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staging the epic

Started by theatre enthusiasts Raghavendr Siva and Sabarivas, Theatrekaran aims to recreate the epics that we have grown up with, told to us by our grandparents – through plays and productions. We sat down with them to ask them how their plays take their audiences back to the times when life was breezy, and stories seemed larger than life.

How did it all start with Theatrekaran?

We started Theatrekaran in 2016. We started acting when we were studying in school, in Chettinad Vidyashram, which had its own plays. It’s been fifteen years now since we’ve been acting. Once we stepped out, we just wanted to do our own theatre. People started doing English theatre, but being in Tamil Nadu, we wanted to start doing Tamil Theatre. We started doing plays. We’ve entirely grown up and grown through epics. Through Theatrekaran, we wanted to propagate all of this, as it-is becoming a lost story. The number of grandparents or parents telling their children these stories is becoming lesser and lesser by the minute.  The very first play that we did was called Maravanaadu – it was based on an English movie called the Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. We converted that film into a play and executed it in 45 minutes. 

Our first play was an utter flop, because we performed it in the wrong place – during an alumni meet in a marriage hall. It was our first opportunity, and we jumped for it, not wanting to lose it. That was our first big lesson – we realized we can’t just go whenever people call us, we need people who are going to be watching the play rather than just go in for entertainment. What we focus on is ithikasam, as we are very powerful in it – whether it is Ramayana, Mahabharatam or any other epic. Apart from this, we do a lot of modern plays as well, along with a focus on social awareness. Our main themes, however, are always on epics, whether it’s Kalki’s novels or someone else’s. 

What is your take on epics?

“We depict them faithfully. We don’t fantasize any stuff here, because you can’t do that in Chennai or India. However, we do depict the well-loved characters in other ways. For example, we recently did a play called “Asuras”, which is from the perspective of Ravana – how did his clan see the war?”

raghav and sabari

Kumbakarna and Indrajit, and the others, were all scared of Rama and Lakshmana, and they used all their astras, which couldn’t even scratch them. They came back to Ravana saying “Let’s call off this war, let’s give Sita back!” But Ravana, with his ego, said that he wouldn’t give her back, and he wanted to meet Rama and Lakshmana face-to-face. 

At the end of the day, these epics might be the fantasy of somebody. We are not changing that fantasy. All of these are from books, and we believe that they happened. Kumaravel Sir is our script-writer – and he bases it on different editions of the books. We don’t want to do the same Ramayana or Mahabharata that people have always heard. There’s always a new perspective. You’ve always seen Rama’s POV, so we wanted to bring in a different one you wouldn’t even have dreamt off. Not a lot of people have seen Ravana crying, but we showed that Ravana is also a human being who can cry. People have seen Rama as soft, but we depicted him as an aggressive person. 

Theatre, at the end of the day, is a dying form of art. People don’t want to come in. Our tickets have always only been within 200 rupees, even if we’re holding it in Music Academy. That’s because we want to bring people in, and if we’re going to tell them the same thing again and again, they’ll be least bothered about it. So far, we’ve shown Hanuman’s perspective along with Ravana. In our plays, all the genders stay the same. 

Other than your major interest in epics, what modern plays have you done?

We’ve done plays for Valentine’s Day, Women’s Day and World Hunger Day – such as Bro Konjam Tamila Pesunga, Hey Love da, Wild Tales. However, we don’t do too much of modern theatre. We’re really into ithikasam and we do a lot of plays on social issues. We do a lot of street plays in the roads of Besant Nagar. We have performed street plays on water scarcity, air pollution, the Good Samaritan law, and unconscious bias. On car-free Sundays in Besant Nagar, we get permission and start performing, and people come and watch. 

What are your streets plays like? 

It’s a great opportunity for Theatrekaran, as people get to see what we can do. It’s also a lot of fun to go on the road and perform. You meet a lot of different people. Street play is a live art where you can bring in people from the crowd and start acting with them. In one of our plays, there was a girl who was performing in a Brahmin accent. There was a 55-year-old man who came up to her and asked “How could you do this? How can you affect the Brahmin language?” We are Brahmins ourselves, but we don’t believe in. The 100 other people who were there came to support us, and told him to speak to us after the play. People can walk in or across anytime they want. The actors would just adjust their lines for them. It’s all about adaptation. 

Do you have any other shows? 

Kadhaigal Kaanalam is one of our flagship shows and is a storytelling session. We started it here, and have performed in Erode, Coimbatore and Pondicherry and are taking the show on the road. We usually perform three stories, with two standup comedians performing in between. One of the stories is about Jallikattu, and one is a ghost story. For the ghost story, we turn all the lights off to help our audiences imagine the ghost. Seeing it in theatres, we do know that the ghost is coming but we want to make people feel it standing in front of you. That’s a different experience we like to create. 

Our third story is about Jashwant Singh, an Indian freedom fighter, during the huge war between India and China in 1962. It is set in Arunachal Pradesh and it’s a really nice story. This sole person, Jashwant Singh, single-handedly killed over 100 people. In between the stories, to give people a break, the stand-up comedians perform for ten minutes. It’s a really lovely mood journey. 

Each of our stories have a message – Jallikattu is about anger management, the ghost story is about love, and the last one is patriotism. KK is one of our flagship shows. The unique thing here is it’s usually one actor telling a story, performing without a book. They become all the characters. They live out the story. From our next shows, we’re getting musicians to perform between the stories – to help support other artists.

Who is your core team?

Nearly 250 or 300 actors have performed with us. They come and they go according to the plays, based on other commitments. Suppose we tell them we’re starting a new play in January and staging it in June, they’ll be with us till then. Productions don’t come in to fund us, so we don’t pay our actors for performances or for training them. It’s all out of passion or pure love for the craft. We don’t play roles in every play. Before we started Theatre Karan, were were trained under Jayakumar sir. Our gurus are Thota Tharanni sir, Jayakumar sir, Kumaravel sir, Lawrence sir and Paul Jacob sir.

We do two main productions each year, and we act in both the productions. Apart from that, we don’t act in the plays, we direct. Other core members of our team are Karthik SP, Rayyan, Aishwarya and Ragu Raman. 

When you develop the idea for a new play, what is your scripting process? How do you design the sets and props?

Kumaravel sir is our scriptwriter for the ithikasam plays. He’s an absolute legend and another guru for us. We come to him and tell him we want to do the epics. He goes through three or four editions of the same epic and then comes up with the creative aspects and writes it down. He takes the context and gives it to us.  In our street plays and modern theatre, the scripting is done by the members of Theatrekaran.

Thota Tharanni Sir is our art director for the ithikasam plays, and he tries to make every prop we use as realistic as possible. Each of the fighters in battle scenes get weapons which look realistic. Theatrekaran has a lot of designers. Our main designers Arthi and Aishwarya do the set design for our modern theatre and street plays. We’re very clear about creating a visual journey in every scene for audiences. Even if the design is minimalist, if we’re staging the lac palace, it has to look like the lac palace.

Over your years as performers, what has been your favourite roles to play? 

Ragavendr – My favourite would be Duryodhana, which I’ve done before. I’ve played a villain role only once, and it’s been my all-time favourite. He is such a complex, rich and interesting character.

Sabari –  Mine would be a dual role of Naganandi and Pulakesi.  It’s from Kalki’s Sivagamiyin Sabadham, The toughest part was I had to act like a 60-year-old Buddhist monk and a 60-year-old warrior. Imagine acting as a monk in the previous scene and coming back on stage as a warrior they shouldn’t be any similarities between the characters.

Considering you started Theatrekaran to carry forward the lost stories of the older generation, are a lot of your audiences members of the same generation?

Quite a few of the older generation come in to see our plays. A lot of people who used to watch the Ramayana and Mahabharata on the television, are over sixty or seventy today. A lot of kids who love theatre bring their grandparents. Selling these tickets is a little difficult, because we can’t spend a lot on marketing. We can’t do paper advertisements, so we only can do social media. We depend a lot on the shares of our cast. We’ve had housefull shows but up until the last day, it’s always a struggle for us. Whenever we perform the street plays we ask audiences to come and watch us in the main plays.

What’s next for you guys? 

Right now, we’re only performing in Chennai. We haven’t yet expanded our main plays because we haven’t found enough producers. What we want to do is to keep performing in Chennai, take all the revenue from our productions here, and use it to perform in other cities. Our next Kadhaigal Kaanalam shows will be performed in Madurai and Trichy. We want to travel and take the show on the road – literally.

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