Gatecrashing the 49th birthday do of the Bombay Cultural Association
Mumbai's best known Tamil theatre group, Bombay Cultural Association, enters its golden jubilee year
The preprimary class at Matunga’s South Indian Education Society school has been taken over by adults. When we enter the classroom at 7 pm on a weekday, instead of toddlers, is a group aged 29 to 63.
They are rehearsing lines from Yudhakandam, a 120-minute-long whodunit that revolves around Rajalakshmi Amma, a wealthy widow whose past haunts her while the present sees her trying to protect her property, which includes a tea estate. The play marks the entry into the 50th year of the Bombay Cultural Association, formed in 1966 by a group of four friends — all SIES alumni — in a bid to meet, sing Tamil songs and organise musical shows. It transformed into a theatre group organically when they decided to add theatre to their repertoire.
GS Ramakrishnan, V Ramesh (president of BCA) and Jaya Meera rehearse for Yudhakandam. Pics/Tushar Satam
“Our first play was Idhu Dhanappa Bombay (This is Bombay) about don Haji Mastan. It was staged at King George School in Dadar as an experiment,” says Venkatesh, one of the founding four. The first show saw an audience of 40. Since then, the group has staged over a hundred plays. In the last two years, the troupe has organised a performance every three months.
The five decades haven’t helped the balance sheet, however. All members have day jobs — scriptwriters, bankers, chartered accountants, finance executives — and are artistes by passion. “It is a swim against the tide,” says V Ramesh, president of the group, “From rents to set design, we pay for everything.”
Things have improved since last year, though, when the troupe formally registered as a theatre group and began to offer tickets, apart from performing at sabhas at Chembur Fine Arts and Shanmukhananda. “But ticket sales do not cover production costs,” says the 54-year-old.
The plots usually cater to an older audience. In the ’70s, slapstick comedy was in demand in Tamil Nadu, but today, solo acts and experimental theatre also have an audience. The Mumbai audience still prefers traditional storylines. “The average age of our audience is 45 years and above. They only want a good laugh,” says the group’s oldest member, 63-year-old K Ravi, who has been a Kannada theatre actor for 43 years.
This affects plots in other ways too.
V Jagannath, who is on the state censorboard for Tamil plays and works as a translator-writer, has been with the group since 1975 and adapted Marathi plays such as Prema Tujha Rang Kasa and Mala Kahi Sangaychay! (both written by Vasant Kanetkar) into Tamil is currently sitting on a modern play. “It revolves around cricket, but we are looking for young actors to come on board,” he laughs, throwing his hands up in the air. He adds that after performances, stray youngsters inquire about acting but rarely join in.
Till he finds the right fits for his characters, Jagannath is busy keeping the tales of Tamil freedom fighters alive. “South India surely is disconnected from rest of the country. Name a single freedom fighter from the south? You wouldn’t know. Some of our plays are also about VO Chidambaram Pillai, Vanchinathan, who is called the Bhagat Singh of the south,” he says.
Despite not knowing the language, it wasn’t difficult to understand the dialogue enacted by Saipriya Vishwanathan, 45, and Satya, 46, who play mother-daughter on stage. But, it’s not just us. Between wide-eyed expressions and emotional sobs, it is hard to believe that Satya is not comfortable with the language either. “I hardly spoke it at home,” says the
46-year-old, who is seven months old in the troupe. “But the mentoring is superb. Each rehearsal is an intense workshop.”
BCA ensures the dialect is colloquial. “The Tamilian dialect differs from region to region. Depending on the character and setting, the language may sound different. It only gets hard to comprehend if it is set in a village, the nuances of the dialect become more rustic,” explains Ramesh, who plays the protagonist’s son in the play.
Over the decades, the group has become more of a family. Jaya Meera, who plays the all-powerful matriarch in Yudhakandam, says BCA sponsored her arengetram in 1975. “I joined the group when I married Jagannath. When everyone found out that I had studied Bharatanatyam for nine years, they pitched in for my first stage recital as a dancer,” she smiles.
Where: Dr Kashinath Ghanekar Auditorium, Thane
When: Nov 8, 12.15 PM
Entry: Rs 75 to Rs 150