Prof. J. Vasanthan, 74, former Professor of English in American College, is also a well known newspaper columnist, theatre director, writer, and cartoonist. Aimee Boos in a chat with Prof. Vasanthan discovers that “age cannot wither him nor custom stale his infinite variety!”
A Visual Sensibility
In 1951, 15-year-old J. Vasanthan came to Madurai to join the intermediate course in the American College. It also marked the beginning of his lifelong passion for theatre and films. “With some friends, we used to go to the Regal Talkies, the only movie theatre that showed English movies, from both Hollywood and Britain. I was fascinated by these Western movies,” recalls Vasanthan. He fell in love with films and watching films became a ritual, but with the same excitement every time.
“We used to go there around three times a week. It didn’t matter if the films were good or not,” says Vasanthan.
Gradually he developed the ability to critique films and a cinematic sensibility that later extended to theatre. His keen eye absorbed every detail of film making and acting. He wrote film reviews and drew cartoons for Filmfare, the oldest Indian film magazine. His cartoons also appeared in several other leading publications such as Star & Style, Debonair, Film Mirror, and Sports week. Later Vasanthan decided to devote a part of his life to directing plays in English. One of the first plays he staged was Murder in the Cathedral at Madras Christian College in Chennai where he was a tutor in English.
The Curtain Club
A few years later, Professor Vasanthan moved from Madras Christian College to the American College in Madurai, as an English lecturer.
“There, I was expected to take over the Shansi plays of the Oberlin Shansi group,” says Vasanthan, “I did just that for a while.” The Shansi group was primarily composed of talented performers such as Julian Smith, Sarah Lindlholm, and David Gere, the younger brother of Richard Gere. “We decided to start our own club,” recalls Vasanthan.
The Curtain Club, symbolised by three arches erected on the stage, was born. Actors came to the club from India, England, and America to perform Shakespeare and modern playwrights such as Agatha Christie, J. B. Priestley, and Ben Travers.
“English plays,” says Vasanthan, “are modern, and really different from each other. The Curtain Club staged tragedies as well as comedies.”
According to Vasanthan, English plays are simple and pure. “We didn’t need to make big things on stage to make the play comprehensible. Dialogues were natural; sets, costumes and make-up were simple. There was no music. [This simplicity] allowed the audience to be more captivated, and to feel the tension.”
Challenges of a Theatre Director
It takes between one to two months for J. Vasanthan and his team to stage a play. First, he organises several discussions with the actors about dialogues and staging. Thanks to his skills in cartooning, he is easily able to draw a storyboard, or sketch artistically to help the team plan their production.
These drawings, which act as a rough draft were useful to everyone, whether they were actors, tailors, or even the hairdressers! Vasanthan also designed the costumes and the sets, and if he wanted an actor to stand up in a certain way, he would just draw it and show him!
After every performance, the team reviewed the performance and explored ways to improve themselves in the next performance. “You need this relationship between the director and the actors, so the performance can get better and better,” says Vasanthan. J. Vasanthan faced several problems as a director. “Once, there was this woman who was running an orphanage,” he recalls. “She wanted to bring the children to one of our plays. I was okay with that but we asked her to keep them calm and quiet. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case; she didn’t want to cooperate, pretending that she was too busy. An American actress who was playing that day got really angry with them.” J. Vasanthan has had several unforgettable moments too.
“I remember when we were doing an 18th century play. Before the play began, actors would sit, discuss and smoke on the stage. Once, one of the actors dropped his Charminar packet of cigarettes on the stage. The 18th century play began with the Charminar packet! It was really funny to see the actor picking the packet discreetly, trying not be noticed by the audience!” The Curtain Club lasted several years and received rave reviews from the press and enjoyed great popularity among the theatre going public. The club closed down when Vasanthan retired in 1994.”
A Requiem for drama?
Vasanthan, however, is nostalgic for times when theatre reigned supreme. When he was staging plays, there were people who were genuinely fond of watching plays. “Today there is no drama, only films,” he says. “Drama stopped.
Even in school teachers don’t open children’s minds to drama,” Vanasthan says with a tinge of sadness.
A requiem for drama?