As a theatre artist, watching a play has always been an emotional experience for me. And Prasanna Ramaswamy’s play ‘68,85,45 + 12 latcham’ has been a surreal one for me.
Watching the play in the afternoon transported me to the world of Nampaduvan and Thirukkurungudi Nambi — the Kaisika Natakam story — but it is much more than that.
A chorus-like group of actors who bring in their interpretations about how untouchability works through such a myth/legend and status quo is maintained through what is established as tradition, a dancer appearing as a representation of Nampaduvan singing a Nammazhvar pasuram and dancing — they all quickly dissolve and reappear as a set of actors enacting Wind and Fire.
Even as I got drawn into Bharathy’s immortal lines “kaatre vaa” sung melodiously by Revathy Kumar, and the dancers moving as Wind, my memory flew back to the stage play I did together with Prasanna on this very poem, several years ago.
Focusing, right from the beginning, on the caste system of the Hindu religion, which validates it through temples, rituals, music, etc. — turning art itself into tools of discrimination — the play ends with a discussion on the significance of Ambedkar’s conversion into Buddhism, which is radically different from all other religious conversions.
What starts with us listening to Nampaduvan, a great singer devotee not allowed inside the temple, and myths propagated to maintain the status quo, bursts into a raw wound with the festival of the Kapali temple where the manual scavenger is needed to sustain the celebration and the city.
Also read: A centuries-old play in a Tamil Nadu temple
‘Give me a beedi, Kapali, it’s cold’
A sequence that deftly moves between a Carnatic song on Kapali and the lines of Sukumaran’s poem depicts the enjoyment and celebration of people getting punctured by a ‘dhurvaadaitharunam’, a drainage leak.
Once the drain is repaired, the ‘devotees’ turn their backs, chasing the God while the shit-covered scavenger is left shivering and calls out to his colleague, “Oru beedi kodu Kapali, kuliruthu” (Give me a beedi, Kapali, it’s cold). The viewer is shaken.
The Water episode dramatises Challapalli Swaroopa Rani’s poem on water, detailing the Karamchedu massacre (1985) and the tyranny imposed on the Scheduled Castes for ‘one pot of water’ — where an actor is brought to the stage and transforms into Dr BR Ambedkar. One recalls the historical Mahad Chavdar protest march led by Ambedkar, which was to claim equal rights to drink water from a tank.
A play by Prasanna Ramaswamy, with Anita Ratnam & others
The tapestry of the play with all its intricacies is adeptly woven by the magical hands of director Prasanna Ramaswamy, who raises poignant questions about the Keezhvenmani massacre (1968) and other junctures of social injustice — not as loud propaganda but as an impeccable piece of art ably assisted by versatile artists.
Also read: Why were many Dalits not aware of Keezhvenmani for a long time?
Though the tone is set by danseuse Anita Ratnam’s subtle yet powerful storytelling, each one of those actors has made their presence felt by dialogue delivery and by movements and gestures.
Prasanna’s ambit is more than just ticking back the clock to those unforgettable years of unpardonable injustice to our oppressed natives. Her play revolves around those punctuated incidents of history stained with discriminatory bloodshed.
And the elan with which she transforms the poems of Sukumaran and Ravikumar into effective voices of humane anguish is beyond description!
As the memorial at Keezhvenmani is evoked repeatedly to tell you about the torching massacre, Ravikumar’s poem connects the past to the present, speaking of the unforgettable ‘smoke’, ‘burnt smell’ that is sensed at the site even today.
And the effective set with the Four Elements through which the pathetic plight of manual scavenging and the forbidden wells of drinking water for lower castes are emoted binds us instantly with the enacted scenes.
Also read: Manual scavenging deaths of Dalits, a serious problem in ‘progressive’ TN
Revathy sang and danced simultaneously and Nikila anchored the whole play with her presence inside as part of the chorus as well as making social commentary at the periphery — these are two actors with whom I have an emotional attachment as a theatre person and they have always surprised me with their histrionics.
The entire cast and crew deserve special appreciation. Mrithula Chetlur also proved her theatrical inheritance with her graceful performance.
I also want to note the wonderful singing on stage by Revathy, the brilliantly scored original music for each section by Anand Kumar, and Gurunathan’s exquisite creation of a transparent canvas full of birds, leaves, and flowers held as only a pictorial relief for the dark and deep life of scavengers.
I was also reminded of the efforts of our honourable chief minister who is taking all measures to make sure that the practice of manual scavenging is completely eliminated, even in remote corners.
Prasanna Ramkumar, who effectively donned the role of the villainous Pannayar as well as the fundamentalist, brought in such good variation in his depiction.
A special mention to Snehaa who emoted and moved very well.
Smrithi Parameswar slipped in and out of the chorus and did justice to her part. Roshan appeared in different sequences and portrayed all roles effectively, and Vijay came up with endearing energy with his delivery and moves.
Ajith used every opportunity to stand out with his body language and Prem gave life to the rebel villager as well as the left-wing speaker on TV. Surya sang and moved with joy.
Infant, appearing as Ambedkar, was so convincing in all his roles throughout the play. Vishnu Bala as the Ambedkarite rebel was very effective.
And what a brilliant script and dialogues, written by Prasanna Ramaswamy, Divagar, and Rathan Chandrasekhar: the Tanjore slang of class and caste confrontation, the scavenger’s episode full of cuss words yet detailing the tenderness among them, and the panel discussion sequence, delivered with a sniper’s precision coupled with drollery — by those who performed as a TV show participants and anchor as well.
by the Feudal Lord!
‘Menin’ or ‘Rage’ is the opening word of the Iliad.
Prasanna Ramasamy’s play anchors on this one word that echoes with multiple cries and of victims of caste atrocities.
Rage was in the air I breathed there;
Rage was in the land I sat there;
Rage was in the fire I felt there;
Rage was in the sky I gazed there.
Kudos to the director Prasanna and may there be many more poignantly passionate presentations with an amazing cast like this one.
Also read: Lakshmi Viswanathan, a dancer’s dancer
(Thamizhachi Thangapandian is a DMK Lok Sabha MP, writer, and poet)
(‘68,85,45 + 12 latcham’, a Tamil play produced and directed by Prasanna Ramaswamy and presented by Chennai Art Theatre, was premiered at the Tamil Lit Fest at Anna Centenary Library on 6 January 2023. There were subsequently three shows at MEDAI, Alwarpet, Chennai.)
(Regarding the title of the play: 68 and 85 in the title refer to the years in which the Keezhvenmani and Karamchedu massacres took place; 45% of manual scavenging deaths occurred in Tamil Nadu; 12 latcham (or lakh) acres were given to Dalits as Panchami lands during the British period)