Tragedy is a great unifier: The floods in Chennai brought everybody, rich or poor, powerful or insignificant, to their knees. S. Murugaboopathy, founder of the Manalmagudi Theatre Land and widely accepted as one of the finest theatre practitioners of our time, was in the midst of the upheaval, dispatching his troupe of actors to lend a hand. They made their way to Cuddalore, Puducherry and across Chennai, distributing food and helping the displaced. Boopathy, immersed as he is in literature and art, was struck at once by the countless water disasters that have drowned Tamil civilisations through the course of history. "Around water bodies people grow as trees. These are the gods in which they place their lives," he said, speaking in lyrical Tamil, a day before his play, Neer Naadodikal (Nomads of Water) makes its debut in Bengaluru. It was this thought that led to the conception of the play: the story of the Chennai floods, written and directed by Boopathy. It is, incidentally, the first student-driven production by Manalmagudi Theatre Land - "This was their opportunity to be part of a serious play and they came to me with great excitement," he said.
Our story, however, begins Kovilpatti, a small village that lies about 100 km away from Madurai. This place contains his abode: an ancestral home with a sprawling courtyard that doubles up as rehearsal space. Born into a family of scholars and playwrights, his grandfather, Madhurakavi Bhaskardas, was a theatre practitioner and lyricist: Boopathy compiled his diary entries into a book, published in 2009 as part of his PhD. In this world, theatre is more than an art form, it is a ritual, an ancient one, he says, "explained at length in Tamil literature." To augment this philosophy, Boopathy travels to temples across the state, both big and small, to observe their practices. Maayakomaligalin Jaala Kannadi, for instance, is the product of serveral years' research into the lives of clowns and gypsies in Tamil Nadu.
Neer Naadodikal, like his other plays, is broken up into chapters, breaking away from a linear storyline and interspersed heavily with heady percussion, actors in masks, gestures and voices, all of which lament, in a sense, the death of a God, linking ancient myths and beliefs with the traditions that have grown out of modern life. "The fact that we saw our water bodies as deivam (god), protected them. However, in today’s world, as society grapples with development, converting water spaces into high-rises, the source of life has been reduced to droplets," Boopathy says. Here, water is compared with the female archetype, who arose from war and tragedy, rising from the fragments of reservoirs she has left, to claim what is rightfully hers. "Crowds follow her, calling her to heaven, when her journey on earth has not yet ended," he remarks.
A gripping scene unfolds on stage: Women appear, clutching ragged bits of cloth, their eyes filled with pain and memories of loss, which they fondle as a mark of affection, perhaps, for the children they have lost. "It is the story of helplessness, driven forward by memories." He captures, during the course of the narrative, the panic that rained down on the people, as actors mumble hurriedly into their phones and strut about in plastic bags (Boopathy, during his visit to Chennai after the floods, was struck by the fact that everything had been covered in black plastic bags.
There is very little dialogue, a complex tool that Boopathy uses with the unmistakable touch of a master. He chooses instead to make his way to the audience’s heart, telling the story of a disaster that several of us in the Bengaluru audience might not have witnessed but will understand, nevertheless for no human being, he emphasises, is exempt from life's many frailties. So join them, in their songs of love, loss, power, death and life itself - The Nomads of the Water.
What: Neer Naadodikal (Nomads of the Water)
When: Nov. 3, 7 pm onwards
Where: Ranga Shankara, 36/2, 8th Cross Road, JP Nagar, 2nd Phase