” Pralayan too gave up his job to take up theatre. That same year he launched Chennai Kalai Kuzhu — the TNPWAA was hosting a theatre festival and needed its own troupe. The group has over 50 members today.
The early 80s were turbulent times. Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran was in hospital and the headless government unleashed a state of police raj. There were lock-up deaths and police excesses in the name of curbing Naxalites. Theatre groups were punished for being outspoken. “Theatre practitioners like Ashwagosh and groups like Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam had cases slapped against them. The latter had done a play based on an agricultural labourer burnt alive in Bihar. Forums that screened the film Maa Bhoomi were booked,” he says. Some 300-plus sedition cases were slapped against theatre practitioners, audience members, media people and even a Bharatanatyam dancer.
The criminalisation of dissent became the subject of Chennai Kalai Kuzhu’s first play — Naangal Varugirom (We Are Coming) — and there was no turning back. “It was a runaway hit; we showed how the police was running the State and criminalising anyone who dared to raise their voice. We had arrived as a formal theatre group.” Pen (Woman) remains an iconic play — a performance that traces the life of a woman from her birth, her life as a second-class citizen. U. Vasuki, now a national leader of AIDWA, was its narrator.
Street theatre, however, was a tall order. It was 1987; there was a stampede in Chennai when many young men came for the police selection exams. Inspired by this, Mutrupulli (Full Stop), became the group’s first street play, but it also explored the larger issue of unemployment.
“We also wanted to do 15-20 minute street performances. The challenge in street theatre is getting the attention of the audience and keeping it sustained,” he says. “Unlike audiences in a theatre, the street audience is not prepared — he/ she is only curious and exploring the idea.” They made several short format plays — a satirical play on the 1989 elections, one on the Roop Kanwar episode, one on agrarian loans.
A scene from ‘Veerayi’.
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Murder and revolution
As Chennai Kalai Kuzhu was thinking of innovating with form and content, Safdar Hashmi was killed. “His death gave birth to a new revolution of sorts. He was killed in January 1989 and that April (on Hashmi’s birth anniversary), almost everywhere across India, his plays were enacted.” Halla Bol, the play Hashmi was staging when killed, was translated into Tamil as Urakka Pesu and staged to a rousing audience on Marina Beach.
“His death was a deep personal loss to us,” says Pralayan. “We were at a crossroads; we didn’t know which direction to take. Badal Sarkar suggested that we have to give up every other form of theatre if we venture into street theatre. We did not want to do that. Hashmi insisted that we should explore all theatre forms — each had its own strength.”
Chennai Kalai Kuzhu’s biggest strength — and success — is that it gave a forum for the common man. “We saw authority from the eyes of an ordinary person, something that has not happened before. In doing so, we made the audience realise its own political importance.”
Pralayan says the space for street theatre is rapidly shrinking. “More so in urban places. Not many groups are aware that you actually don’t require police permission for a street performance that doesn’t disrupt normal life. Sadly, even policemen aren’t aware of it. We require permission only if we use a PA system. Things are getting more difficult — spaces for performance are fast disappearing.”
Does that mean theatre is also disappearing? His answer is a vehement no. “As I said, theatre is a necessary form of protest, it is the cultural expression of dissent. Theatre — both on stage and on the street — will be alive as long as there is a need for dissent, even if the space for dissent is shrinking.”
What could better emphasise this than the reception to Pralayan’s 2018 play on Kashmir, which brought together aspects of Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and the Kashmir incident where a civilian was made a human shield. “After the abrogation of Article 370 last year, we staged the play in several places. For many, it was a powerful articulation of the pain of Kashmiris — something all of us ought to feel.”
As long as there is a demand for such plays, as long as there is the need for dissent in the form of theatre, Chennai Kalai Kuzhu will remain relevant. “We will continue to protest in the form that we know best. There are even more reasons now,” says Pralayan, holding the Halla Bol book close to his chest.
The writer is a Chennai-based independent journalist and translator.
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