January 3, 2004
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma

Welcome to the fourth day of 2004. Dubbed 2K4, the year is already born with a motto: To Care For. Let's hope we're able to abide by it. Together with the unknown New Year, I'm also celebrating the silver jubilee of my association with this paper. Meeting and interviewing creative people from the world of literature, theatre and cinema, discovering what made them tick, besides being in Editorial and contributing articles and poetry. Here are three random but notable stops down memory lane.

The highly creative and rather eccentric filmmaker John Abraham. My very first Express interview. He looks like a bedraggled Christ with his long browning hair and untidy beard. His dull red kurta has apparently seen long and continuous wear and tear. He contemptuously discards his rasam replacing it with a stronger drink. He is fierce. “My film,” he says, “is for the ordinary man. I have absolutely no regard for the intellectual. I will be satisfied only if I can reach the common man in the street, the low-caste in the village.” His National Award-winning Agraharathil Kazhuthai has, however, been seen only by critics and intellectuals.

He is unstoppable. “They’ve been used to seeing Amitabh Bachchan and MGR for so long. Let us teach them to see good movies now.”

That was July 1978. Of course, he couldn’t teach “them” anything. Though he did pioneer a co-operative movement where ordinary people, the very audience he dreamed of reaching, contributed tiny sums to finance his films. Though his dream was strong and pure. For John Abraham died young. Drink and drugs proved stronger than his dream.

Then there was the man who “proved” Aristotle wrong. This was a month later, again in Bombay.

Dr Rangaraj Bharadwaj, a professor of Economics at the Bombay University, has a passion for theatre. With child-like enthusiasm this rather large, kurta-clad man with long hair tries earnestly to prove his point: “Aristotle formulated a set of rules, and it is his school of drama that we’ve been following till now. Well, my theory opposes his. I have proved him wrong.” The grand proclamation comes through like a mild statement of fact.

During his trips abroad he keenly studied new trends in theatre. He found that aesthetics was given the least importance in both art and theatre. “There were innovations, of course, but they rarely touched the nucleus of the presentation. And experimentation was solely for the sake of novelty and sensation.”

His eyes light up as he explains. “People think art can exist in a vacuum, fed only by imagination and idealism. That’s not true. Art too is methodical. Unless a dramatic work is deliberately, even scientifically, planned and executed there is nothing specific or external about it. If you want to communicate your art, clarity is essential. And to achieve clarity, your work should be structurally conceived.”

Welcome to the Structural School of Aesthetics, Prof. Bharadwaj’s pet project. The idea is simple. Drama requires method for proper communication. And his school maintains that beauty is implicit in any structural entity. In practice, from the theme to the smallest prop, everything would be “structurally” conceived and presented.

Method is the name of the game. Wooden models are created of the stage with miniature props symbolising the theme and mood of each play. Even the actors are warned not to stray from the model. Instinctive acting is out! “He should realise he’s an actor playing a part, and not the character himself.”

But despite all these claims to being a unique school, recent criticism has panned their plays for being no different from any other play. Of course, I confront him with this. His assistant (and son-in-law) smiles indulgently. “You can’t pinpoint the difference. The yardstick for judging a play has to be the play itself. The success of a structural play depends on the unity of all its parts and their relevance to the theme. Any play succeeds because of its structural cohesion. The difference is that we do it deliberately.”

Seven years later. Back in Madras. And time for the Count and his lovely ladies.

The scene is the Park Sheraton poolside. Nubile figures in skimpy bikinis pop up now and then from the water. Guffaws, ribaldry, a great deal of playfulness. I’m interviewing Gordon Scammel, bearded, twinkle-eyed director of the ribald musical Dracula Spectacula. Sitting quietly beside us is choreographer Charlotte Corbett, a pretty young woman of reportedly varied artistic talents. They are both part of the Essex Repertory Company. The beach umbrella above us radiates all the heat of this August morning. Dracula himself — in black swimming trunks and dark goggles — can be seen posing for photographs with a couple of girls.

“India is now so big in England,” Gordon says. “And a lot of it is nostalgia. Especially with the younger generation which has a great interest in what the older generation did so many years ago. And guilt. There’s a lot of that because of the colonial attitude.”

What made him bring his naughty little play to orthodox India? He breaks into laughter. “Well, it was a great risk. There was one particular song called Time Warp where there’s a lot of hip-thrusting. And the whole cast is lined up on stage facing the audience, their hips going like this.” He demonstrates. It was the best number of the show, but they cut it out because of India’s staid reputation. However, they revived it in Calcutta, and the students were up on their feet, dancing away. Gordon sat in the back and thought: “This will do for me. Yeah, that’s okay.”

How did they find humour in a blood-curdling character like Dracula? As a teacher, he’d taken his children one Christmas to see a play called Dracula Or A Pain In The Neck. “It’s rare for me to go to the theatre and laugh because I’m looking at what the other guy’s trying to do, on a critical level. I saw this play and it was the only time I physically and honestly rolled off my seat.” That was the beginning.

Before signing off, I wonder why his Dracula didn’t have fangs. “Those fangs of his are probably languishing somewhere in the airport in Damascus. When we came over there were 28 pieces of luggage. When we reached India there were 27. A small bag with the fangs was missing!”

Gordon promised that he was going to have a lot more to do with India, but that was the last I saw or heard of him.

The author can be contacted at varma@shreevarma.com

Silver jubilee jottings