Rural Phantasy - as a Theatre experience
A great commercial success, but was it an artistic and aesthetic success too?
Kanava, Ninaiva, Kathaiya, Karutha?
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai

March 18, 2006

On March 10, 11 and 12, Chennai witnessed four shows of "Rural Phantasy" an English play, designed and directed by Gowri Ramnarayan. The director states that the inspiration for the theatrical script came from a short story "Kanaiyazhiyin Kanavu" (Dreams of Kanaiyazhi) written by her own grandfather, Kalki Krishnamurthi, set in the year 1941. The play was staged in Chennai as a co-production by The Madras Players and Just Us Repertory.

I call this play a commercial success because on the four occasions when it was shown, the Museum Theatre Hall, where it was staged was full. Another measure of its commercial success lies in the fact that after all the four performances, it received a full throated, spontaneous standing ovation from the audience. The performance was also interspersed with vigorous clapping in between the scenes, (to be precise, after each song rendition by T M Krishna, the celebrated Carnatic vocalist accompanied by a dance choreographed by Lasya Narasimhachari and Gowri Ramnarayan). It has also received a fairly good review from "The Hindu," the most-read English newspaper in South India.

But, do all these factors endorse that the play was a truly aesthetic and artistic expression of theatre? Judging from the comments from a majority of the audience, it does. The comments vary and some of them are as follows:

"T M Krishna's music was magical. I could just shut my eyes and listen to it and be transported to another world." "All the elements ie. music, dance, theatre and humour came together and created an other-worldly experience." "It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening." "The cutting-edge wit and humour embedded in the dialogues were outrageous and funny."

This is the kind of play which I would like to examine not only from the technical aspect consisting of scripting, direction, acting, music, dance, sets, lights etc. but, the ideological aspect comprising of direct and indirect messages, subliminal indications, relevance to the contemporary ethos and milieu etc.

From a technical point of view the first observation I would like to make is that the script is very weak. The story line is very thin and all that the script has done is to extend it to the maximum. In order to hide from the audience the weakness of the text (script), other embellishments have been introduced such as music, dance, satire, elements of phantasy, through video clippings and outlandish props. But all these elements have not been properly integrated into the text, as a result, they stood separate, diverting the attention of the audience, but not enhancing their holistic theatre experience. We do not see any evidence of a superior director's hand either in the structure of the play or in the acting quality of the actors. The acting was tame, stereotypical and mediocre. There were certain actions such as chewing and spitting of pan which was used ad nauseum as a special trait of the villagers which again have to be considered excessive and stereotypical caricaturing. The play had so many unnecessary scenes such as the long discourse by the sutradhar and sutradharni on the merits of English theatre versus Regional theatre and other such pretentious and pompous topics, the Ganesh Puja, with which all traditional auspicious events in India begin, the soothsayer and his predictions which are supposed to be part of a typical village milieu et al. Half an hour was taken up with all these preliminaries which left the audience bored and shifting in their seats. After all, we had not gone to the theatre to watch a temple event, but a contemporary theatre production.

The director was not able to integrate elements such as music and dance into the text of the play in a seamless manner (as the brochures and press notifications indicated). So, one was never sure whether the intervening hand claps from the audience were for T M Krishna's music, the nostalgia evoked by Subramania Bharati's compositions and reminiscences of M S Subbalakshmi's and G N B's singing or for the elegance and overall impact of the theatre piece. While the music in itself was good, the same cannot be said for the quality of dancing. The dances were at best reminders of amateur school dances. Humour consisted mainly of caricaturing everything and everyone connected with a village. So, instead of calling it "cutting-edge" and hilarious, I would like to call it condescending and sinister. The introduction of scenes from Tamil Cinema of the forties, were very puerile and ineffective. The sets and lights by Mitran Devanesan supported the play adequately; but, they were in no way original or awe-inspiring. All in all, the technical aspects of the play cannot in any manner be called original or innovative. If the sum total of the content of the play was aimed at critiquing a Tamilnadu village, it fell short of it for two reasons - first, because it is not relevant to contemporary villages of India, and second, because it suffered from excessive and condescending caricaturing.

If the play was found wanting because of the above technical deficiencies, we could have let it go with a mild criticism. But what was more reprehensible was the ideological content of the play, which was very reactionary and revisionary. Why revive a theme which was probably relevant in the forties and showcase it now? On the surface it seems to be satirizing certain aspects of a typical village of those days. But, what it actually does is depicting a village in all its shortcomings without actually pointing out the salutary aspects and, thus balancing it and presenting a realistic picture. I got the impression that nothing was worthwhile in an Indian village of the forties. While some of the revivalists have a tendency to depict a village as a veritable paradise with no ills at all, here the village is shown as a backward, dirty place with lazy, indolent people and anti-progressive ideas. In short, it is a caricature of a village, which probably did not exist even in the forties in Tamilnadu. Finally when the "reforming woman" departed with her husband and father to Calcutta, the village went back to its old ways. What is the message that such an ending gives to the audience? Whatever progress was brought to the village was directly in response to the obsessive attraction that the males of the village felt for this physically beautiful, charming, witty and intelligent woman. It is seemingly pro-woman, depicting the new woman filled with progressive ideas and a zeal to reform the village.

But, the subliminal message that comes out is that of a woman, educated in Shantiniketan, nibbling at all the surface elements of the Indian National Freedom struggle, arriving at a village, using her physical beauty, wit and charm to make the young and old men of the village change their ways and work hard for the uplifting of the village. The men seem to be working hard to win favours from her and maybe get married to her. But, all their hopes in this respect are shattered when her "Bengali" husband appears on the scene and all three of them - she, her father and her husband depart from the village. Worse still, the play shows that the village goes back to its backwardness and lethargy once again. So, it is clear that the effect of the woman on the men was very transient and not lasting. This kind of a theatrical presentation can at best be called only patriarchal and anti-female and the message it spreads couched in the so-called humour and satire is very dangerous. By the very same assessment, it is anti-male also because it shows all men as unintelligent, indolent and self-seeking.

There are other caricatures in the play, the gossiping and uneducated women, Bharat Mata as a woman in white carrying the tri-colour flag with the "charkha" (spinning wheel) symbol, the early Tamil film depicting the mythical characters, Dushyanta and Shakuntala, the fantasies which the men of the village have about the heroine. In fact, the whole play is full of caricatures only. These probably had some relevance in the forties.

But, do they have any relevance in this day and age? The very act of reviving these and presenting them in a semi- phantasaical and semi-realistic manner smacks of a reactionary and revisionary tendency. In every way it is a cop-out. If the play is criticized for its weak script, mediocre acting and insidious caricatures, the script writer and director can take protection under the arguments that the music was divine, the dances were interesting, and it was all meant to be taken in fun and not as realistic portrayals.
This is precisely why the play has to be criticized not only from the point of view technical deficiencies, but for inducting reactionary and revisionary ideology.

All in all, this play reminded me of commercial theatre and cinema which uses all elements such as music, dance, humour, stunts, chases etc to make it appealing to all sections of a heterogenous audience. The difference is that commercial cinema or theatre does not claim to be anything other than what it is, but in this case there is a pretension of good and even contemporary theatre couched under the entertaining and even seducing elements such as music, dance, satire, seemingly progressive ideas etc. The reception that the play received also proves to me that Chennai for all its cultural pretensions, is ready only for entertainments, extravaganzas, carnivals and melas and not for serious theatre.

Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan is a translator and journalist and holds a PhD in cinema. She is a regular contributor to