Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The dark age of Ponniyin Selvan | Article published in the Times of India

The article can be accessed online at on Page 6

The dark age of Ponniyin Selvan

by M.D.Muthukumaraswamy

       There is a spine-chilling scene in Aru Ramanathan’s historical novel Veerapandian Manaivi (serialized in the magazine Kadhal from 1953 to 1959 and published as a novel in three parts in February 2012) which presented an artistic challenge to the pomp and glory of the Chola period (10th to 13th century) envisioned in Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan. Set in the year 1180, Veerapandian Manaivi opens in the streets of Madurai with the description that among the heaps of corpses the Chola army had established its pillar of victory in the Pandiya kingdom. One of the hidden reasons of the war, we discover, was the Chola king Kulothunga Chola’s desire to capture Pandiya king Veerapandian’s second wife who was believed to be the most beautiful woman on earth. In a cruel campaign led by the Chola army Madurai was captured and the search was on to capture Veerapandian’s wife. The Chola army captured the fourteen-year-old son of Veerapandian and brought him to the open trial court. In a chapter peppered with the descriptions of intrigues, sycophancy, and competitions to claim laurels the Chola courtiers and army officers try the innocent boy to know the whereabouts of Veerapandian and his wife. The open trial is presided by the Chola stooge Vikrama Pandian, and when Jananathan, the Chola army general and the most mysterious character of the novel, insinuates the boy with references to the beauty of his stepmother, the boy spits on the face of Jananathan.   After allowing the boy to spit on his face for seven times, Jananathan makes a fiery speech in the court saying that the boy was not spitting on his face but on the tiger emblem of the Chola kingdom, and on the face of Kulothunga Chola himself. Infuriated by the speech a stooge army chieftain beheads the boy in the open court. The people riot and protest the killing of the boy, but the Chola courtiers flee and disappear into safety. (Page 208)

      The mass protests against the atrocities of the army officers and tax collectors were common during the Chola period and several historical inscriptions record such atrocities and protests. In an illuminating scholarly essay, “ Struggles for Rights during Later Chola Period” published in Social Scientist in 1974 M.D.Rajukumar details the mass protests against the Chola consolidation of caste hierarchy and agrarian taxes. Reading through all the stone inscriptions of the Chola period M.D.Rajukumar indisputably proves that the Cholas shifted the land owning to Brahmins,  Vellalas, temples, and devadasis and created a huge populace of landless labourers. The mass protests against the Brahmin-Vellala hegemony and the exorbitant taxes led to the collapse of the Chola Empire. Many Marxist scholars in Tamil have always maintained that the landless labourers of the Chola period were enslaved to construct the monumental temples and they stand today as testimony to the slavery of the Chola dark ages in Tamil history.

      Reading through the works of Nilakanda Sastry, and Sadasiva Pandarathar the same historians Kalki Krishnamurthy also read Aru Ramanathan was able to interpret the Chola period differently and debunk the Chola glory as false. In the chapter 104 of the novel Aru Ramanathan speaks through the character of Jananathan and justifies his interpretation of the Chola period. Jananathan says that the imperialist war campaigns of the Cholas were undertaken not for the expansion of the kingdom but for plundering the wealth of the neighboring states and bring women to enslave them as Devadasis in the temples. After war victories, Aru Ramanathan reasons, the Cholas never ruled the lands and instead brought the plundered wealth and women to the Tamil country. Even for the claim that that the Chola kings were the patrons of great poets like Kampan Aru Ramanathan says that Cholas brought Bihar Brahmins as temple priests and shunned Tamil from the precincts of the temples. Noted Tamil scholar A.S.Gnanasambandam in his book Periyapurana Araichi expresses a similar view that Sanskrit and Brahminical rituals were imposed upon the Tamil temples during the Chola period.

      Incidentally Aru Ramanathan uses passages from Kampan’s Ramayana as a kind of epitaph on every chapter of the novel to provide an ironic reading to the unfolding events of the novel.  Ramayana and Veerapandian Manaivi share similar plot structures in the sense that if in Ramayana Ravana abducts Rama’s wife Sita, in Veerapandian Manaivi Kulothunga Chola wages war against the Pandiya kingdom to imprison Veerapandian’s wife. Aru Ramanathan’s layering of the texts of his novel and Kampan’s Ramayana reveal the functions of an epic in building the polity of an imperialist nation state. If at all if we were to stage a play or make a film on the Chola period we should do that not with Ponniyin Selvan but with Veerapandian Manaivi. After all history reaches us as a heap of broken images and what we need are critiques and not glorifications.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The seductive beauty of innocence: K.Muralidharan's new paintings | Article published in the Times of India

The article can be accessed online  at the Times of India epaper site on page 6

Andal by K. Muralidharan 

The seductive beauty of innocence:  K.Muralidharan’s new paintings

by M.D.Muthukumaraswamy

      Inside the tranquil Besant Nagar home studio of K.Muralidharan, his new modernist painting of the Vaishnavite poetess Andal startles you with its alluring beauty of a folk art.  On a closer look at the familiar features of Andal- the side hair bun, the parrot and the flower garland- you become aware of the rich texture of the painting. The armored body of Andal in geometrical shapes of black and white etches her body slightly forward against the lyricism of the Tamil alphabets in which Tiruppavai is written as if the canvas were a stone of inscriptions. The helplessness of her slender hands matches the dreamy big eyes and the mysterious half smile hidden behind her lips.   Masked in crimson a large peacock, miniature of a reclining Vishnu, Garuda, and numerous little creatures divine and natural share their colour with the flower in Andal’s hand. When you realize that behind the painting’s charm there lies a mastery of portraiture you begin to wonder whether the semblance of his works to folk arts is only a pretense. Muralidharan says in one his exhibition brochures, “ I wouldn’t call mine folk art, and it would be more appropriate to call it naïve art”.  The goddess Meenakshi painting shares several of the stylistic features of Andal but it appears to be more fantastic with Meenakshi’s wild Medusa like hairs, and the hands making the magical appearance from the masked universe of the crimson background.  Comparing the paintings of Andal and Meenakshi one would  discern that what Muralidharan calls his naiveté is actually an innocence with which he approaches his subjects, the popular images of religious folklore.

      Muralidharan’s present sets of paintings are in fact culmination of his long creative journey as a painter. In his very early works, immediately after his graduation from the college of arts and crafts in the late 1970s one can see his tendencies towards creating involved portraits and surfaces with rich textures. Muralidharan says that his shift in the choice of themes occurred in the mid 1980s when he was visiting Hampi. Sitting in the delicious ruins of Hampi, Muralidharan decided that the conversation between conservation of tradition and chronicle of change would be integral to his paintings. He found the inventory of his fantasies in his immediate environment and neighborhoods: the elephants of Thiruvallikeni temple, the qualities of the graphics of the Tamil alphabets, the idea that goddesses could be sitting on lotuses while  cows are wandering in the busy streets, and animals, birds, and humans coexist on the same plane. In Muralidharan’s paintings of the 1990s we see his impressionist portrayals of gods, goddesses, and elephants on flat surfaces that lend a surreal and dreamy qualities to his paintings. As years pass by Murlaidharan grows more innocent in his approach and in his paintings at the time of the turn of the millennium we see his works approximating popular imagination and providing us a chance to examine our traditional images. In Muralidhran’s paintings there is a grammar of patterning but the free visualization that defies logic, invites us to approach popular images and their associated cultural memories –Andal being a case in point- impressionistically, unconsciously and innocently to make them our own. Every decade seems to have added a layer of meaning and elegance to Muralidharan’s paintings and his accumulated learning is evident in his new paintings.

      The artistic achievement of Muralidharan’s present set of paintings is spectacular not only for himself but also for his methodological inheritance from the Madras school of art which set out to discover our cultural roots and their modernist expressions. Muralidharan’s folkloric motifs, and the images of popular religious folklore such as goddess Lakshmi, and Saraswati do not abandon the traditional decorative patterning but they reinvent them and reposition them. Another characteristic of Muralidharan’s paintings is that he does a series of paintings on the same subject. Whether it is an elephant or a Kamadhenu, Muralidharan presents a set of variations on the same theme, accentuating the play on our unconscious perceptions of them. Muralidharan’s paintings on the same theme present reconfigurations of familiar motifs resembling children’s play in its vivaciousness and virtuousness resulting in compositions of bright unconventional colours.   Muralidharan says, “ I also learnt that I must continue to evolve, continue to experiment, if I should be relevant and meaningful to the society, I live in. To me artistic achievement, success and being different is not a fixed point from where you can talk down to people. It is a state of flux and I am part of it”.  The good news is that K.Muralidharan’s Andal is a masterpiece.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Plays of N.Muthusamy | Article published in the Times of India

The article can be accessed at the Times of India online epaper at on page 6

or at


N.Muthusamy plays Editor K.S. Karuna Prasad, Published by Bhodivanam, Ahmed Complex, Ground Floor, 12/293 Royapettah High Road, Royapettah, Chennai 14 Language: Tamil First Edition May 2015, Pages 1060 Price Rs 850 
ISBN 978-93-80690-29-2

Bearing witness to the absurd Tamil political life: Plays of N. Muthusamy

by M.D.Muthukumaraswamy

      Aspirants of Tamil theatre and students of Tamil modern literature should be grateful to K.S.Karunaprasad and his Bodhivanam publications for bringing out the first ever collected volume of twenty one plays of N.Muthusamy, the pioneering Tamil modernist playwright whose works have uniquely influenced the Tamil theatre scene for the last four decades. Chronologically organized with three introductory essays and two prefaces -one by the publisher and another by Muthusamy -the volume in its odd thousand pages reveal the finesse of Muthusamy as a playwright while offering glimpses of the functioning of Koothu-P-Pattarai, a theatre repertory that thrives under the leadership of Muthusamy for the last thirty years.
      Muthusamy’s play ‘Kalamkalamaaka’ published in the little literary magazine ‘Nadai’ in 1968 is considered to be the first modernist play in Tamil. Vastly different from the run of the mill plays of its time ‘Kalamkalamaaka’ had the qualities of a modernist Tamil short story, a literary form that had already matured in the previous decades. Muthusamy would claim his antecedents not only in short story but also in the birth pangs of new poetry that left its marks in the pages of a little literary magazine ‘Ezhuthu’ in the 1950s.  From his second play, ‘Appavum Pillaiyum ‘ onwards Mutusamy adopted a different kind of storytelling in his plays where actions define the faceless characters who lack individual personalities. The characters in ‘Appavum Pillaiyum’ are named as Ramasamy 1, Ramasamy 2, and Ramasamy 3. The numerical Ramasamys try to come to terms with their legacies and generational gaps and Ramasamy 1 says poignantly, “ Which old face can we remember like this? Can we remember any face like this? May be it is an imitation. May be it is an abstraction. It is a hallucination. Some aspects of a face, become prominent and we tend to believe that is the face. Many times on the abstracted face of the father many faces also come and stick together. We have to remove one layer after another to discover our own father. Haven’t I seen my father’s face at the age of seven? If Rosa Iyer’s imitation comes to my mind even before destroying it, I want to insult it”.  For the faceless Ramasamy 1 the father is not simply a biological father, but a metaphor for tradition and our complicated contemporary relationship with it.

      In complete defiance of Aristotelian dramatic structure Muthusamy mourns the loss of civilizational meanings in Tamil society in his plot less plays where action follows recognizable absurd behaviour leading to no culmination or a resolution. The conflicts in Muthusamy’s plays are presented as teasers, ‘as if’ situations, children’s games, folk theatre contexts, or purely imaginary acts such as climbing a rope ladder hanging from nowhere. Muthusamy’s poetic prose dialogues intensify the conflicts, and hold the attention of the spectators. The political dimension of his works became quite pronounced in his early plays, ‘Unthicchuli’,  Suvorottikal’ and ‘Narkalikarar’ and achieved artistic excellence in his later plays, ‘England’ and ‘Padukalam’.

      Undertaking an artistic journey into the plays of Muthusamy, one would discover that bearing honourable witness to the common man’s absurd Tamil political life is a central theme in all his plays. If ‘Suvorottikal’ explores the common man’s identity politics through the all-pervasive poster culture in Tamilnadu, ‘Narkalikarar’ presents a critique of political hiatus of the non-participatory onlookers. If ‘England’ portrays the consequences of the Gandhian independence struggle,  Padukalam’ takes a close look at the cultural and attitudinal conflicts embedded in the Mahabharata koothu tradition.

      Being avant-garde plays, Muthusamy’s scripts demanded a new kind of actors and directors to stage his plays and since they were not available it might not come as a surprise that his plays were not staged till 1977 when he founded his own theatre company Koothu-P-Pattarai. As the name suggests, Koothu-P-Pattarai is a workspace where the connections between traditional folk theatre, Therukoothu and modern theatre are explored for the benefit of both. While such artistic projects to rediscover roots and formulate a new theatrical idiom is a phenomenon of the 1970s, Muthusamy’s labour had an extra dimension of claiming respectability for Therukoothu which being a folk theatre has been accorded a low cultural status.  Muthusamy has been writing, speaking, and arguing vociferously for the last thirty years for the recognition of Koothu as the total theatre of the Tamils and his pioneering work led to several scholars and theatre persons taking to Koothu for studies and serious artistic engagements.

      Muthusamy’s philosophy of actor training stems from his vision that anybody can become an actor. It went against the popular notion that only the handsome ones could become an actor. Muthusamy has been training his actors in Koothu, Yoga, and Silambam, the martial art form of Tamilnadu. He expects his actors to be open to training in any native folk art form as well as to any international training in theatre. Muthusamy’s grounding in Tamil traditional art forms while being open to international influences have yielded rich results in producing extraordinary actors such as Pasupathy, Kalairani, Jeyakumar, George, Chandra and Jaya Rao.

      Muthusamy’s vision of common man, the folk, and ordinary people having the artistic potential emanates from his nostalgic reconstruction his native village Punjai in his plays and short stories. Once Muthusamy declared that writing every inch of Punjai, and all the people he had met in the village during his childhood is the mission of his works. True to his words we see in his works the mini universe of Punjai with its gods, streets, characters, and objects populate his plays, confronts the of city life, and serves as a backdrop of reference. For Muthusamy Punjai is no utopia since it has its own flaws of feudalism, hierarchy, and inaction. But, Punjai as a symbol of folk wisdom has the artistic potential to liberate the modern Tamil from the abysmal absurdities of city life. In a way, Muthusamy’s plays are tributes to Punjai, the eternal wisdom of an Indian village.

      Many eminent theatre directors such as Krishnamurthy, E.R.Gopalakrishnan, S.Ramanujam, Gnani, Prasanna Ramaswamy, Rajendran, Arumugam, Anmol Vellani, Hartman D’Souza, M.Natesh, and S. Ravindran (lighting) have worked with Muthusamy’s plays to create memorable performances in Tamil theatre. A truck load of actors, Pasupathy, Kumaravel, Kalairani, George, Jayakumar, Jeyarao, Manimekalai, Meenakshi, Devi, Palani, Vinodhini, Somu , Anandsamy, Vimal and Vijay Sethupathy have gone from Koothu-P-Pattarai to  Tamil cinema. Now Koothu-P-Pattarai’s actor training workshops have become a sure way of entering into Tamil cinema but his artistic vision is to be lived by people dedicated only to the totality of theatre.