Face to Face – Ramesh Varma 2017-06-25T05:14:20+00:00

Project Description

Ramesh Varma is a noted stage actor and director. He is also a Kathakali performer and has acted in lead roles in few Malayalam cinemas. An alumnus of Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, and School of Drama, Thrissur, he is currently a lecturer in the theatre department in Sree Sankaracharya University, Kalady. His theatre works are notable for their focus on regional aesthetics and forms, with due importance being given to innovation and contemporary thought. He takes keen interest in photography, and has been practicing it diligently for the past six years. The numerous and varied photographs taken during his ‘Morning Walk’, a series of black and white images, are indeed theatrical, in the truest sense. Ramesh Varma has worked as a curator in ITFoK. In this exclusive interview by Arjun Ramachandran / Photo Mail, Ramesh Varma talks about aesthetics, the direction, and the future of theatre, while touching on the personal and the political facets of expression in different media.

A known Indian photographer called Radhakrishnan Chakyat suggested this Olympus camera to me. It was a few years back, and mirrorless cameras like this weren’t so popular back then, and people didn’t know much about its advantages. That’s how I began photography.

The “Morning Walk” series that I do is the one that interests me the most. The reasons for that are the morning light, for one, and the absence of inhibitions. This uninhibited behaviour disappears after 7 am, and then people start asking why I’m taking photos. Then onwards, I have to act like a professional, and say that I’m working for a newspaper or something like that. I also don’t get tired of the morning sights, of people brushing their teeth and reading the newspaper, out in public spaces; this is quite common once we move a little away from the town. I don’t post photos of people brushing their teeth on Facebook, though. But I have quite a few of them, including those of women and migrant workers. I don’t know how the photographs look, but the image is vivid in my mind – which I cannot get enough of.

Initially, I had a feeling of compulsion that I needed to take a photo each day. Some days I wouldn’t get any photos. It was on one such day that a truck fell over in front of me, at Kundannur junction. One side of my mind was pushing me to take a photograph of it, but the other side was reminding me that this was not my subject. People around me were taking photos on their phones, while the driver was trying to come out. But I didn’t take a photo of it. It was on that day that I understood that there is an ideological stance involved in photography. I don’t know about its deeper sense; I would simply have to take more photographs and get to know it.

How many years has it been since you started?

5 or 6 years. But I was never looking at it as a serious mode of expression. It was only after I talked to Abul about it that I began wondering about it, in a different way. I usually go on morning walks – I go cycling instead, these days – and I would take one photograph each day. That was a routine, one click a day. I also shared photos on Facebook, thinking such visuals would be interesting for people, especially outsiders and NRIs. I still follow the routine of one click a day.

Do you feel any problem in doing both theatre and photography – theatre being a collective effort, and photography being an individual one?

Even before I started doing this “Morning Walk” series, I used to go somewhere and sit quietly in the mornings. It was a habit. I would sit at a railway station, a kind of a jetty… if I could, I would go to an unfamiliar spot. Some place where people who inquire can be avoided. The camera came as a part of this habit. We are also different, at different times – we are alone at times, we may become part of a group, we may join with a slogan-raising crowd; but we never considered these differences as separations. They are all part of us. Even within theatre performances, we are different at different times.

I like both chess and football. They are different, but I still like both. I follow chess closely, and football too, to a lesser extent. Everybody will have such sides to them.

There was an incident during one of my morning walks. A man came up to me and asked what I was photographing. I explained myself, and he took me saying, “Come with me. I’ll show me something”. He took me to a public water tap, with pots kept underneath them. He asked me to photograph it from different angles; sitting down, lying down and all. I complied and took photos as he instructed me to. Then he took me to a different place. This went on for about two hours. He began looking for new things to photograph once he had run out of familiar subjects. Incidents like this have happened twice or thrice.

I feel the process is theatrical, in that sense. I’m turning into a photographer, and letting the other person direct me. But I still have a slight embarrassment when I take my camera out in public. The camera attracts a lot of stares – but I’ve never faced any negative intervention till now.

I never thought my photographs would get noticed. I didn’t approach it as a serious means of expression. I didn’t even think people would even follow it. But I want to keep this approach going. It’s worked well for me so far.

Have you tried learning about photography, in a technical sense?

Actually, that hasn’t happened. One of my students here, Jithu, has learnt photography. I get a few tips when we talk, but apart from that there has been very little learning as such. That probably affects my images; in many cases, the photographs that I cherish or remember may be technically lacking; it may be out of focus, or taken in a hurry… I’ve never thought of it as a photographer. I take photos, that’s all.

Do you plan on changing that in the future?

No, I would like to keep it this way. I don’t think I can handle assignments. I’ve never taken up any assignments till date, but there was this one instance when a friend of mine asked me to take photos of his relative’s wedding. I told him I don’t feel confident about doing it, but he assured me that a studio guy, a professional was there too, and that he wanted me to take a few photos too. This Kalikota Palace is an old colonial architecture, with two big pillar-like structures outside. When I went there, I saw a pile of footwear near these pillars. You could make out the pair that was kept at first, when you looked at it. The rest came after that pair, one by one.  I got fascinated by this visual, and kept trying to shoot it properly.  The footwear could tell us a lot about their owners, not just by their quality, but also in the way they have been handled and kept – a few of them were carefully kept, side-by-side, others looked like they were carelessly thrown.

I spent about one or one-and-a-half hours trying to get a satisfactory photograph of that. I wasn’t able to shoot properly, because people kept coming and going and getting in between me and my subject. I also felt slight embarrassment, not being a professional photographer. So what I got from that wedding were those images of the footwear, which I couldn’t obviously give them. I also don’t think I can enjoy an assigned work in photography. It’s only when I can take whatever I want that I enjoy it.

Are you interested in doing something in photography, relating it to theatre? Maybe to document works of theatre, or something of that nature?

I haven’t had any of my plays documented till now. I have a sort of disinterest in documenting my works. Even my brochures are designed with minimum text intended to communicate the necessary information, and printed on ordinary papers, and I don’t intend to change that either. The performance has to end onstage.

Apart from that, maybe the process and other aspects of it can be documented, and I often feel such things are good. But a performance should finish on the stage itself; the energy of such performances is often the highest.

There was this one play of mine, one that I did for a particular group, which was documented by the organisers. The process behind it was also documented as videos and photos. But the video of the performance itself is of no use, because the music in that play consisted of the breaths of the actors. None of that can be heard in the video.

We have an oral tradition in our arts, which is the main mode through which techniques and knowledge are handed down. Videos and photos could strengthen that tradition, if handled correctly, can’t they?

I’m not negating the possibilities. I just described my thought process when I do a work. I always want the performance to end on the stage, to become complete there. Theatre is an “art of becoming,” but it involves “becoming” and “becoming complete.”

How do you approach it as a teacher?

As a teacher, at times, I do think works ought to be documented, as an academic exercise. Often I feel that, at least, other people’s works should be documented. I usually document most of the productions that happen here (Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady), but I don’t do it with a particular intent to document, even though ultimately what happens is documentation. I don’t see it as a documentation process when I take the photographs. I’ve taken photos of most of the activities that happened here in the recent past; including a few plays, the ones in which I haven’t acted. Even among the ones in which I have acted – for example, there was a play that we did, called Begum Panikker, the processes of which I have recorded.

I’ve also taken photos of a Bali that my wife played. I only shot the death scene. The lighting failed in between the play, so I had to shoot in the bad light that resulted. But such themes sometimes come up in my mind when I’m shooting a performance. I tried something like that during Kalamandalam Gopi’s performance at Thripunithura, in which I tried to capture his facial muscles and mudras. I could get a few photos, but it doesn’t feel complete. Also, I couldn’t adjust to the speed of his hand movements. Maybe if I shoot 2 or 3 more performances of his, I’ll get a good series of images. His fingers are long, which makes his mudras somewhat different.

Such themes usually just occur to me while I’m watching and photographing the performance. But if a Kathakali club asked me to make an album, I’d be lost.

I had also tried to capture symbols of effort from Kalloor Ramankutty Marar’s thayambaka – the effort that is visible in different parts of his body. Here again, the light was bad; they had used tubelights and all. So the photographs are not presentable, but I hadn’t thought it in that way in any case. But I think it would have made a good series of images if the lighting was good.

Lighting is something that should actually be a part of the performance. But we see quite a lot of performances occurring in poor lit stages.

The aesthetics of lighting are lacking, in truth. There is some sort of confusion, and some ignorance about it, among our people. But there is another side to it; I had tried to photograph (FACT) Padmnabhan Assan’s Parasuraman. Once I got to the place, what I saw was that the stage had curtains with sequences on it, and there were distracting images of Gods all over, the kind we see in Barber shops, for instance. Taking a proper photo didn’t seem possible to me. But the audience wasn’t bothered by this at all. We have this habit, or we’re used to this situation of having to look past such distractions. Howsoever poor the light is, howsoever shabby the stage is, the audience seems to get lost in the play once it starts.

But the gap between the performance and the lighting still exists?

Yes, but again, there is another side to it. Take the case of Usha Nangyar… or Kottakkal Sivaraman; he passed away. He played the role of Damayanti in Nalacharitam Onnam Divasam, a character whose age is 14 or so, when he was 75 years old. The audience knows very well that the character doesn’t look like how he does. But the spectacle is only a base for the performance, one from which the performance extends. There are things beyond the spectacle in the performance.

In that case, in what direction will such art forms grow from here on, if the visual is no longer central?

I didn’t say it isn’t visual, only that it doesn’t end with the visual; rather it begins with the visual. This statement I make with particular reference to Kathakali. The same cannot be said of theatre as a whole, because contemporary theatre is not a form. Kathakali, Koodiyattom, Mohiniyattam and all can be called forms, in which certain things are constant to an extent, but such definitions are not possible for contemporary theatre as a whole. It is a plural, organic entity; and if someone tries to define it, the next artist will be trying to break that definition.

I’ll rephrase that question. What kind of changes can we see in theatre forms that we call “traditional”? How have they grown during their recent history? How much of it is visible on the surface?

The big change that happened in the beginning of the previous century is that the form became the performer’s own. Earlier, Kathakali and Mohiniyattom and the likes were controlled by their patrons, and bore marked influences of the patron community. Once these forms became the artist’s own, the possibility of including individual interpretations and experiences – those of the artist – became real. In one sense, it was a kind of modernisation. The period was also one of modernity.

Today, things are a lot more complicated. It’s not easy to predict where the forms are heading towards.

Something common with almost all art forms…

Yes. But I’m not too concerned with traditional forms. Let it follow its path, is what I would say. I’m more concerned with contemporary arts. Take theatre itself, for example. In the 70s, companies like the Ford Foundation intervened in the field. That has affected the face of theatre, influenced it in many ways. Now, once companies try to comply with Corporate Social Responsibility norms by investing in arts, some of that money will come into theatre. Using up so much money is not possible for small-scale, regional productions like mine; it would necessitate big spectacles and visual wonders, creating theatre works similar in essence to Baahubali, for instance.

Despite all its failings, theatre has so far kept its position as the common man’s medium, whatever its weaknesses are. It may change from now on. The performers and the audience had a lot of common ground. Now, in stages like Choice, there are people coming in luxury cars to watch theatre. I’ve never had such people come to see my plays. They also host Rajat Kapoor and the like.

Cinema actors are also occasionally coming into theatre now. In reality, they offer no advantage to theatre, other than the glamour they bring in. There have been claims that theatre will only profit from such icons getting involved, but none of those have been substantiated.  Or maybe this is a prejudice of mine.

How are initiatives like ITFoK influencing the theatre scene?

To fully understand that, we have to compare the present situation with the situation before such efforts began to happen. When I was studying, we didn’t have any opportunity to watch foreign theatre – but it was impossible to not learn about foreign theatre. That’s how the geography was; it didn’t matter for a person living here if he didn’t know what was happening in Kannur, but it was a matter of shame if he didn’t know what was happening in Paris.

To some extent, that situation still exists. But the difference is that we used to think that foreign theatre was something incredible. It didn’t help that we couldn’t even articulate the names of foreign artists and plays. But now, this perception has changed. We know that there too, theatre is a human endeavour. ITFoK has contributed massively to this demystification.

Another issue is that Malayalis, at least since the 70s, have faced a dilemma; how to reach up to the level of global literature, or theatre. The so-called “They” do not have that burden, but for us, it has been a challenge of sorts – how to enter the global theatre scene.

The “unique identity” of our theatre is also interesting in this discussion. Somebody was telling me recently, “Going to Germany and doing a Brecht play won’t sell, what they want to see is our Kathakali and Koodiyattom.” I replied that I don’t have a passport, and I don’t plan on going to Germany at all. But even in the idea of “uniqueness” of our theatre, the Gaze that facilitates this uniqueness is an Outsider’s gaze. This happens to a lot of us. Think about it, if Unnayi Warrier was as concerned about global literature, would he have been able to write like he did?

I perform for my region. There are artists who work differently, and I do not mean to demean them. There has to be a plurality, definitely. But the idea that the Outsider is the ultimate judge is deeply flawed. Basically, theatre is a regional expression. The irony is that it is our effort to establish a regional identity that is going against it. Ford Foundation said they would provide funds, provided we perform in traditional forms. And then there was a lot of clamour because of the money involved…

There are two things we haven’t done. One, we haven’t understood where the strength of traditional forms lie – perhaps even more than the strength, we haven’t understood how the forms get their identity. Two, we haven’t understood the limits of these forms. I learnt Kathakali first. It is definitely because I felt that Kathakali was not enough for me that I switched to theatre. What I wanted to express was not possible through Kathakali. This is not a fault of the form; it’s just that my ideas don’t fall within the spectrum that Kathakali can express. But I still appreciate the form, and occasionally do roles too. I’m not a great Kathakali performer. I mostly do roles because of my love for it. But it is rarely enough for me as a medium of expression, and when you look at it from the other side, it is not a shortcoming as far as the form is concerned.

Jumping into a form just to enter the global theatre scene will only do harm for both the performer and the form. I personally had some of this shoved onto me by different people. Ultimately, their intention was to make me able enough to perform outside. A sort of tactic to go global.

Even now, there are people who think that theatre venues outside do not need our contemporary theatre, and that Koodiyattom would be more apt. The logic is that the white man would become wonderstruck at the perceived exoticism, if we present such forms. The venue and the would-be audience may actually have been expecting a play based on our reality when they ask us for a performance, but we still retain a sort of “colonial subject” mentality which makes us want to make ourselves “presentable” in a sense, and this makes us send Kathakali and Koodiyattom to such venues.

While that is one side of the problem, we are also expecting a sort of fascist regime to set in. What is theatre and art going to do in that scenario? M F Hussain was sent out of the country, something that would have been unthinkable 10-15 years prior to that – back then, no political party could keep the conversation going without respecting such artists. Now, the situation has changed. The idea seems to be that only the army, the merchants, the farmers and the priests are necessary to run a society. What is art going to do in such a situation? In what way will it survive? Even in such a scenario, artists will get offers to participate in projects worth crores. Alternative thoughts and ideologies will get challenged and sidelined. How should theatre– indeed, all art forms – react to such a regime is the question. Theatre will especially face a lot of problems, because it is an art form that was born in and nurtured by democracy.

ITFoK has opened avenues for Western Postmodern and Absurdist works to be featured in front of a Malayali audience. Now, some of the themes and techniques of such works are already familiar in our theatre scene, yet some others are new. How is the audience reacting to it?

Like I said, what I mainly feel is that ITFoK brought a sense that theatre is fundamentally similar in many aspects everywhere. The theatre scenes around the world are like ours, or we have a theatre scene that is similar to ones around the world. But it was not due to any particular effort to go global that it is so. We’ve seen their effort and process in different ways, we’ve interacted with many artists from different countries; and the important thing to understand from this is that theatre can never be considered as a uniform entity. Theatre is plural, as can be seen from the different groups and individuals who performed here. We hosted African plays, Latin American plays and also from different parts of Asia. There were also performances organized with no particular regional focus.

The fact is that theatre is plural. I don’t know how relevant this truth is today, but when I was entering the field, one of the big debates centred on how Malayalam theatre should be. The answer had to be in singular. Should it be “unique”, should it be in the KPAC model, or should it be something like Brecht? Kerala could only choose one of these. The truth is that theatre could be all of these at the same time, and more.

ITFoK gives us this answer, or that is the practise it tries to develop. There have been very intimate solos, and grand spectacles; street theatre has also been a part of it.

The “strangeness” that foreign plays had in our minds has worn off. That is the advantage. The disadvantage is that… how do we select plays to be featured in such festivals? I presented this problem there itself. We use CDs to judge the plays. But theatre cannot be contained in a CD. When performing outside the country is considered an honour and an aim, especially by many artists here, there is a real danger that a sense will develop that the CD is the way to gain entry into such venues, and as a result, the camera begins to loom dangerously above the theatre. This will only make theatre worse. The domination of the camera will be palpable even in the primary processes itself.

But, especially in the last two editions of ITFoK, interactive performances were brought in which underwent production processes here. This interaction will give local artists a confidence, and a sense that they can rub shoulders with foreign artists. A bridge is created between foreign theatre and the local artists. This is actually a great thing to happen.

I’ve done 7 Kannada plays. The first time I took up a Kannada play, I was conscious that I was entering a different theatre scene. But this thought is not there now. I know that Kannada theatres are in many ways similar to the ones in Kerala; I even feel they are both part of the bigger theatre phenomenon. The internal idea in our culture that influences or cultures from outside our own are “impure” is something that might be influencing us, but whatever it is, such gaps need to be bridged.

We don’t feel the same way when we watch cinema, though. Even if the filmmakers are present during the screening, we still see the cinema as something that comes from a different land, one that is alien to us. In that sense, ITFoK functions better in our region than film festivals.

Like you said, people watch cinema and theatre differently. Especially when it comes to matters like nudity, something that has become a part of the “art cinema” package, so to say.

We’ve featured plays with nudity in ITFoK. That main thing is that it should not become public, the fact that there is nudity in a certain play. Once the audience gets to know that there is nudity, the act of watching becomes influenced by this knowledge, and may become unnatural. Something similar happened with one of my plays, which is named Randu Anthyarangangal Athavaa Dharmocracy. It combines Bhasan’s Oorubhangam and Balivadham. The themes are Krishna getting Duryodhana killed by cheating, and Rama killing Bali. There are no changes to the original plays; only that Rama and Krishna speak in English. We got an opportunity from the University to present the play in Gujarat. We changed the name when we did it there; we dropped the “Dharmocracy.” The name was in Sanskrit, simply Dwau Anthyarangau. The content and the politics remained the same. But if we had printed the political content in the brochure, there was a chance that we might have met with stiff resistance. Because we did not do that, we were able to have the play naturally unfold, and to converse through the play. The issue remains though, that many people attach more importance to the statement that the play puts forward, more than the play itself. The controversy created by the statements that a play makes comes into prominence and restricts the communication. Malayalis have this attitude too. The case of nudity is also similar; if it unfolds naturally, you may not even become aware of it at all.

There was an incident in the University, when two students were about to present a play. The Vice Chancellor called me prior to the play and told me that he got to know that there is nudity in that play. I reassured him that there will be problems. But I asked the students how the matter leaked –if the nudity was genuinely needed in the play, nobody would have had an issue about it even after the play. The play itself was very well done, but at least among the ones who got to know about the nudity beforehand, the act of watching would have been influenced. I told the students not to let such things out in the future.

We conducted a festival called Ekaharya, in which one or two performances contained nudity. Even the ones who watched were unaware of it – “Really? Was there nudity in that play?” was a response that we got. People didn’t become affected by the nudity, because the play necessitated the nudity. But it is necessary to avoid the excitement and curiosity that comes if the audience knows about it beforehand.

How did your visual sense develop – both as a spectator and as a performer?

I was a performer before I became a spectator. My arangettam happened when I was studying in second standard. You can guess how my viewing was at that age. I would say that I hadn’t watched anything properly till then. What I had seen was a sort of children’s theatre that existed inside Kathakali – this was not any separate sub-form, but a lot of the things like the backstage, the peculiar costumes, the noise and the music… children had a lot of things in Kathakali that could keep them interested. In that sense, my primary viewing was almost entirely founded on the visuals of Kathakali.

One of the things that have influenced me the most is a sense of lack of ability, or underachievement. I would say that feeling was one of my biggest inspirations. I’ve even tried to sculpt in granite. I was convinced that I was bad at it. Perhaps it is a conviction that I’m not a painter that brought me into photography. I still try drawing a bit. Even as an actor, I’ve had this problem. My sister was an incredible performer, and when we were still children, people would watch her perform and by the time it was my turn, everybody would have taken their eyes off, or even left. This gave me a sense of not being good enough, which extended to music and painting too. This sense ultimately became my strength too.

I’m not a painter, and I’m not a musician. But I have that desire to be, and I don’t have any forceful need to improve either of those skills.

Did your connections with politics begin after you joined college?

My father was an active communist. Even when Kochi was still ruled by a king, there were unbelievably progressive things happening here. Despite that background, I used to go to the Shakhawhen I was in 7th standard or so, for a couple of years. My parents never forced me into any political ideology. But what drove was an intense dislike towards the so-called “thampuran’s world.” I could not get along with that idea in any way; I could not adjust at all. This dislike was my foundation. By birth or by orientation, I’m not a Dalit, woman, or even gay.

I once listened to the historian R S Sharma speaking at Thripunithura – he spoke about how the Brahminical hierarchy was so deep-rooted in places like Bihar that, to take it apart, we had to look into the cracks within the hierarchy itself. “That is my role,” he said.

I remember that Vayalar Rama Varma wrote a poem for a Kshtariya Kshema Sabha publication. This organization is one that has never had any sort of progressive mentality, not even like Yoga Kshema Sabha. The poem went “Venpotta kudachoodi vaazhum nrupa vamshathin vizhuppalla njan” (Translation: I am not a dirty cloth used by the extravagant royal family) in one of the lines. He wrote that because there are people who still feel that way.

How has the “Varma” identity affected your art and political life?

I don’t feel guilty of being a Varma. I don’t feel proud of it, either. The people who have worked with me were not concerned about it. So I don’t think it has had any visible positive or negative effect by itself. But that may now change. I can’t tell how the future society and the coming generations are going to view things like this. But as it is, I don’t think it is affecting me because the in the circles in which I move, nobody seems to be bothered about it.

We all have different circles of friends on Facebook. Once, when there were some issues related to the temple and our family, I posted a single saying “Some of my relatives like to say that they are from a royal family.” What surprised me was that, even among some people who advocated Dalit politics, the normal response seemed to be “Shouldn’t it be so?” I think this is dangerous. The idea that if we are born in an upper-caste family, we should be proud of it is a very dangerous idea. I don’t know how the situation will develop, but I definitely won’t be wearing a poonool.

Did you maintain a connection with theatre once you got into college?

College actually brought a big change in my aesthetic sense. A Poet’s Congregation was held in college about one month after I joined. Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan was part of it. He asked the audience which poem he should recite, and the audience asked for Shantha. He was quiet for a moment, and then lit a beedi standing on the stage. Then he said, “It’s been a long time since I started saying this, but nothing has changed; and so I will say it one more time, Shaaantheee…” was how he began.

Until then, the tastes that I had acquired were mainly through my school and my family – I had discovered Vyloppilli (Vyloppilli Sreedhara Menon) and Edassery (Edassery Govindan Nair) by myself. But apart from that, the major literary figures that I was aware of – Kumaranaasan, Vallathol (Vallathol Narayana Menon) and the like – they were part of the environment I grew up in, and to imbibe them I needed to take no particular effort. But my elders were not interested in Kadammanitta, Sachidanandan and (Balachandran) Chullikkad. I was aware that what I was hearing by Kadammaitta was a breakthrough. This caused a shift in my aesthetic sense, into something entirely new.

When I was in Pre-Degree second year, I was cast in a play, which won a prize in the Youth Festival. I was playing a comic role in it. All those experiences did me a lot of good, because I would not have grown if I hadn’t gone through those. I didn’t display any conventional excellence.

Politics enabled me to meet a wide range of people, and got me in touch with different realities. The things I learned through political activity can’t be obtained through reading; they simply have to be known in person. The Britto incident happened when I was studying at Maharaja’s.

Did you feel any after-effects of the Emergency?

I finished my studies there only in ’84, seven years after the Emergency ended. But we could call all of this as an after-effect of the Emergency. I often think that our resistance against authority was extremely systematic and authoritarian itself.

The campus had a lot of blossoming poets and artists. I think there are young poets today too, but poetry itself doesn’t seem to be that active as a whole.

Like cinema, for example…

Cinema is in a much more extreme state. I saw a film recently, when I was travelling… Pulimurugan. I couldn’t believe that that film became such a huge hit. I don’t know how Baahubali is, I’m not ready to watch it in any case. But there is good cinema coming out too. The honour that Vinayakan, Manikandan and Surabhi got is a fine achievement, actually. But it is a problem when the collections of crores become a talking point. The thrill is only that how much money one person has made out of a product, and that has engulfed the audience. The quiz programs which come on TV with lakhs on money as prize work in a similar way; the questions may be silly or irrelevant, but the audience simply wants to know how much money this particular contestant will win.

I saw a column in an English paper recently. The art page had a piece which reviewed paintings. The paintings were all being discussed with relation to their prices. In that sense, capital has been working against the essence of art. The sensibility is being affected.

Even in this University, which probably has that section of youth who are most closely linked to art and knowledge, how many people actually go to a gallery and see paintings? How many attend theatre performances? We have a problem here. If asked about it, people escape by saying “I don’t understand any of it.” This thought is something that capital has inculcated. We never say we don’t understand someone’s dress, only whether we like it or not. Because we do understand it; we do know its language. We understand a lot of things about the person just through the dress. Dressing is expressive in its own way.

The language of art is like that. But we have moved away from it, and concentrated on making sense of the story. The language of theatre, cinema and painting lose their individuality, and get dissolved into the process of making some sense of the story.

I remember that I went to Bangalore to watch an India vs Australia cricket match. We didn’t have a TV back then. Allan Border got out in the first ball itself. We were all disappointed at that, having come a long way and not being able to watch him bat. Does that happen today? We’d be happy to get rid of him, because we’re not watching the cricket now; we’re watching the result. The result is the story of cricket. Somehow the result has to be achieved, be it through Duckworth-Lewis or through any other way. The story has to be there. In the case of serials too, even if the camera, acting and everything else is atrocious, if the curiosity about what is about to happen still lingers in the audience, it’ll become successful. Cricket is now all about winning, and the language of cricket is not a matter of concern at all. This is happening because it has become a business. In the era of test cricket, nobody cared if there was no result or it rained. They would simply play as they could, and move on. Now we’re squeezing out narratives from anything and everything.

The capital has always been against the inherent language and grammar of any medium. That is a sure fact.

In the previous instances when capital has intervened in art, art has found some way of breaking free, at least to some extent.

We could say that until recently. But whether we can say it from now onwards, I don’t know. Like I said, Hussain was sent out of the country. I don’t know how much we can oppose now. Art will continue to do its job, but the question is how successful it will be. Even M T Vasudevan Nair is being challenged; even the possibility of something like that was unthinkable until recently. To be honest, I am also against such patriarchs in the field, and I try to find ways to poke them. But now I can’t, I have to take their side. When the opposition to the arts is so strong, there can be no division among well-meaning artists.

Is there a need for political intervention against capital in these fields?

I don’t look at politics in that way. In truth, our reality has become old, outdated. For example, a girl married a lower caste boy near our home, and even her well-educated brother strongly condemned it. In another house close by, there was an inter-religion marriage, which the family considered as something quite natural and not at all offensive. Now, both these scenarios have served as ideals for stories, plays, cinema, poems; so much so that if we were to make a statement about it now, you would say, “This is such an old idea!”

But the reality has not changed. These things are still happening. Even as the ideas have become newer, reality has stagnated and become outdated. We can learn and teach about the methods to correct it, but we can’t be sure where it will lead us.

I’m not going to partake in any conflict assuming victory. The linear evolution “from capitalism to socialism” will not work out as we thought. In fact, there seems to be no such evolution. It is not so simple, and there doesn’t seem to be a happy ending in sight.

This concept of “linear evolution” was visible in our arts too. The progression was designed as a linear journey towards a conclusion.

Definitely. It has done great harm to the society. Because all the stories end in victory, people are used to being on the side of the winner. The experience of losing isn’t felt, and we have developed a tendency to side with the winner.

In that sense, stories like the Biblical fables have also contributed to the same feeling, haven’t they?

The Bible is like that, it is a tool of suppression; despite the fact that many people have tried to use it as a tool against inequality and oppression. It can actually never go against the dominant ideology.

Is there any role or performance that you would like to recreate?

I once did Vyloppilli’s Sahyante Makan on stage. There is a story behind the poem. When Vyloppilli was teaching at Thripunithura, one of the elephants that he saw in a procession at the temple there was later shot dead at a different procession. My father was acquainted with Vyloppilli at that time. I first did the play during Kottakkal Sivaraman’s 60th birthday celebrations. But I wasn’t satisfied with that performance. Later, I did it again at Thripunithura.

A lot of things happened during the performance. There were 23 melam artists, and I had to change the melam in a way that I had not discussed with them. It was a Pancharimelam. The elephant gets lost in its own world, goes after a female, mistakes the gopuram for another male, and charges at it. That is when it is shot at. I had imagined the end of the Pancharimelam in a certain way, and told the artists how they were to play. But on the stage, I got a different idea; to move into a sambhoga sringaram. I left behind the poem, and went ahead with the imagined world of the elephant, complete with the romance. By then, I had understood that the play was falling apart. But I found a way to bring it to a conclusion with a theerppukottu, in which the other male elephant is encountered. We did that, and the atmosphere we created was an exciting one.

I was asked if I could do that play at other places, but I refused. I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate that experience. Now, I can’t take the physical demands of that role. The process behind that particular play was also a bit problematic. There was no director, so I couldn’t go through the rehearsal processes that I was trained to go through.

The poem explains the actual situation at the temple, and how the elephant imagines it to be. As a director, I have both of these worlds in front of me, but when I became an actor, I lost myself in the elephant’s world.

Later, Shankar did a production based on Sahyante Makan. That was an international production, with an actress from Japan and all – a grand one. It didn’t show any influence from my work; it was a separate one, and a commendable work in its own right. But the essence was opposite to that of mine, I wanted to do this at Thripunithura itself; as if it would only be complete if it was played at Thripunithura.

I do think it is complete. But sometimes, I look back at the things I missed out on in the performance with a little regret.

Mukhamukham (Face to Face)

A series of interviews with photographers/artists, art historians and culture critics published in English, Tamil and Malayalam. Interviews are conducted by Photo Mail. This interview with Ramesh Varma was taken by Arjun Ramachandran / Photo Mail. Photography © Arjun Ramachandran / Photo Mail