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Chennai - The Cultural Capital

Madras – a quiet civilized, elegant and cultured city in the southern part of India. It means many things to many people. For some it is simply home, for others it is a ‘dead slow’ city, and for some others it is the city which has attained the perfect balance between the West and the East. But everybody agrees on one thing – it is one of the cultural centers in India.

At first glance, one would be lulled into thinking that the entertainment scene in Madras is limited to just classical dance. But scratch the surface, and you will see another face of Madras – a more complete and wholesome picture of this culturally rich city.

At present anybody wishing to spend an evening out, can choose between theatre, both Tamil and English, dance recitals or musical concerts.

On a Saturday evening, a visit to the Music Academy will prove beyond any doubt that a large portion of the population still flocks to the theatres and sabhas for wholesome, live entertainment. As far as theatre is concerned, it still remains the most popular of the three – dance, music and theatre. In Madras, theatre is basically divided into the sabha – oriented theatre and the non-sabha oriented theatre.

The sabha oriented theatre is the more popular of the two. It basically satisfies the masses’ need for a good laugh. Usually, a parody on the latest political issue or trend and supported by slap-stick comedy and ribald jokes, its reach is very wide. The non-sabha oriented theatre is basically comprised of historical plays and plays based on in-depth analysis of the various aspects of life. In the Tamil ‘play’ scene the leading players are S.V. Shekar, Y.G. Mahendran (both of whose plays are very popular among the crowds – both young and old), Chanakya (whose themes revolve around the family and related themes), Ramani (who focuses on inter-personal relationship), Augusto (whose plots carry a large element of suspense and thrill) and Manohar (who is among the very few who deals with historical plays).

English theatre in Madras is also coming of age with plays being staged by various consulates, like the Trident and the Park Sheraton, encouraging Dinner Theatre. The daily newspapers ‘The Hindu’ also sponsors plays in Madras. In fact, English theatre has become so popular that crowds are pulled in on the strength of the name of the director alone. Michael Muthu being one such director whose plays are assured of a good opening at the least.

Another form of theatre that has been evoking a good response in Madras is the ‘Daily Theatre’. At present V. Gopalakrishnan is one of the few exponents of this form of theatre, which lasts for about one and a half months, in the months immediately after summer.

But the advent of satellite T.V. has done a lot of harm to the development and popularity of theatre. With more and more people opting to stay at home and watch the world from there, the crowd-pulling ability of theatre has come down. But many theatre enthusiasts believe that this cannot destroy theatre in the long run. “The number of people coming to the theatre may have come down. But this is only a passing phase and will soon pass. Eventually people will get bored of the stuff being shown on T.V. and flock back to the theatre” says Dr. S. Gopalie, well-known theatre personality and critic. “Theatre will never die. It may change its form; from the larger theatre (sabhas) it will evolve into the smaller theatre (TV); but it will never die” he adds.

In the field of dance, classical dance forms still holds forth as the leader. The knowledge of the various nuances of the classical dance form being quite high in Madras, it has a larger audience here than anywhere else. However the number of solo recitals have come down and the dance ballets seem to pull in more crowds, nowadays. The performance of padams are on the decline and more and more artists now prefer to perform kirthis because they are simpler. Also the duration of these performances have come down from two-and – a-half hours to one-and-a-half hours or even less. This is mainly due to the fact that the concept of custom changes in between performances is almost extinct. Another factor is that the composition of the audience has also changed over the last few years – they are now more restive than ever before.

“In the present scenario, promotion of self has picked up rather than promotion of art. This has resulted in quality of performance being compromised” says Maithrai Ramadurai a dance enthusiast.

Anitha Ramnachandran an exponent of Mohini Attam says, “I feel that dance ballets are more popular than solo-performances. Even in solo-performances, a good crowd turnout can be expected only for a well-known figure. But on the whole dance has a good future in Madras, especially since the people are now more in tune with the spiritual value attached to it”. According to her, classical dance is a wonderful method of disciplining ones mind and body.

Of late, Madras has also seen many musicals being staged. Bryan Laul one of the leading directors of musicals in Madras says, “Musicals have come to stay, because it reaches out to a wide cross-section of people. Now with mass-media and computer graphics and technology also being involved the future is very bright and exciting.” Bryan was earlier involved with direct theatre, but shifted to musicals because he found it more challenging, since it embraced the elements of dance, acting music.

Though television and cinema have made inroads into the popularity and crowd-pulling ability of theatres and crowd-pulling ability of theatres and sabhas, the artists and the die-hard dance, music and theatre enthusiasts do not seem unduly worried. They all share the belief that nothing can take away from these forms of art their basic essence and popularity. According to them all this talk about the end of the theatre or dance is only a lot of empty-talk and as far as they are concerned live performance is going to outlast recorded entertainment in the long run.