Great Literature Should Refuse the Hegemony of Its Times: On Komal Swaminathan’s Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer and the Need to Resist Anti-Poor Sentiments

Just in the last few days two people have written to me about Komal Swaminathan’s great Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer, proving that thirty-five years after it was first staged the play continues to resonate across the world. The play, which I translated into English as Water!, deals with themes of poverty, drought and crises of democratic governance. The news from everywhere suggests, unfortunately, that these are not issues of the past—the setting is a humble village in South India, the real drama far more general.

From Chennai Pennathur Ramakrishna of Madras Players, the oldest still active English language theater group in India, writes that they are planning to revive my English translation on the stage in November. Madras Players staged my English translation for the first time in Chennai’s historic Museum Theatre in 2012. Mr. Ramakrishna had stumbled across my translation in a bookstore in Chennai. He was familiar with the celebrated performances in 1981 of the original Tamil version, directed by Komal Swaminathan himself, and was moved to attempt the play in English. So successful was that attempt that now they are reviving it “by popular demand” (as Mr. Ramakrishna puts it).

A few days after Mr. Ramakrishna wrote to me a message arrived asking whether I had access to the original Tamil text of Swaminathan’s play—a South Asian theater company in California is exploring the possibility of staging the play in the original Tamil. Bonded laborer Vellaisamy, Swaminathan’s heroic protagonist, had to murder his cruel master just to escape the village of his birth. But now it appears he might be traveling all the way to California!

It is terrific to see Thaneer, Thaneer receive this kind of attention. The play is legendary in Tamil theater circles and deserves to be known widely. There is also a personal reason why this attention is gratifying. When I translated the play I first contacted a reputed editor in New Delhi about publishing it—this was before Naveen Kishore and Seagull Books in Kolkata, really the best home for the play because of their distinguished drama list, understood the true value of the play and put my translation in print. I got a reply from the New Delhi editor, who will remain nameless, deeming the play dated and out-of-step with the times.

It was 1999 and no doubt the play was then, as it is now, out of sync with the shocking and facile anti-poor sentiments that surround us. In his play, Swaminathan shows that the poor must not be regarded as objects of our or the state’s largesse but rather as (potential) agents of their own destiny. The play, about which I have written in a scholarly vein in several places, is not without its blindnesses but it stakes out with great passion and art uncomfortable truths about the plight of the poor. That is what makes the play so relevant—more relevant than ever with every passing year. The play is great literature because it resists the hegemony of its times—such resistance is not a sufficient condition of literary greatness but it is, I would think, a necessary one.


Shakespeare Was Wrong–All the World’s Not a Stage: Sexuality and Freedom in Chennai

[Note—Picture Credits: Mohandas Vadakara]

I recently saw Marappachi’s play Naanga Ready (We Are Ready) in Chennai. In an open-air auditorium called Spaces on Elliot’s Beach Road, I sat with the capacity audience on jamakaalams spread out over sandy ground. The evening was sultry and the Bay of Bengal lapped at the Chennai shoreline a short walk away. On the crowded beach, where I had gone for a stroll before coming to the play, vendors of all kinds plied their wares. The old and the young, the rich and the poor, had come to the beach to escape the heat. They strolled down to the water or else sat on a low wall to watch. Couples promenaded… no…

No, that won’t do. It won’t do to blithely write couples; as far as the world knew, heterosexual couples promenaded, sometimes with their families. If there were people on the beach who were not heterosexual (and surely there were), they were not visible.

IMG (264) A

That was the beach. Inside the auditorium, things were different, for Naanga Ready tries to make visible that which society renders invisible. In a series of vignettes loosely held together by the characters, the play explores the impossible gender choices that society forces upon us. Mangai is the director and presiding impresario of the play, which was written by Prema Revathi based on interviews conducted by Sumathi Murthy and Sunil Mohan. Mangai is a veteran of alternative Tamil theatre in Chennai. Her roots are in equal measure in indigenous performance traditions like koothu and political theater from around the world (she is, I know, a keen reader of Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Both influences were apparent in Naanga Ready. The set design—a clothesline from which clothes and body dummies hung, a net from behind which a gay character spoke of his tortured relationship to his mother—was abstract and suggestive; and the impressive concluding sequences of the play featured folk traditions, including the performance of divine possession, prominently.

IMG (273) A

Rather than narrative drama, Naanga Ready is “movement theater” meant to articulate positions and provoke reflection. Ideas rather than narrative are at the heart of the play. That the play goes about its serious activist task without compromising entertainment value is an indication of its success. Naanga Ready initially makes its points about the “constructedness” of gender identities through humor. The powerful opening scenes of the play, set in a school for “gender correction,” are horrifyingly hilarious. Later the play turns more somber when the characters—representing a range of trans identities and sexual orientations—set out into the world to find jobs, housing, relationships, a measure of joy and security that the “normal” heterosexual world takes for granted. Based on actual interviews, these aspects of the play has an air of reality about it. The play’s strength is in creating for the audience through a cast that delivered strong performances a temporary space of safety where difficult truths can be spoken and acknowledged. (See the Naanga Ready leaflets in Tamil and English below for full credits.)

Shakespeare was wrong. All the world’s not a stage. Sometimes, thankfully, the stage is a welcome refuge from the unrelenting cruelties of the world. It is a bounded space of exploration in which to articulate ideas and desires ruled out of bounds in the world. Not all boundaries are bad. Theater has a long and distinguished tradition of calling intolerance to account from within its bounded space. Naanga Ready belongs proudly to this history. It calls to strict account the prejudices of the world at large, so blissfully taking the air on the beach nearby.


Nanga-Ready-A4-leaflet-English (1)