Drama and the Stage

TIn the history of drama too, we find the Indian tradition trying to adjust itself to the growing influence of European drama. The Portugues brought into Kerala their miracle plays which supplied the inspiration for Chavittunatakam. One of the earliest examples of this type is Genoa (date not known). Among the historical plays that followed were Caralman Charitam and Napoleon Charitam.

These plays however did not influence Malayalam literature in any way. The first translation of a Shakespearen play came out in 1866 (Almarattam from A Comedy of Errors). Dramatic literature proper began with Kerala Varma;s translation of Abhijnana Sakuntalam (1881-1882). This was a popular hit. It also led to numerous other translations few of which were put on stage. C.V.Raman Pillai's Chandramukhivilasam (1885), Kochunni Tampuran's Kalyani Kalyanam (1888), K.C.Kesava Pillai's Lakshmi Kalyanam (1893), Kandathil Varghese Mappila's Ebrayakutty (1894) as well as Kalahinidamanakam (from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew) and Kocheepan Tharakan's (1861-1940) Mariamma (published in 1903: the author claims 1878 as the date of composition) were major landmarks in the growth of Malayalam drama.

C.V's Chandramukhivilasam is a combination of Sanskrit elements and western elements. Mariamma dramatizes the characteristically Christian domestic problem of the conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. It is a play clearly modeled on western social problem play in prose interspersed with quatrains in verse. The use of dialect is realistic and effective. C.V.Raman Pillai returned to the stage in 1909 with Kurupillakalari, a prose comedy in the manner of Goldsmith and Sheridan. It was a very effective social satire. The henpecked husband and the westernized English-educated lady are satirized in the play. C.V.'s later dramatic works included Tentanamkottu Harischandran (1914), Kaimalassante Kadassikkai (1915), Pandathe Patchan (1918) and Butler Pappan (1921). These are basically farces with an emphasis on social satire. His real contribution to drama perhaps consists of dramatizations of his famous historical novels: they are among the best historical plays still put on stage. K.P. Karuppan's Balakalesam (1914) is a play with a message, although traditional in form. The traditional kind of verse used in it may be said to give an added sharpness to its social criticism. It advocates progressive measures of social reform in unmistakable terms and calls upon the government to put an end to caste practices by law and to promote the education and upliftment of the lower classes. It is prophetic in this sense and provoked bitter opposition at the time.

E.V.Krishna Pillai (1895-1938) inherited from C.V.Raman Pillai the tradition of social comedy on the one hand and historical tragedy on the other. E.V.'s native comic gift was put to good use in his Pranayakkammishan (1932), B.A.Mayavi (1933) and Vivahakammattam (1934). Himself an actor, he could exploit the devices of stage presentation effectively. The serious side of his personality found expression in his historical tragedies: Sitalakshmi (1926), Raja Kesava Dasan (1930) and Iravikutty Pillai (1934). They are really the dramatic counterpart to C.V.Raman Pillai's fictional representation of history. E.V.'s comic legacy was pursued by N.P.Chellappan Nair, M.G.Kesava Pillai and T.N.Gopinathan Nair. His tragic heritage was sustained and improved upon by Kainikkara Padmanabha Pillai with his Velu Tampi Dalava and Kalvariyile Kalpapadapam (1934), Kappan Krishan Menon with his Cheraman Perumal and Pazhassi Raja, Kainikkara Kurama Pillai with his Karishchandran (1934), Mohavum Muktiyum (1938) and Kutanad Ramakrishna Pillai with his Taptabashpam (1934). The part played by Shri Chithira Tirunal Vayanasala, Thiruvananthapuram, in promoting the writing of new plays every year for the annual performance on the Maharaja's birthday is very significant in this regard, although on many occasions it had to be satisfied with second-rate or third-rate plays. But it has kept up the longest continuous tradition in amature acting in Thiruvananthapuram: a rare achievement in itself.

The most important theatre arts in Kerla have always had their devoted audience in the villages. There in the open air the ritualistic arts like Padayani, Theyyam, Kakkarissi, Poothamkali and Poorakkali are still attracting large crowds. The classical lperforming arts received a big boost in the present century with the founding of Kerala Kala Mandalam by the poet Vallathol. Attakkathas continue to be written on old subjects as well as new ones. The purists and the traditionalists do not quite favour the widening of the range of the Kathakali repertoire. Changes nevertheless are taking place, however imperceptible they may be at the time. Drama on the western model has always had to face an implicit challenge from these traditional performing arts with a hoary heritage behind them. In more recent times the cinema may appear to be a threat, but these challenges should be a source of insipiration for the dramatist committed to his vocation. The influence of Tamil musicals and their Malayalam adaptations or imitations was keenly felt in the 1920's and 1930's. It is perhaps a legacy from the tremendously popular Sangitanishadham (1892) of T.C.Achyutha Menon (1870-1942) and the later Balagopalam (1920) of Kuttamath Kunjukrishan Kurup. The musical drama version of Kumaran Asan's Karuna was also a very popular play on the commercial stage. This tradition may be said to continue still, occasionally with an overdose of spicy humour or with a leftist-oriented political message.

Malayalam drama underwent a significant development in the 1930's. It may be said to have started with the discovery of Ibsen. A. Balakrishna Pillai, one of the major critics of the period, translated Ibsen's Ghosts into Malayalam in 1936 and wrote articles about him to popularize the kind of drama that Ibsen seemed to stand for. In 1940 C.Narayana Pillai translated Rosmersholm. this trend merged with the new trend which had already made some advance in Malabar. That drama was no mere entertainment, that it was a powerful means of social awakemning and that serious drama could make a powerful appeal to the audience: these truths were demonstrated by two plays based on the Brahmin community in Malabar. Adukkalayilninnu Arangathekku (From the Kitchen to the Scene of Action: 1930) by V.T.Raman Bhattathiripad, traces the history of the liberation of the Namboothiri women. It was an epoch-making play, mainly because of its ideological thrust. Ritumati (The Nubile Maiden: 1939) by M.P.Bhattathiripad continued the movement. K.Damodaran's Pattabakki (Rental Arrears: 1938) is our first play on a socio-political theme it is out and out propangandist yet has an important difference from the conventional type of commercial drama without any serious thought in it. The forties were thus ready for a real take-off. New playwrights like N.Krishna Pillai, Pulimana Parameswaran Pillai, Edasseri Govindan Nair and C.J.Thomas brought into the stage in Kerala the much-needed seriousness of genuine tragedy through the front door itself. N.Krishna Pillai had declared his intentions as a playwright in categorical terms: "the ideal play, as far as I am concerned, is one in which some serious and fundamental human problem is realistically analysed and handled with the utmost concentration, avoiding wastage in words, dialogues, situations and characters. This ideal was instilled in me by Ibsen whom I consider to be the most successful master dramatist of the modern age and hence have attempted to emulate, with discrimination, his dramatic form and technique in my plays".

Krishna Pillai's major works are Bhagna Bhavanam (Shattred Home: 1942), Kanyaka (The Virgin: 1944) and Balabalam (The Trial of Strength: 1946). Pulimana Parameswaran Pillai's Samatvavadi (The Socialist: 1944) is a precisous work; it employs the expressionist device with consummate skill. Edasseri Govindan Nair's Koottukrishi (Joint Farming: 1950) emphasised the value of rustic realism. A new dimension to the serious problem play was given by C.J.Thomas in his Avan Veendum Varunnu (He Comes Again). It is a work that anticipates the later development of Malayalam drama. C.J.Thoma's experimental urge achieves its magnificent fulfilment in his Crime 27 of 1128 (1952-1954). A challenge to directors and actors, Crime is unique among Malayalam dramas. Before Beckett and Ionesco became known as writers of the Absurd Theatre and without proclaiming himself to be the founder of any school. C.J.Thomas gave total expression to his concept of drama-neither tragedy nor comedy alone, but both at the same time, each seeking its justification in the other. C.J.Thomas was to write one more tragedy, Aa Manushyan Nee Thanne (Thou Art That Man), a dramatization of the story of David and Bathsheba. This pattern of epic drama on puranic themes was taken up by C.N.Sreekantan Nair after his first attempts at the social drama. The fifties and early sixties were the period of stage musicals, often with a pronounced socil-political bias. Thoppil Bhasi, N.N.Pillai, K.T.Mohammed, G.Sankara Pillai and Kavalam Narayana Panicker, among others, have kept the theatre active and meaningful during the post-independence period.