Rethinking Tamil theatre

(From left) Directors Krishna Gnanpathy, Shalaka Ranadive, Susie Penrice Tyrie, Grace Kalaiselvi, Dew M Chaiyanara and Khairulnizam, directed short plays in Tamil for Ravindran Drama Group's Pathey Nimidam.
(From left) Directors Krishna Gnanpathy, Shalaka Ranadive, Susie Penrice Tyrie, Grace Kalaiselvi, Dew M Chaiyanara and Khairulnizam, directed short plays in Tamil for Ravindran Drama Group's Pathey Nimidam.PHOTO: RAVINDRAN DRAMA GROUP

In spite of a storied history, Ravindran Drama Group (RDG), which turns 30 next year, is struggling to define its future.

The troupe was set up in 1988 as a Tamil theatre society by aspiring artists. It is named after its founder, who died soon after RDG's first play was staged in the same year.

Many in the Tamil theatre and television scene got their start through RDG, including playwrightactor Vadi PVSS, better known for his comic performances on TV, and actress-director Grace Kalaiselvi.

Over the years, the members moved on to other things - Kalaiselvi is known for English-speaking TV roles in Channel 5 dramas and started her own Ver Theatre this year, for example.

RDG's artistic leadership works part time, but artistic director T. Nakulan's goal now is to make the group professional.

The 39-year-old says the big challenge is that the market for Tamil theatre is small. Performers and writers gravitate towards TV to make a living.

To revive RDG's repertoire and rethink its mission, he roped in 30something theatre-makers Hemang Nandabalan Yadav and Ebi Shankara in 2011.

A key early change was the addition of English surtitles to the group's plays.

In 2015, RDG staged two major works - an epic history of Tamil newspapers here, Murasu, and Adukku Veetu Annasamy, the first in a trilogy based on a popular radio play of the same name, which captures the lives of Singaporeans in the 1960s.

The sequel, P Krishnan's Adukku Veetu Annasamy 2, was presented last year in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay and the third play in this series will be presented in February next year.

Another anticipated event on RDG's annual calendar is the Tamil theatre festival of mini-plays, Pathey Nimidam, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in September.

A diverse group of theatre-makers, including non-Tamil speakers and non-Indians, are invited to write and direct plays. Scripts may be written in English, Mandarin or Malay, but are translated into Tamil.

Nakulan says: "If we want people to appreciate Tamil theatre, let's open it up to other theatre companies."

Collaborators this year included Malay arts collective The Kaizen M.D. and English-language group The Writing Doctor.

Kalaiselvi, 40, also marked her return to Tamil theatre after several years with a one-woman show at Pathey Nimidam this year.

"It's broader and more inclusive. It's a commendable effort," she says of the festival, but adds that more quality control is needed to improve the shows.

Nakulan agrees on the need for training. RDG is inviting overseas theatre-makers to conduct workshops here, including noted Bengali director Manish Mitra, who will conduct a two-day session on acting this weekend.

Language is important to RDG's future, but so is developing Singapore theatre-makers' craft.

"We want to be a Singaporean Indian theatre company rather than be identified purely as a Tamil theatre company," he says.

Akshita Nanda

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Rethinking Tamil theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe