Articles by Mahesh Mangalat

Representation, Ideology and Praxis: Reflections on Reformed Versions of Naadu Gadhika

Presented at the International Seminar on Politics and Theatre, Third Annual Conference of Indian Society for Theatre Research 4th to 6th January 2007 Officers’ Training School, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

The leftist movements, unlike the other political outfits in India, have generally been found to evaluate and make plans for actions in the realms of art and literature. Right from the time of the nationalist movement, cultural intervention have been an indispensable part of the left political practice. Minoo. R. Masani, who wrote the history of the Communist Party of India, acknowledges this gamut of activity. He goes on to record that the Progressive Literature Movement was started in 1936 as a result of the advise to take part in the nationalist movement by mobilising writers and artists. Kerala unit of Progressive Literature Movement was established in 1937. Since then, the left oriented cultural action has played a major role in the formulation of the ideological firmament for political practice. Theatre has been a major area of leftist cultural action ever since the inception of Progressive Literature Movement in Kerala.

The first model of its drama related activity came from the communist ideologue, K. Damodaran, in the early thirties. This was followed by innumerable theatre productions by Thoppil Bhasi, S.L.Puram Sadanandan, P.J.Antony etc. In the long history of such theatre activities the play Naddu Gaddhika, written and directed by K.J.Baby occupies a unique position.

Naadu Gaddhika, unlike other political plays in Malayalam, has three distinctive versions. Out of which, two are printed versions. The first printed version came out in 1983 (Mulberry publications, Kozhikode) and the second one in 1993 (Gadhika Publications, Nadavayal, Wynad). The popular version of the play was that performed by Wynad Samskarika Samithy during 1978-81. Apart from these there is another version of the play by name Apoorna, written and produced in 1977.

The play Apoorna, presented the story of a tribal old man Yaachan and his family. Yaachan has been working for the landlord and now he has to go begging for a living. Of his three children Velli is blind. The second son Lakshmanan goes aloof after his schooling. The third one is a girl, Vella, who is deflowered from the lord’s estate and later on forced to take herself to streets for her living. This play attempts to present the condition of the tribals in general and intend to elucidate the modes of exploitation that they are subjected to. Apoorna was staged in proscenium theatre following the theatrical conventions of social plays in Malayalam.

The play Apoorna took shape of Naadu Gadhika in 1978. The period 1975 to 1977 was an interlude in the political history of India marked by internal emergency. The mainstream political outfits could not respond to the curtailment of civil and democratic rights of citizens. Among the mainstream communist parties CPI was complicit in sharing attitudes of congress, and was a part of the political alliance led by the congress at centre and in Kerala. CPI(M) was more or less inactive as it could not raise any voice of protest effectively. CPI(ML) was an underground organisation, propagating armed struggle against oppressors. The emergency prompted the CPI (ML) to think about Indian democratic set up in a more realistic way. They understood that Indian democracy provides enough space to offer for the spread of ideas and critical evaluation. This space, they thought, has to be effectively utilsed. Janakeeya Samskarika Samithy (meaning Peoples’ Cultural Forum) was formed in the light of the above said evaluation, to propagate their ideology. The apathy of the mainstream Communist Parties had encouraged the general populace of Kerala to get closer to CPI (ML). During the emergency, CPI (ML) was active with all the resources at their disposal. They attacked a police camp at Kayanna, in Kozhikode district and seized arms and ammunition. It had to face the most repressive measures from the government. Though Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi was a cultural front sponsored and promoted by CPI (ML), the general public did not differentiate the party and Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi.

Naadu Gadhika was presented under the banner of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi. Needless to say, the play was an agitprop.

Gadhika is a ritual prevalent among the tribal society in Wynad. The ritual is intended to exorcise a person of evil forces in him. Tribals in Wynad extended this ritualistic practice to exorcise society as well, when they feel that it is infected with some malaise. This is called Naadu Gadhika.

The play Naadu Gadhika stands unequalled in the history of political theater in Kerala, as it is devoid of all dramatic conventions of proscenium theatre and its procedural alignments of author, actor, space and audience and was an exceptional production in terms of locating a community in the transformed political terrains of Kerala. The author took only the characters and a narrative outline from his earlier play Apoorna. The earlier version can be viewed as politically neutral, where as Naadu Gadhika is a political play, where we see the tribal society rise from shackles, upholding the ideology of liberation. Another significant point is that the characters Yaachan and his family members and other tribals were presented by tribals themselves.

In the reformed form, Naadu Gadhika is a dramatic manifestation of liberation struggle of the tribal community. The structure of the play is determined by the paradigm of the rituals and beliefs of the tribal society. The play communicates more through an episodic structure than through a linier narrative. The language stands on par with the conversational slang of tribals. Only two characters in the play, Thampuran, the landlord and the Gadhikakkaran (the person who perform Gaddhika) only use Malayalam for their dialogues.

Thampuran, the landlord represents the exploiting class. He perpetuates power structure, thereby deny the oppressed class opportunities for freedom. Gadhikakkaran is positioned against landlord. He is a messenger who brings in new aspirations for liberation of exploited class, the tribal society. At one point of time, the Gadhikakkaran is murdered by the guards of Thampuran. But they could only destroy his body and his spirits lingers on. Through a ritual, tribals imbibe this spirit and goes on warpath and annihilates the class enemy. The play culminates when the tribals join together and declares freedom from oppression.

Though the play Naadu Gadhika propagates the Marxian politics of class struggle, the mainstream leftists took a hostile and intolerant stance towards it. The CPI (M) led government was in power when Naadu Gadhika was touring the villages in Kerala. Government banned the play and arrested the artists. The tribal girls who acted in the play were sent to borstal school in the pretext that they are minors. CPI (M) activists have also made several attempts to stop the performance, with the help of Police. An interesting fact in this regard is that the same rule and provisions which were once used by erstwhile Travancore government against communist Party were used against Naadu Gadhika team by the CPI (M) led government. Despite all these the play had been staged at about 330 venues in Kerala, enjoying the position of a work that was instrumental in bringing about a modernist political sensibility.

During the Post Emergency period there were a lot of debates taking place in the CPI (ML) with regard to the primacy of cultural front. The play performances and other such activities in the realm of art and literature helped to widen the mass base of the party. It was at that a local money lender, Madathil Mathai was annihilated by CPI (ML) activists in Kenichira, Wynad. The writers and cultural activists aligning themselves with Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi denounced this act and called it as one that quite unbecoming of a civilized society. Performance of Naadu Gadhika was terminated even before Kenichira incident.

Kenichira incident and the disintegration of CPI (ML) and dissolution of Samskarika Vedi created a mixed response among the sympathizers and activists of the movement. Consequent upon this came in many enquiries into the ideology and praxis of leftist movements. New left thought occupied a prominent position in these enquiries. As there is no movement for them to identify, they themselves initiated movements to organize marginalized sections of the society. Today the majority of feminist and environmentalist activists are people with ideological alignment with the erstwhile Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi. The author of the play Naadu Gadhika, K.J. Baby started a school for tribal children in Wynad. It is an informal, residential school, where the syllabus they follow is that prescribed by the CBSE.

Baby reworked the play in the changed political scenario. The third version of Naadu Gadhika was the result of a reformation took place in the life of the author. Significant about this version is that it follows the procedural alignments that he worked out in the agitprop version of the play. Narrative structure was almost kept unchanged. The subjugation of the tribal society is presented as in the earlier version. The change he made in this version is in the ideology of the play. The myths of tribal community replaced the class struggle based ideology.

According to the myths of the tribal community in Wynad, they belong to the lineage of Maveli/Mahabali, a pagan king. Rule of Mahabali was a matter of envy to the gods in heaven. The tribals living in such an enviable position were enslaved later on. There is another myth of Melorachan and Keeyoaruthi, explaining how the tribals became slaves of landlords. Both these myths upholds a vision of life in perfect harmony with nature devoid of any kind of exploitation.

In the third version of Naadu Gadhika, the Gadhikakkaran reminds them of the myths of Maveli and that of Melorachan and Keeyoruthi. They are constantly reminded of their forefathers dream to go to Kanavu Mala (meaning The Mountain of Dream), in each and every episodes of their history of subjugation. In this version also Gadhikakkaran is killed by the guards of Thampuran. As in the earlier version the spirit of Gadhikakkaran keeps on communicating with the tribals. One among the tribals dons the red cloth that Gadhikakkaran used and leads them to Kanavu Mala, their promised land. There ends the play. Before embarking on the journey to Kanavumala, they invite all to join them in the journey to a land where there no oppressors, exploitation and all live in perfect harmony with each other and with nature, as well.

Departing from the earlier ideological position of class struggle politics, the third version upholds a philosophy of Green Politics. The third version of the play was performed at a few venues and it evoked bitter criticism from the old comrades and sympathizers of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi. Some of them even challenged the authority of the author to appropriate a text that forms a part of the history of Janakeeya Samskarika Vedi and that of CPI (ML). The presently available version in print is a result of compromise that the author made with the critics.

The history of political theatre in Malayalam gives us as many instances where certain parts of the text is modified in production to suit the situation in which the performance is made. There will be certain sequences which provide ample scope for such kind of improvisation. But when it comes to the question of text of the play, the authentic authorial discourse is final, the singular entity.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the play Naadu Gadhika is a stark reminder of the integral relationship that exists between the text and politics within the context of Drama. The reformed versions of the play Naadu Gadhika challenge the sacred position of the text that too with a political content. When the political context that gave shape to the play gets outdated or transformed, the play also becomes a textual discourse devoid of any political relevance. It becomes more of an archival piece that could merely signify a kind of nostalgia for a heroic past. In the case of political theatre canonical text would only serve a reactionary or self defeatist purpose in the society. Naadu Gadhika may be regarded as a model political play that succeeds in organically living up to the changing political reality.