An interview with Indira Parthasarathy - Part II
Read Part I.
Balaji: Let's talk about the Ramanujar play that is going to be staged this weekend. How did you end up writing this play? What was the element of drama that you found in Ramanujar's life?
I.Paa: Ramanujar's life was full of drama. He was a 12th century saint and he was perhaps the first social revolutionary in tamil religious history. He differed from Sankara. Sankara's god was not a personal god, but Ramanujar explained it in a personal way. Ramanujar felt that a personal god was necessary, like even if there was no god, create him. Every man needs his personal god. At the same time, he did not like the caste hierarchy that existed. He felt that personal salvation was a right for everyone. So, he protested against the caste system. His earliest guru was not a brahmin. Ramanujar was a brahmin, and his guru, Thirukatchi Nambi, was a vysya. He was born an advaitist. He was the first religious teacher to give the management of a temple to the untouchables, as they were called in those days. He called them the 'blessed tribe', in thamizh 'thiruk kulaththaar'. Gandhiji was greatly influenced by Ramanujar. If you study the life of Gandhi, you will find that he followed the entire social engineering structure that Ramanujar followed. Whom Ramanujar called as thiruk kulaththaar, Gandhiji called them Harijans.
Balaji: Do you see Ramanujar more as a philosopher-thinker, or as a social reformer?
I.Paa: Ramanujar was a split personality, I would say, that way. One part was his high philosphical thinking, his commentary (Sri Baashyam), his Vishishtadhwait principles etc. The other part of him was popular social engineering. He adopted Tamil as a vehicle of communication and ensured that in the temples, the chants were not just in Sanskrit, but also in tamil. He wanted to reach a large section of people. He wanted an inclusive society. He adopted the Alwar hymns, written in 7th-9th century AD. Those 4000 hymns (Naalaayira dhivya prabandham), he said were as great as the Upanishads. He called it Dravido Upanishad.
Balaji: You have written another landmark play, Nandan Kathai. In the preface to the play, you wrote that it was Nandan, and not Nandanaar. That 'aar' viguthi, according to you, institutionalized the person. Is the situation different for Ramanujar?
I.Paa: Yes, Ramanujar was a brahmin by birth, he didn't have to be glorified further (by suffixes). Nandan was born an untouchable. By adding this 'aar', they were artificially pushing him up the social hierarchy. Nandan Kathai and Ramanujar are two sides of the same coin. Nandan Kathai was about a person from an oppressed caste coming up. By depicting him as a great man, the higher caste people tried to put an end to whatever social revolution that he might have effected. Anything institutionalized, that is the death of the ideology. That was what happened to Nandan, that was what happened to Ramanujar, and also to Jesus Christ.
Balaji: You have written another play, Aurangazeb. When you write historical plays, do you remain faithful to history, making sure there are no anachronisms involved, or do you take poetic license to write as you wish?
I.Paa: I don't violate historical facts. But without violating historical facts, I try to interpret history the way it can be interpreted. Say for instance, as you said, Aurangazeb. All of us students of Indian history would know that Aurangazeb was a tyrant, he was against music, all fine arts, he suppressed the hindus and so on. But there is another side to Aurangazeb which I could see in the Majumdar's history of Mughals. I found that he was very fond of music earlier. He was fond of writing poetry. What could have made him this kind of person, as a tyrant? How did it happen? I tried to probe into it. I tried to interpret history and tried to analyze his character.
Balaji: And the result was a wonderful play. Let's talk about tamil theatre. We always keep saying, "Iyal, Isai, Naadagam". When did this classification actually occur? What exactly is Naadagath thamizh?
I.Paa: This classification, muththamizh as they call it, I do not know if muththamizh earlier meant "Iyal, Isai, Naadagam" at all. Perhaps the first reference to muththamizh comes in Paripaadal. There, the reference is only to Chera, Chozha, Pandiya kingdoms. Iyal is prose, Isai is music and Naadagam is theatre. The first reference to this muththamizh and to iyal, isai, naadagam is probably much much later, in the 13th-14th centuries. Naadaga means theatre. In the indian view of theatre, music and dance were also included in theatre. A kooththu must tell a story. So, if the story part is included, it becomes Naadagam. That is also the notion of theatre in bharatha sastra. We think that there is only one source of theatre for the entire India. There is no dravidian, or aryan or whatever, they were all integrated in the dim periods of pre-history.
Balaji: We have a rich tradition of kooththu. What kind of experimentations were there in that art form? What was unique to our brand of theatre that the other parts of the world didn't have?
I.Paa: Not only India, but take Eastern/Asian theatre. The audience participation (was the unique thing). The participation of the audience was a new experience for Western theatre. In the west, in music and theatre, they distance themselves from what is going on. But in Indian theatre, the audience also actively collaborates. They know what is going to happen, they are familiar with the stories, like from Mahabharatha. They like to look at how it is being interpreted, and become an intrinsic part of what is happening on the stage.
Balaji: Were they always performing well-known stories, or were there new playwrights coming every now and then with fresh stories?
I.Paa: Mostly, they were staging only well-known puranic legends. No new stories came up. For instance, what Kalidasa wrote, was from Mahabharatha, or from Ramayana.
Balaji: When you write a play, do you think about the feasibility of staging it? Do you write it and leave it to the director to figure out how to stage it?
I.Paa: I write plays only for production. Not that I write production scripts, but I am very conscious of the feasibility of staging it. Any play has to be staged. When I write, I also write some directorial notes. Any western playwright would do the same. It was not so, earlier. But now, the writer has to be conscious of the feasibility of the play being produced.
Balaji: Is that a kind of limitation on what all you want to express on stage? Is that a limitation that the current stage imposes on you?
I.Paa: I don't think of limitations at all. The practical difficulties come up only when it is actually staged. Now the thinking in the theatre world is that the production script is a collective effort between the director and the actors/crew. A playwright can give a skeleton. That skeleton can be worked out into a manageable script to be produced on stage.
Balaji: I was fascinated to read your take on Silappathikaram. Silappathikaram, we've been taught, is an epic. But you write that it is a play written in an epic form. You equate Ilango to the likes of Shakespeare. Can you tell us more about your point of view?
I.Paa: Silappathikaram, it is written in an epic form. In those days, drama had no literary credibility in tamil as it did in Sanskrit. Kalidasa, Bhasa, they all wrote plays in Sanskrit. But how come when you have translated almost every major literary work from Sanskrit to Tamil, epics, upanishads etc, how come no plays of Kalidasa were translated from Sanskrit to Tamil, until the 19th century, when Maraimalai adigaL, who hated Sanskrit, translated Sakunthalam into tamil? This might have happened because earlier there was no literary credibility in writing a play. Read the kaaviyam, Silappathikaram. It has all the dramatic elements. It has the dramatic structure. So, I thought it was basically concieved as a play, written out in epic form.
Balaji: One common thing that is often said is that there are no Greek Tragedies in Indian Literature. But in Silappathikaram, everyone dies. Kovalan dies, the king dies, the queen dies, the city gets burnt.
I.Paa: Silappathikaram is not a tragedy. It doesn't end with Madurai Kaandam. It ends with Vanjik kaandam. Vanjik kaandam is the conquest of Cheran Senguttuvan over the north, and paththini cult. Nobody dies in our tradition. They reach Moksha.
Balaji: That was precisely my question. Was Vanjik kaandam an add-on because a tragedy would not be accepted in the literature?
I.Paa: Could be. There was a time when I thought that Vanjik kaandam was an add-on. Perhaps, looking at the style, it was written by Ilango adigaL alright. At the same time, he might have been conscious of the fact that tragedies were not accepted in the Indian tradition.
Balaji: Does our tradition have Children's theatre in it? Or is it a western concept?
I.Paa: There is, not in a big way. One of my students, Velu Saravanan, is doing Children's theatre in a big way, and is a success. But it is not catching up much. When we think of producing plays for children, we always have adults as the target audience (since they accompany the children). That is the problem. Children's theatre has not existed till now, but thanks to Velu Saravanan, it is catching up.
Balaji: Let's talk about translations. You yourself have translated some of your works into English, and others have translated your works as well. There has been a constant struggle for recognition among authors who are writing in Indian languages, as opposed to writers writing in English. Can the nuances and subtexts of our culture be ever expressed in English?
I.Paa: It doesn't have to be. You see, when Nabokov wrote his Lolita, he said that had he written it in Russian, it would have been much more effective. But, we find that Lolita written in English itself gives us satisfaction. It is true that idioms, nuances and typical cultural things cannot be translated. I can give you an example from my own work. When we refer to a woman as having a right to wear flowers, it is meant that she is not a widow. So, we say she loses her right to wear flowers, implying that she becomes a widow. When you have to translate it into English, it doesn't make much sense. "endhak kadaiyilE poo vaanginaaLO, aduththa maasamE aathukku vandhuttaa" is an expression found in one of my stories. When the story was translated, the translator felt so bad that he can't do this in English. Anyway, it just has to be a workable, serviceable translation. That is necessary. I am satisfied, my Kurudhippunal was translated into English by Ka.Na.Subramaniam. He has done a fairly good job.
Balaji: And, recently, your yEsuvin thOzhargaL was translated as Comrades of Jesus.
I. Paa: Yes, it was done by K.V.Ramanathan. He has also done a good job. yEsuvin thOzhargaL was easy to translate, because it was based on my experiences in Poland. So, probably I had bilingual thinking when I wrote this novel.
Balaji: Do you consider yourself to be a part of a literary tradition, a particular school of writing in tamil?
I.Paa: No. I don't belong to any school. That kind of writing, what you can call as "committed writing" takes a writer nowhere.
Balaji: You had written once that Sanga Ilakkiyam, thirukkuraL and Kamba Ramayanam etc should not be treated as assets of tamils alone, but should be viewed as global assets. Can you explain what we have to do so that others come to know of these rich literary works?
I.Paa: I meant that tamil has a disadvantage of being a classical language and at the same time a modern Indian language. I would say that thirukkuraL, Kamba Ramayanam, Silappathikaram, Sangam works are an intrinsic part of the total Indian tradition, just like Geetha, Ramayana, Mahabharatha. There are two independent things, one is the classical tamil, and the modern tamil (and the need to decouple the two). That classification is very much needed so that others are also aware that they are also a part of that great literary tradition.
Balaji: You had an intricate knowledge of classical tamil literature when you started to write in modern tamil. But the writers nowadays disassociate themselves from the works in the past. Do you think it is a healthy sign that writers are not well-versed in the ancient works?
I.Paa: No. It has not become a part of their system. When I refer to certain things in past works, they are not able to comprehend. So, there is a big dichotomy that is existing between the past and the present. That is what I meant.
Thanks to Prof. Parthasarathy for this interview.
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