Abstract: The play You Made Me a Communist is one of the most popular plays in Malayalam. It marked a revolution in the history of Kerala as well as in the history of theatre in Kerala. What made this play popular and successful to such an extent? Was it just the theme which depicted the life of the subordinate class for the first time? While we analyse the incidents and events surrounding the play and the way in which it used the ample possibilities in the performing space of a theatre, we can understand that it is not merely the theme that contributed to the success and popularity of the play.
Keywords: theatre, space, ideology, K.P.A.C., popularity, history of theatre, subordinate class, communist party, communist ideology, social revolution
Theatre has been used as a political weapon all over the world. The history of theatre in any country cannot exclude its cultural, social and political milieu, especially, when the theatre moved away from the open air performances to the stage where the audience is divided based on class, caste or gender. Theatrical space underwent drastic transformation with the changes in the socio-political condition. The theatre was confined to closed spaces and became static, whereas, the performances in the open space were more flexible and accessible. Everyone got a chance to watch the performance. But the categorisation based on class, caste and gender distanced a large section of people from theatre. The open space performances in which people were able to contribute with voices, sounds and words became a myth. The audience was asked to watch the performance in silence. Eventually the performances, especially the drama, became more rigid and author centered. Then what made the play Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist) one of the most successful and popular plays in Malayalam that contributed to the popularity of the Communist Party in Kerala?
You Made Me a Communist gained popularity among the people of all castes, classes and gender. It is not merely because of its theme. The way in which the writers, directors and the actors of the play discussed the issue with the public is also significant. Nevertheless, the issues and events surrounding the play, issues that happened before and after the performance of the play on a stage, contributed to its popularity and acceptance by the Malayalee audience.
While discussing the play’s popularity, we should focus our attention, on the way in which the play used the flexibility and mobilisation that a theatre can provide. This paper is a study on the other aspects that contributed to the popularity of the play, including the meaningful use of the space provided by a theatre to initiate a social revolution.
The popularity of the Communist Party in Kerala in the 20th century is certainly due to its influence among the local population. The communist ideologies were propagated in Kerala through the activist’s influential interference into the local conditions. The Party adopted various means to attract people to their ideologies. Party meetings, study classes, pamphlets, etc. were used to make people involve in the issues happening around them. However, these means were not much effective because only the educated people could understand it. The speech or pamphlets were not adequate to discuss the issues with the subordinate class or peasants, not only because they were illiterate, but also they have no time to involve in them. Another important means that the party identified as effective was ‘theatre’. In Kerala, people’s involvement with the visual arts and theatre is part of their religious ritual. The whole population, both the ruling class and the subordinate class, literate and illiterate, peasants and landlords, was familiar with one or the other of the visual art forms. The mission of the Communist party was to make the people believe in the ideologies of communism just like their belief in God. As far as the theatre is concerned, it is an art form of the people, more flexible and can be performed anywhere. Thus the Communist party chose theatre as a medium to make people aware of the social injustice and also to integrate them in their mission.
The Kerala People’s Arts Club (K.P.A.C.) was formed in 1950-51, from the discussions of the some of the students of the Law College in Eranakulam. They were devotees of the communist ideologies of that period. The first play performed by K.P.A.C. is a shadow play named ‘Korea’. Isaac Thomas, S. Prabhakaran Nair and N. Rajagopalan Nair were the founder advisors of K.P.A.C. Rajagopalan Nair, Kambasseri Karunakaran, M. N. Govindan Nair, G. Janardhana Kuruppu, Adv. K. S. Rajamani and Sree Narayana Pillai were the major activists of K.P.A.C. Rajagopalan Nair , G. Narayana Kuruppu and Rajamani had written a play named Ente Makananu sari (My Son is Right). But the play was not a success. During that period K.P.A.C. decided to perform the play Ningalenne Communistaki, which was written by Thoppil Bhasi under the pseudonym ‘Soman’ and was already published in book form. K.P.A.C. performed this play for the first time on December 6, 1952 at Thattaacheri Junction in Chavara. The performance was successful and its particular interest in communist ideology disturbed the then Kerala government. The play was banned soon with the support of the ‘Dramatic Performance Act’. Nevertheless, Kambaserri and Rajagopalan Nair, who were members of the Parliament and also actors of the play, and N. L. Govindan Nair, who showed interest in K.P.A.C.’s activities, raised voice in the parliament against the ban of the play. Later, K.P.A.C. got a verdict against the ‘Dramatic Performance Act’.
The script of the play was modified several times, considering the opinion of several people, the demands of several places and time. Here the script used the flexibility of theatre that can assimilate change. Even the concept of a ‘script’ is problematic because there are several ‘scripts’. Thoppil Bhasi says:
Regarding this drama, the playwright’s right and authority become invalid and it turns out to be the property of the movement. For example, when it came to the stage there were more scenes when compared to the book. Some of the scenes in the book were cut down. Not only that, the character, Sumam, whom I placed behind the curtain was skillfully brought to the stage (My Translation) (8 – 9).
Thus, the single authored play become the property of the people. The script becomes more flexible to incorporate the views of many authors. This flexibility helps to integrate different types of audiences to the play, regardless of their class, caste or gender differences. The story was expanded to meet certain goals. For example, the character ‘Sumam’ was brought to the stage as a woman activist of the communist party to draw the women, both the upper class and lower class to the ideology of the party.
In addition to the changes made by Rajan and Kurupuchettan while directing the play for the stage, each and everyone who performed in the play contributed a lot. Of them, Kambaserri was prominent. Besides, K.P.A.C. modified the script on the basis of the opinions of so many critics who critiqued the play. In brief, even the words and sentences that the people uttered while watching the play were included because it appeared to be significant.
From that perspective, the play Ningal Enne Communistakki that we now see on the stage is a drama that was the contribution of many people in the mould made by me (My Translation) (Bhasi 8 – 9).
The flexibility and mobility of the theatre helped to include all these voices in the script. This became another reason for the popularity of the play. People were able to associate themselves with the play while hearing their own voices. Thus, it became a ‘two way communication’ in which the audience understands the ideas that the play try to convey, contemplates on them and responds to those ideas. Thus according to Bhasi,
But regarding this drama, I am aware that it is not good to stand firm. The version that is being performed today became more real. I was successful without bringing the heroine Sumam to the stage. But, today it is not proper to place Sumam behind the curtain. Even if I do not like this she is skillfully brought to the stage. You saw her on stage in six thousand and more nights. So I have to obey (My Translation) (9).
In addition, there are references that the play sometimes used different script in different places. While there was an uproar against the ban of the play, the issue came up in the Thiru-Kochi parliament too. On that occasion Nedumangadu Kesavan Nair, one of the members, made a reference to the play performed in Kattakada in which lots of changes were added to the script of the play, contrary to the expectations (qtd in Mohandas 76). The script was changed on the basis of the state of affairs in that particular place. Nevertheless, the theatre is able to assimilate the demands of the place and communicate with the people.
On another occasion, it was the absence of some of the actors due to internal tussle regarding the issue of participation in ‘All Kerala Kisan Meeting’, that prompted K.P.A.C. to change the script in order to cope with the new situation. Some of the characters were pushed behind the curtain, some new characters were added and it was the revised script that was performed in the meeting. Nevertheless, the response K.P.A.C. received was positive. It shows that not just the theme, but the way in which it was performed had a significant effect on the people. The play could be performed with a new script because the theatre provided a flexible space that accommodated changes.
Regarding the space of performance, the play used public places, especially junctions, an unavoidable space in the life of people. So people of all castes, classes and gender became the audience of the play. This also contributed to the popularity of the play. Thus, by putting up a stage in the space where common people frequently met, the play converted that passive space into a dynamic, active space. The play was first performed in Thattaacheri junction (Chavara) in a thatched stage (Mohandas 67). In addition, there are references that indicate that the play sometimes used ‘open air’ spaces in order to accommodate the huge audience (when the play was performed in Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram the activists instantly created an open air theatre in the ground to accommodate the huge audience (Mohandas 70)). This immediate construction of a stage in a passive space shows the mobility of the theatre that accommodated change. By using spaces that were part of the life of common people the play successfully attracted a large number of audience. This also helped to attract the attention of farmers, women and other subjugated categories, though they might not have the time to watch a play in their otherwise busy schedule. Here, the theatre goes to their place and discussed their issues with them. Thus, the flexibility provided by the performing space of the theatre helped here to initiate a social revolution.
Another major incident that adds to the popularity of the play was its banning. Though the play was banned after 85 days of its performance, a large group of people came to watch the play. Moreover, Rajagopalan and Janardhana Kurup, two activists of K.P.A.C. had written another play against the ban of You Made Me a Communist. That farce was performed by K.P.A.C. in different places (Mohandas 79). It also contributed to the popularity and success of the play You Made Me a Communist.
K.P.A.C. added songs to the script of Thoppil Bhasi. There were almost fifteen songs in the play during its first performance. The mission of K.P.A.C.’s was to make people think about the issues happening in that particular period. Therefore the best means was to choose a more friendly medium that will help the people to identify with the situation in the play. But the script was experimental in the sense that it is prose rather than verse. People were familiar with the verse drama of that period. Moreover, Malayalee’s religious rituals are always accompanied by songs or music. So they may not able to accept a complete prose performance that is not colourful or ostentatious as a religious performance. Thus, the use of songs helped to create a familiar atmosphere within a serious theme that also contributed to the popularity of the play.
Interpreting the play from the performing level, I would say that it is open ended. The play ends with Paramu Pilla taking the red flag from Mala. While watching the play, the red flag is a reality. After going through all the incidents in the play that depicts the day to day life of the viewers, the flag in the end will surely create a desire in the mind of each viewer to take it from Paramupilla and hold it in their own hands.
The play used mobility and flexibility of the performing space of a theatre to communicate with the people. K.P.A.C. used theatre as a political weapon by utilising its various possibilities. Performing in a public space made more people attracted to the play. Changes made to the script based on the different voices of people, place and time was helpful to involve the people. Songs were useful to create a familiar atmosphere. Censorship and another play that counters the censorship, added popularity. Thus, the events, issues and turbulances surrounding the play before, after and during its performance in various places made it popular among the people.
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SHIYANA R. Is editorial assistant in Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies.