Looking through the eyes of legend Na Muthuswamy, and Koothu-p-pattarai, the Tamil theatre factory
An epic journey into the past, while charting out the present and future of the legendary drama troupe, Koothu-p-pattarai, featuring the last interview of its founding father, Na Muthuswamy
Theatre is the first cinema. Therukoothu, the rawest, oldest and the longest form of theatre, was usually based on the Ramayana or the Mahabharata and is known to have sometimes played for eight straight hours. It was the influence of the West that brought in auditoriums and theatres, as the arena of entertainment shifted from the streets to tents and buildings. What began as a platform for entertainment turned into a voice for education and revolution. During the peak of the independence struggle, the epics were almost entirely replaced by swadesi plays.
As the years passed by, the allure of cinema grew, with quite a few theatre actors adapting to this change. From MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the first superstar of Tamil cinema, to actors like PU Chinappa, MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, MN Nambiar and Nagesh, they all learned their acting chops in theatre. A theatrical background was almost deemed a necessary qualification. While actors like Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan have shown it’s not always necessary, theatre personalities like YG Mahendra and S Ve Shekher continued to flourish.
The late-1990s and early-2000s saw a new league of drama artistes like Pasupathi and Kalairani taking to character roles. Other talents like Vemal, Vidaarth, Vijay Sethupathi, and Guru Somasundaram have emerged to be hugely popular too. It’s no coincidence that all the aforementioned names learned their chops from one institution: Koothu-p-pattarai. The organisation has also trained actors like Vishal, to make them camera-ready. The drama company was started by veteran playwright and theatre personality, Na Muthuswamy, fondly known as the father of modern Tamil theatre. The revered teacher passed away recently, with many celebrities pouring tributes. When I met him at the organisation’s office in Kumaran Nagar, Chennai, on October 23, I didn’t know it was to be his last interview (he passed away the very next day).
A home for theatre
The 40-year-old organisation is crowded with trees, with a garden leading to the main entrance reminding one of a modern-day gurukulam. It has been the home of many actors — right now, as many as 25 actors live here as a family, addressing Muthuswamy and his wife as Ayya and Amma. The 82-year-old, twirling his moustache, was happy to engage and go on a trip down memory lane. “The institution had a very humble beginning. It wasn’t started with a great deal of ambition. I used to write a lot of short stories back then, and later, I began scripting plays and staging them. After one particular play, titled Kaalam Kaalamaga, which got great reception, I, along with Kriya Ramakrishnan, Rajendran and Arumugam, started this company to train our own set of actors. On day one, we promised not to collect a single penny from the viewer, irrespective of the play’s production value, and I’ve religiously stuck to my word since. Though there have been many hard times, I haven’t compromised on my principle. The other promise we made was to make sure that anyone entering Koothu-p-pattarai will leave as a complete actor.”
The passing of decades hadn’t stopped him from taking cognisance of how the theatre scene has changed. “The taste of the audience has changed too, as they have access to digital entertainment. Back then, we used to have at least 400-500 people for all our plays. Now, we can barely manage those numbers.” The playwright thought that it’s only natural that a theatre actor steps into cinema. “There is little money to be made, being a theatre actor. It’s become a training ground for actors who are always looking at cinema as their ultimate destination. That’s how things have been for a long time,” he says. “But we never get them acting opportunities. We make sure they are equipped to play all kinds of characters.”
I can’t help but ask about the lack of women being trained, and he replies, “We’ve had female actors before, but now girls are not willing to join. Most of them don’t seem to think of Tamil theatre as a matter of prestige. They seem more fascinated by English theatre troupes like The Madras Players.” He believes that a person can turn into a complete actor only after becoming a good person. “They also need to have the urge and eagerness to learn new things. That’s all,” he says. “The doors of Koothu-p-pattarai have always been open for everyone, and it will stay the same forever.”
After each play ends, the people applauded are typically the actors, the director, and to a lesser extent, the scriptwriter. The invisible job — and a thankless one too — is that of the stage manager. For Koothu-p-pattarai, that person is Ilam Perumal, who has been a part of the organisation for almost twenty years now. He goes on to explain, “The responsibility of coordinating everything for a play is mine. I do everything from getting the script, and readying the costume and sets. I am also responsible for taking care of the team and making sure all the arrangements are made. For instance, when everyone’s travelling for an outstation drama. Sometimes, it takes as many as 3-4 months to put everything together. Once the play is scheduled, I help work on the invitations and posters. Even in this digital age, we stick to sending invitations by post. It’s quite challenging to do all of these things, while also doing the office work.”
His most torrid time came in 1998, when Koothu-p-pattarai staged a play called God by Avanti Mehtri, across North India. “We did a non-stop tour across Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mussoorie, and had to deliver more than 20 performances within a span of 65 days. It was a mad rush, and some of the actors fell sick due to all the travelling. And I had to manage everything without knowing Hindi. But somehow, we staged the play successfully. Looking back, it feels like a beautiful dream."
Natesh, Muthuswamy ayya’s son, was hardly 17 when Koothu-p-pattarai was started in 1977. He remembers a time when the troupe’s team would go around the city sticking posters of their plays. “I learnt poster-making from a British troupe. During the early 1980s, we could often be spotted on the roads with a bunch of posters and glue cans.”I ask Natesh how the organisation has managed to sustain itself, despite not charging for tickets. “It is partly funded by the Central government, and we also conduct paid acting classes,” he says. The syllabus, trainers and teaching methods are never repeated at Koothu-p-pattarai. “All our trainers are alumni of the National School of Drama. Though we hardly charge one-eighth of what other acting schools do, we don’t compromise on our quality. We also limit admission to 25 members.”
He attributes the success of the organisation’s students to the rigorous training they undergo here. “We train them to embrace failures. The audience is a great source of energy. Knowingly or unknowingly, the actor will start to absorb energy from the crowd. The transformation from an amateur to a complete actor can happen only on stage. That’s why they undergo a baptism by fire, as we push them to the stage and give them difficult roles to enact.”
Natesh is a man of ambition, and hopes to make Koothu-p-pattarai an international drama college. He’s also upset that those who have turned into stars have not really helped the organisation. “Nobody has come forward to support us after reaching fame. They hardly visit our plays. Even if they do, they stay for only five or ten minutes.”
Back to basics
I ask Ilam Perumal if it is possible for me to meet the present students and to perhaps see them perform. He obliges, and I’m taken into the pattarai where they are all rehearsing a scene from Gill Allan’s Life of an Actor. The students are all smiles and quite eager to share their individual stories. Almost all of them hail from humble backgrounds and have been part of the organisation for several years, with the aim of making it big in cinema. There are also some lesser-known actors who have joined the students to master the nuances of acting. I notice how the actors compliment each other when performing, and they sometimes even pull each other’s legs. It’s impossible not to get a sense of familial bonding. It almost seems great material for a story, leading me to wonder why barring a handful of films like Kaaviya Thalaivan, Sangamam, and Rajapart Rangadurai, our cinema hasn’t quite fleshed out the life of theatre actors.
Director Balaji Tharaneetharan’s upcoming film, Seethakaathi, is based on the life of a theatre artiste. The director, who has cast a lot of theatre actors in the film, clarifies that the lead character, Ayya (played by Vijay Sethupathi), is fictional and has no relevance to Muthuswamy ayya. “The coordination, performance, and timing of theatre actors are impeccable. As cinema is a medium where looks and star value come into play, we, unfortunately, aren’t always able to choose actors at will. Once big names in the entertainment industry begin to do plays simultaneously, as Sivaji sir did, this situation will change."
On making a theatre artiste his protagonist, he says, “I saw a play in 2013 in which the actors were giving everything to the performance, despite the audience being small. Even those present were in their late sixties. I wondered what the future of this art form would be, and wondered how if it would impact an artiste’s life. That’s how Seethakaathi came about.” The director is confident that his film will create a positive change in the lives of theatre artistes, and that the way in which the general public views this art form will be transformed. Walking away from Koothu-p-pattarai, this is the exact hope I had too.
In addition, here's a look at Koothu-p-pattarai through the eyes of its illustrious alumni
The actor entered Koothu-p-pattarai at the age of 16 and stayed with the organisation until he ventured into cinema through Nassar’s Maayan in 2001. He says his life began only when he entered the troupe. “I was nothing before joining Koothu-p-pattarai. The transformation I went through there helped me become a better human, in addition to becoming a better actor.”
He also feels that entering cinema after getting trained in the theatre enables an actor to perform without strain. “At the end of the day, cinema is a business and people come here to make money. But any profession needs proper training.”
Pasupathy, who regrets not visiting Koothu-p-pattarai after his foray into cinema, is admittedly in talks with other actors for a contingency plan to support the organisation, following the demise of Muthuswamy ayya. “Ayya always wanted seniors to take more responsibilities. We are talking about how to make this possible.”
Guru Somasundaram, who made heads turn with his performances in films like Joker and Jigarthanda, says that being a part of Koothu-p-pattarai was a life-changing experience for him.
“I used to be shy and afraid. I realised my potential there. Living with a character’s emotions for a period of time, and training daily makes anyone a better human.”
He feels that cinema and drama are two different entities when it comes to performing. “Cinema is a director’s medium. Using the advantages of technology, we can even make a mediocre actor’s performance look good on screen, but that’s not possible in theatre. If the actor working on a film happens to be trained, he will add something special to the story and elevate it.”
Somasundaram feels that, knowingly or unknowingly, the fame of the actors from the troupe, who have made it in cinema (including him), have only been counterproductive for the institution and has diverted the focus from the theatre actors. “When we were in Koothu-p-pattarai, the plays were our only focus, and we never dreamt of entering cinema. Everything happened organically. But now, most of the actors in the troupe have been attracted by cinema and their focus is not on theatre.” The actor cites the lack
of time as his reason for staying away from the theatre, but promises to get back to the stage soon by allocating call sheets more carefully.
Vidaarth, like other actors from Koothu-p-pattarai, says he owes his name and fame to the institution.
“I was a dullhead till I stepped in. It is there that I learned how to channelise my emotions and connect with my environment. If I am self-dependent now and have the guts to live anywhere, it’s all thanks to them. Even a college wouldn’t have taught me so much.”
The actor, who also served as the programme coordinator in Koothu-p-pattarai for three years, goes on to share his unforgettable experience from that time. “Once we went to Orissa to stage a play called Padugalam. But our set properties got lost in the train and we had three hours before we had to go on stage. Within the limited time, we grabbed whatever was available there and erected a replica of our original set, and this effort was highly lauded by the audience. I got the guts to tackle a critical situation like this only because of Koothu-p-pattarai. A normal Ramesh (his original name) can never imagine doing such things. Muthuswamy ayya is like God to me.”
Vidaarth says he wants to be known as a theatre artiste and that will be his first identity, irrespective of his work in cinema. “I believe that all the actors who have moved to the cinema long to get back on to the stage. A three-month-long drama rehearsal can do wonders and transform an actor into an entirely different person. Only a theatre actor can understand the happiness in that transformation. Opportunities in cinema are highly unpredictable; so if I get an ample gap between projects, I will definitely use the time to act in plays.