Kerala’s timeless classic Ningalenne Communistakki (You Made Me a Communist) turns 70 on Tuesday, 6 December.
This musical drama, which was first staged on 6 December, 1952, at Sudarsana Theatre in Kollam district’s Chavara Thattassery, has a special place in the history of Malayalam theatre as well as in the Communist movement in Kerala.
The drama could also claim uniqueness in the history of the Kerala legislature.
Its uncommonness lies in the fact that it is probably the first drama, or even probably the only one, that became a topic for an adjournment motion — an extraordinary procedure to draw the attention of the House to a recent matter of urgent public importance having serious consequences.
The adjournment motion was introduced in the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin Legislative Assembly. And it was against the withdrawal of permission for staging Ningalenne Communistakki in present-day Thiruvananthapuram.
The two-hour discussion that ensued delved into details about the suppression of the freedom of speech and expression by the government citing “public disorder” and “threat to the security of the state” — themes familiar even today.
It also grabbed attention due to the participation in the discussion by three MLAs who had strong personal connections to the play.
One was a patron behind the play’s staging, the other a co-director of the drama, and the third was the lead actor.
Withdrawal of permission
On the 85th day after the play began being staged (28 February, 1953), the then Congress government led by AJ John banned the drama citing a threat to public peace.
It was in Kottayam’s Mundakkayam that the drama first experienced this “withdrawal of permission”.
This soon spread to Changanassery (Kottayam), Balaramapuram (Thiruvananthapuram), and Mavelikkara (Alappuzha).
The ban triggered widespread protests, arrests, a war of words in the Assembly, and a legal battle.
The adjournment motion
It was MN Govindan Nair who gave notice for the adjournment motion on 24 March, 1953. A leader of the Communist Party of India (CPI), he was also the patron of the play.
In his opening remark, he alleged that before the withdrawal of permission, the play was performed at around 85 stages and that there were ulterior motives behind its ban.
“Some Congress leaders got the information that around one lakh people are going to watch this drama, and if that happens, it might be a threat to the party. They then influenced the government to ban this drama,” Govindan Nair contended.
He also alleged that the then chief minister, AJ John, had given an assurance in the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting that the play would be banned.
“Even before presenting this adjournment motion, the issue of the ban was brought to the notice of the government. It was when a prohibition was made on the staging of the play at Balaramapuram. The home minister was made aware of this. But he said nothing could be done. The government banned this drama deliberately,” said Govindan Nair.
At the same time, N Rajagopalan Nair, a co-director of the play, in his address termed the government “butchers of art” and “murderers of culture”.
“This drama was made by the people so that it could be performed in front of the people themselves. But here it is being banned. I challenge the government to come out in front of the people and answer why it has been banned. You are the butchers of art. You are the murderers of culture. And you have no role in people’s right to enjoy art,” he thundered.
According to Kambisseri Karunakaran, who played the lead role — of Paramu Pillai — in the play, barbarians who opposed the growth of cultural and aesthetic senses among the people should not be allowed to raise their hands.
“I am talking here as a member and not as one who played a character in a drama that got banned. It is said that some animals will bark at their reflection in the mirror. Likewise, it seems some went berserk as soon as they saw this drama,” said Karunakaran.
Also read: A centuries-old play still performed every year in a TN temple
What was the government’s stance?
According to the then-home minister TM Varghese, there were some apprehensions that the drama might disrupt public peace and the population might start using the derogatory words being used in the play.
“The drama is in memory of accused persons in the Sooranadu Revolution (a movement that provided a base for the Communist Party in central Travancore). It also shows explicitly that Sooranadu-like incidents are needed, and they will have to be glorified. No matter which government is in power, such moves cannot be permitted,” said Varghese.
He also informed the House that the district magistrate might have withdrawn his permission for staging the play because the organisers violated directions.
“When a request is made to grant a licence for performing the drama, the organisers are entrusted to submit a copy of the script, including songs. And it has been noted that this drama’s script had certain inappropriate words. These were asked to be omitted. But the performers used them on stage. Thus, the permission was cancelled,” said Varghese.
Matter dragged to court
As the government desisted from lifting the undeclared ban on the drama, the organisers decided to approach the high court.
A petition was filed by G Janardhana Kurup, another director of the drama, and Justice MS Menon delivered the verdict on 27 April, 1953.
After considering the arguments of the government and the petitioners, the court concluded that the order of the district magistrate of what was then called Trivandrum — that revoked the general permission for staging the drama — had no legal backing whatsoever.
Finally, after two months, the ban was lifted and since then the drama has been entertaining theatre patrons.
A mystery man who made a classic
Ningalenne Communistakki was first published as a book in 1952. The man behind it was Soman.
It piqued the interest of the government as it was anti-establishment in nature. Then began the hunt by the police for this man.
The police had no clue about Soman, including how he looked like and his whereabouts. Then they came to know about the staging of Ningalenne Communistakki as a play at Chavara on 6 December, 1952.
They were certain that Soman would be there, as he was the one who had penned the script.
But a big embarrassment was awaiting them as the man they were in search of sat next to them and enjoyed the first screening of his play.
It took the police some more days to digest the fact that the man they were searching for was none other than Bhaskara Pillai aka Thoppil Bhasi, whom the cops had been searching for in connection with the Sooranadu Revolution!
The event is said to have inspired Bhasi to write Ningalenne Communistakki, which he did while in hiding.
Setting a record
The play, which portrayed the transition of an elderly man from a conservative upper-caste Hindu into a Communist, was an instant success.
The drama at that time ruffled some feathers as it opposed the dominant political and social institutions through its dialogues and songs.
But then came the ban. However, it was a blessing in disguise as it helped the play gain more popularity among the masses.
Modern-day experts would call it an example of the Streisand Effect — the phenomenon of the unintended increase of awareness of some information after efforts were made to hide, remove, or censor it — at play more than half a century before the term was coined.
Ningalenne Communistakki was the first Malayalam play to be staged more than 10,000 times.
According to noted historian and researcher Robin Jeffrey, “It (Ningalenne Communistakki) swept like a storm for months up and down Kerala. It both symbolised and extended Kerala’s changing political culture. The fact that audiences responded so enthusiastically indicated that they sympathised with the ideas of equality and struggle that the play sought to convey. The efforts to ban the play testified to its effectiveness.”
It was the Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC) that staged the play as its second performance.
The drama helped the KPAC spearhead a cultural movement in which the aspirations, despair, and helplessness of the poor and the downtrodden got artistic expression.
It was ONV Kurup, then a young poet, who penned the songs and it was G Devarajan who set them to music. Then, singers KS George and Sulochana breathed life into them.
What’s its relevance now?
A Shajahan, the current secretary of the KPAC, told South First that the oppression and the issues that the play discussed are still relevant.
“It talked about the oppression that the farmers faced at the hands of landlords. Now, one could say that in the place of farmers we are seeing ordinary men, and in the place of landlords there are corporate entities, or even government. The story is the same,” he said.
So, does the drama still have the charm to glue the audience to their seats? Yes, said Shajahan.
“On 28 November, it was staged at Kollam’s Sopanam Auditorium. Around 1,600 people watched the performance. The enthusiasm is still there. So is the overwhelming support,” he said, underlining the timeless nature of the play.