The tell-tale moustache seemingly unkempt, eyes taking a measure of you as they look through the spectacles, a disarmingly contained laughter not loud, a pattern of talking that tended to bite the words as they are being rendered – those close to him will miss all of this. Na Muthusamy, avant-gardist and re-interpretator of an ancient art form, is no more. He was the Founder/Director of Koothupattarai (1977) that imparted to its participants concepts of theatre that used the language of dance and folk theatre. It taught them the optimum use of space, relied more on body-language to get across and therefore could afford minimal choreography in its productions.
He had a bag of over 60 plays that covered a wide spectrum ranging from political satire (the timeless “Narkalikarar”), social commentary (“Paramartha Guru” and “England”), to dramas drawn from our epics (“Arjunan Tapasu”, “Panchali Sabatham”, “Padukalam” and “Prahaladan”). He even extended his forays into Shakespeare (“Macbeth”). Gifted writer that he was (though less known under this class) his dialogues had a certain poignancy, urgency and marked relevance. The beauty and brevity of expression contained in Tamil without compromising on its effervescent nature was on display.
The year 2009 saw the Kalaimamani award being bestowed on Muthusamy along with one of his disciples Pasupathi, a star now. That must have come as a double-achievement for Muthusamy, for the recognition given to both Koothu and to one of his own trusted lieutenants. There was a “stage” when writers looked down upon koothu as low-brow. Some had even branded Muthusamy as being revivalist and one who was seeking to resurrect a feudal art. He felt that this art-form attained recognition only after traditional art ventures were treated as fit material for being researched at various universities.
If one had to ask about the guiding philosophy that ruled Koothupattarai, the answer was J.K. (J Krishnamurthi) and Gurdjieff. While the former is well known in India, the latter was a spiritual teacher who believed that most humans do not possess a unified consciousness. The thoughts of Muthusamy, of getting to know things all by yourself and taking the unique path chartered by your own self, was perhaps in tune with the philosophies propounded by these two. And his mission statement talks repeatedly of continuous learning to realize one’s full potential.
Gnani (who headed Pareeksha, an equally popular troupe active in providing alternative drama) said that Muthusamy was steadfast in his view that drama production had better depend on full-time actors who took to acting solely as their profession. “If gauged by what he has achieved at this period of time, it appears that he did well to be firm with this principle and his flawless productions have actually vindicated his stand.”
Muthusamy picked up ideas from nowhere. For instance, when the evergreen hero MGR passed away, the crowd that gathered in Tamil Nadu to pay homage to him was unprecedented. MGR was not there to witness this and this became the thought that triggered one of his plays, he would say. He always stressed on the concept of an open mind that made his organization grow from strength to strength. His bold initiatives with Zen master Gill Alon of Israel with whom the play “Six characters in Search of an Author” was crafted and other successful creative works with Anmo Velani of The Ford Foundation have been memorable.
What others say
In the words of Asokamitran, “Muthusamy had been writing from the period of the Tamil literary magazine, Saraswathi (faded in the 1990s but was popular among the Tamil cognoscenti). He however, never sought to project himself as somone who had exceptional writing skills. Had connoisseurs read in one breath the ten stories published by Kanayazhi (again a magazine that formed part of the Tamil avant-garde literary movement) – the sense of fulfillment they would derive, the magnificence that would leave them awestruck, could be matched by the best of literature in Tamil.”
For Muthusamy the short-story became the vehicle for his search, an unquenchable search at that, be it in “Nadappu”, “Punjai”, “Vandi”, “Yaar Thunai” or” Karpanai Aran”. In a more or less even vein critic Venkat Saminathan says his stories were not empty pointless descriptions but were the result of the churning within and in addition to this they had a rustic innocence about them. He adds, “even without being conscious of it, at the heat and height of his own experience, he was able to traverse hitherto unvisited worlds and delve deep into their mysteries”.
Guru Somasundaram, a product of Koothuppattarai who donned the role of the protagonist in the film Joker (2016 – Directed by Raju Murugan), carried this image about Muthusamy – a clean-shaven man, save his moustache, without a single stub of hair on his face or chin. That got reflected in his attitude and got wholly exemplified when we at Koothupattarai were asked to throw out our ideas for Chennai Sangamam. He fetched the Tamil dictionary (agarathi) to delve deep into its meaning and then having fully understood what was at stake, proceeded further. When I joined Koothuppattarai I had come with a slight hunch on my back. He gave me enough exercises as part of the play-acting even without me being aware of it and my body has been set right now. If a guy suffered from stammering he was required to do many monologues as a challenge. He still remembers how Muthusamy dictated scene-wise the entire play “Prahaladhan” from his bed nursing a fractured leg.
Anand Sami who featured in the film Lens (Written and Directed by Jayaprakash) that was screened at the Chennai International Film Festival in 2016 had his extensive training at Koothuppattarai for nearly eight years. For him Muthusamy was like a father-figure and that was how he was looked at by most people. He however brushed it aside by calling everyone his equals thus transcending that image. His method of teaching would include silambattam, thappattam and thevarattam. How was Silambattam, for instance, which involves nuanced stick movement relevant to acting, you would wonder. But for him the body’s reactions, its reflexive adjustments as you perform gestures with the stick held in your hand, those swift movements, and the kind of preparation the body makes – all of this mattered. An actor had to be bodily well prepared to meet any situation.
Both of them recall how Muthusamy never imposed anything from above and allowed things to have their own course. They in unison remember the famous dialogue from his play Suvarottigal. It goes like this: “In a town where all are without clothes, the clothed man would be branded mad. If that be so, use your intelligence and travel further.”
Na Muthusamy’s – the man. Listen to him:
The march of society and the power of youth: Society is ever on its march forward. It has with it a kind of wisdom, with it forever. Deadly time should not be allowed to disfigure this wisdom. The power to create rests with the contemporary youth of today. It must be given room to grow. Our society will never allow youth to waste their ways and get lost. Think for yourself for that would run you in good stead.
On children and schools: Children need huge playgrounds. Your body and heart should grow together. Teachers in schools should have their foremost commitment to give, more than anything else.
On the city-village dichotomy: Do not be dreaming of the village while you are functioning as an urban being. What matters is getting adjusted to the hurry and tumult of everyday demands that exist and have become part of life in the city.
The language of drama: Having written I try to perform those words, with the effort I put in. If I am able to directly get on stage and am able to express what is in my mind through the body of the actor, then words could be done away with. Drama should relate itself to the present day context. Seize the mind of viewer and create in it something that they have not experienced before – that should be the aim of drama.