Finding the Classic in the Contemporary: An interview with Mangai

In conversation with Lavanya Narayanan

               Mangai (aka. V Padma) at her home in Chennai. Pic Courtesy: The Hindu

V. Padma sits in a chair in her cozy home. Surrounding her is her in-home library: a bibliophile’s wonderland, it holds what many theatre students can only dream of. But for Padma, or Mangai – as she is known in the theatre arena – the books represent much more than a petty fascination. They are her life.
“I am an academician,” she admits proudly. And yet, it’s something she refuses to define herself as, explaining that in the creative arts, “paperwork should evolve out of the practice, whether it is about addressing gender, doing theatre, or both.”
As a professor of English literature at Chennai’s Stella Maris College as well as one of the city’s most well-known practicing theatre professionals, Mangai is no stranger to either the classroom or the stage. In fact, some say she played an integral role in building it, being one of the first to use her platform to make a statement.
“Issue-based theatre, especially that which spoke about gender issues and drew attention to them: well, that’s how I began in the 70s and 80s!” she laughs. Although she was mainly a part of the city’s women’s movement, theatre swept her away in a fury, helping her ‘find her spine,’ as renowned dancer Chandralekha would say.
Over the last few decades, Mangai has worked to create positive imagery through her work, even drawing on her background in street theatre through Chennai’s Kalai Kuzhu to formulate her works’ messaging, syntax, and technique.
“We can’t deny that theatre has been commercialized. But for many of us practitioners, the spirit of street theatre is still guiding us. It definitely still is relevant and has an impact.”
It’s an important thing to grasp on to, especially in a time when contemporary theatre, as much of current theatre is projected as, dominates the performance arena in such a large way.
“Many people simply interchange contemporary with modern. But modern is quite relative. If you interpret contemporary to be something more than the literal sense, then I think contemporary will refer to the major anxieties, crisis, and the good things of our times, all of which come to the forefront. Simply put, theatre becomes an expression of dhrishti-kavya: the interpreters are the audience,” Mangai explains.
Of course, the clarification elucidates how so much of Mangai’s works themselves operate in the contemporary realm, though they draw from great Indian myths such as the Mahabharata.
“In all honesty, looking at contemporary theatre as Western draws largely from colonial times when in reality, only the ‘frills’ – the wings, the proscenium stage, the paraphernalia – have come to us from those sources. Most regions in India have their own theatre histories and conscious theatre professionals draw on native dialogue to impact an audience.”
The space, especially in Tamil Nadu, is one that Mangai ventures into as a recent recipient of the India Foundation of the Arts’ Arts Research Grant. Focusing her research on the analysis of early 20th-century Tamil theatre and its role as a window into the socio-political and cultural landscape of the time, she says the grant gives her the opportunity to delve deep into the history of Tamil contemporary theatre. It’s a first, even for her.
“I was a Tamil medium student growing up. So although I have been an English professor by profession, Tamil holds a very special place in my heart. That’s been perfectly multiplied by my choice of partner as well, because Arasu happened to be a Tamil scholar and professor,” she reminisces.
As one of Chennai’s few bilingual theatre professionals, the grant allows Mangai to marry her lingual skills with her passion for the proscenium stage to explore long-forgotten vernacular histories.
“The works of Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar and Sankaradas Swamigal, for instance, are some of the works I’ll be looking into—uncovering overlap, transliterating, and hopefully projecting it on the national stage.”
Fascinated by the works of others, from her contemporaries to theatre-makers of the past, Mangai’s IFA grant is only an extension of the love for theatre that has driven her for the last few decades. And yet, ask her about her own judgment of others’ work, and she has this to say.
“I think, somehow, people who are doing academic research in the performing arts see themselves as people who can stand in judgment of others who are making art right now. They often bring in their theories and check whether those match the performance. In reality, it should be the other way around: performance studies and research should evolve out of practice.”
How does she envision that growth? Her answer is simple: dialogue.
“Especially in a country with a diverse variety of theatre, a dialogue regarding vernacular theatre and the age-old forms and traditions that have fosterd our nation is essential. It’s the way of the future.”