Queen of the Stage – I

Presenting Kalairani – stage artist and theatre performer extraordinaire. We’ve all seen her as the wailing amma in so many movies (she appears for two brief seconds where she screams that her son is innocent) … but you’d be amazed to see the true dimensions of her ability. As I was, when I visited her recently, and had a chat. Here’s what came of our conversation (which I’m posting in two parts, as it was quite a long one):

“We bow to Lord Shiva, the actor accomplished in all emotions, whose movements are the world, whose perfect speech is the entire language and whose vestments are the moon and the stars.”

Abhinaya Dharpan.

She throws a crumpled paper bag to the floor, and watches me for a moment. The bag rustles softly in the electric fan’s currents, swaying this way and that. There is no particular rhythm to it, not in the beginning – but it is hypnotic to watch. Like a ballet unfolding.

“You see, that’s what an actor has to do. Be that paper. Become the paper.”

And in front of my astonished eyes, she stands up and begins to move and arms and legs sinuously first, and then her shoulders jerkily, imitating exactly the movements of the wind-torn paper bag. So perfect is her body language that when she falls to the ground a second later, I’m convinced that she’s going to fly away through the open doorway into the street.


Theatre and film actress Kalairani has just returned from an engrossing theatre workshop coordinated by the Theatre de Complicite in London. It was actually an audition too, she says, for an upcoming play based on the lives of Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematician and his closes friend, GH Hardy. The four-day workshop was conducted by the Theatre’s director, Simon McBurney who is as innovative as they come, and made the group – a study in contrasts, almost, as they were from so many different countries and backgrounds – perform a variety of theatre exercises that tested their talents to the utmost. But it was so relaxing that she hardly felt out of place.

But then, that is how she always felt, when it comes to the stage.

An actress for more than twenty years, she’s been one of Chennai’s best-known faces when it comes to theatre. Her stylized acting and the freshness she brings to her performances always leave her audience awed. Kalairani has a way of bringing the scene to life – and that is no cliché, as far as she is concerned. To her, the character, the scene, the space, is something so tangible that it needs to be impressed on the viewer. A woman breast-feeding her baby comes to life right in front of you – and you cease to see the actress. Her body language and the way she moves her shoulders and hands are so realistic that she vanishes, to be replaced by a mother who has eyes for no one but her child. When she displays her dexterity in emoting compassion, love and anger, her knit brows and smouldering eyes emit such fury that you shrink back instinctively, in your seat.

Kootu-p-pattarai, the premier institute for plays in Chennai, first envisioned and begun by Na Muthuswamy, the famed writer was what paved the way to her growth as an actor.

“I’ve always been film-struck,” she grins. “I watched every movie at least when I was a kid. And I collected clippings of every actor I could find. My parents didn’t try to stop me – I think they understood my urge to perform even then. At least, my father did. And then he enrolled me in the Film Institute in Chennai. I used to clip and paste articles, you see, so I thought I would be an editor,” she chuckles. “But then I got into acting … and everything changed.”

But it was hardly the beginning she had envisioned for herself. As a child, she had wanted to do something useful for women and children. “But not the usual things – I wanted to beautify them. There are diseases of the body, diseases of the mind – and making oneself beautiful goes a long towards easing the mind. When you know yourself to look good, you actually do feel good. And so I studied Cosmetology. It actually helped me during the make-up sessions backstage, what with my film training.” She would go on to study music as well, in the Adyar Music College.

Hours of meeting with theatrical minded friends in Film Director Abavaanan’s home, however, made their effect felt. She shed her inhibitions, at the insistence of friends Nasser and Meenakshi Sundaram, who argued that her forte was theatre, and joined the Kootu-p-pattarai team. At that time, she was generally decried for following her heart this way – she gave up a lucrative job to a mere pittance – but it was completely worth it.

Her entry into Kootu-p-pattarai was rather unnerving. “Everyone kept screaming and throwing their voices and projecting on stage, and I was scared stiff. I wouldn’t even step in,” she smiles reminiscently, arranging herself on a small divan that faces the dozens of small toys and dolls she’s collected during her travels all around the world.

“I didn’t know that when a theatre artist spoke, he or she actually threw their voices in so many directions, for the proper effect,” she explains. “When I’d first entered Kootu-p-pattarai and they told me to speak, I squeaked a few lines” – she imitates a shrill young girl – “I was so puzzled when people kept telling me to speak.” She turns away and her voice grows and swells in volume, a rich timbre that seems to echo from another end of the room. “You see? That’s how it’s supposed to be done.”

But before all this came long months of preparation, work and rehearsals. “Oh, rehearsals were terrible,” she grins. “Muthuswamy Sir made no difference between boys and girls. He would calmly tell me to just jump five feet above the ground – and made no exceptions because I was a female. That was back in 1988.”

Her debut was in Na Muthuswamy’s play, “Kattiyakaran,” that went for the South Zone Festival.

Then began the journey that made her one of Kootu-p-pattarai’s best-known names for more than ten years. She featured in other plays such as the Caucasian Chalk Circle’s “Vellai Vattam,” and “Guruvamma.”

It was her solo pieces, however, that transformed her into the actor she is now. “Acting with a group is different,” she says. “In the play ‘Draupadi,’ that I acted, the dynamics were different. But an actor has to know how to hold the audience. To stand alone in a stage for ten minutes and command their attention. It’s the solo pieces that demand a great deal.” Her first solo performance was in 1989, when she acted in a piece called “Penn” – Woman, put together with danseuse Veenapani Chawla.

“My actors must perform on the international level,” Na Muthuswamy would say. “Every part of their body should speak. Every nuance must bind their audience.” Kalairani, or Kalai, as she is (appropriately) called, trained rigorously in Silambam, Kalaripayattu and Thang tha, various martial art forms that would provide her with the flexibility and dexterity needed for theatre. It was these that she used, together with theatre exercises, to come up with a charged performance of a woman struggling with herself, to overcome self-doubt, to become Kali.

“When a woman is furious, everyone calls her a Bhadrakali – the fearsome goddess. Now, why does that happen? Perhaps it’s because she’s in her element when roused. That means that she is actually very powerful – that this is her real form, her powerful form. All through her life, she is under someone else’s control – her father, husband, her son. She has a great deal of restrained power in her. Imagine what would happen if she discovered herself. I focussed on that.”

She has studied under theatre persons and directors like Anmol Vellani, Bansi Kaul, Hartman D’Souza Ingeborg Mayer.

Her work is remarkably stylized, I say. Her body language suggests a very distinct presence that pulls the viewer in.

“My acting is physical,” she explains. “I use every part of my body to convey what I wish to say. Not just my voice, hands or legs. Every muscle, every tendon must speak. I devote all my consciousness towards this. Imagine my using a stick in a play, like I do in “Penn.” Suppose I bring it behind my back, to attack. It isn’t even the stick that is dangerous – you recognise from my very handhold that I’m planning something vicious. Your eye snaps to my hand. My intention is obvious in my posture. It is that that matters. That’s where the martial arts come in.”

This was why she could understand and appreciate the Complicite workshop so well, she explained. “I was prepared to meet their demands when they asked me to perform,” she says. “And I could say No, if I did not feel like performing a certain piece. Can you imagine what a relief that was? The freedom to simply refuse. I was overjoyed. It was a profound experience. I was actually able to perform even better, the next piece. No matter what they demanded, I could produce. Anything.”

Her exercise in London involved acting out numbers, characters, and recreating her space as a six-year old child. At one point, she was even asked to act as her mother. “It made me re-discover my own memories. Through my portrayal of my mother, I understood her viewpoint, her surroundings. You see the dynamics of anything very well; suddenly, other viewpoints become glaringly obvious. And it is no longer difficult to understand everything around you.”

This must be a very demanding profession, I suggest.

“Of course. Actors cannot afford to sit back and relax – they need to observe everything around them at all times. For hours. You see, when you watch others perform, you absorb those nuances yourself. And it all adds to your own performance. If you haven’t observed them, then that would be very obvious as well. There’s no clumsiness.” She pauses. “I used to laugh when Muthuswamy spoke about International standards of acting – but now, I understand the truth of it.”

Anmol Vellani, of the India Foundation for the Arts, told her that there was a musical quality to acting, when they worked together on plays such as “England and Macbeth.”

“Music is the basis of everything, you see,” Kalai says. “That music must be apparent when the audience watches you. Even my speech patterns changed, after that experience.”

Her acting is seamless; her imaginative use of her voice and body unite to give her work a different and vibrant dimension. When she portrays the pent-up frustration and agony of a woman who mourns her husband in Hartman D’Souza’s “Song of Lowino,” the misery and heartbreak is complete. The performance was based on a poem in three cycles by the Ugandan poet, Okot P’Bitek: Lowino sitting in the middle of a circle of ash, chanting a dirge, lamenting and mourning the death of her husband to the ways of the white man. Lowino names the many chains with which she has been bound and in doing so, confronts the many keys she holds in her own hands. Lowino’s dirge turns into an angry song of freedom.

“I would work for twelve hours at a time, for that. The Director would come in the evenings, watch my work, and declare that it was no good. I would be furious,” she smiles. “But I found that I could actually work for hours without distraction. I took a break of fifteen minutes for lunch. I worked from seven in the morning to seven at night, alone.”

Lowino’s rage and sorrow ebb and flow like an angry sea, through Kalai’s portrayal. “It’s easy to just cry, to express sorrow. But I wanted something deeper. Something more primal. I wanted to bring out all the pent-up screaming frustration of a wife. I used the mournful sounds of a bird call.” She croons mournfully, imitating a bird in the forest. “I made small gasps, heaves – and then, I brought that sudden flash of tortured memory. Of a husband lost. And I would suddenly stop my work (in the play) and break into a screaming sob. ‘He’s gone, he’s gone!’ ”

Her dancer-like movements prompt another question. Bharathanatyam, in itself a complete art form also uses stylized postures – how does she manage to combine the beauty of dance and realistic acting?

“I try to strike a perfect balance. I have been asked by dancers like Anita Ratnam, about how I do this. I can only say that I favour the realistic aspect more. Imagine a woman who loses her husband, whose whole life has revolved around him. In Bharathanatyam, there are ways to express great grief and sorrow through perfectly choreographed movements. But I – I want the grief to attack my viewers. There’s power in every word I speak. They must know Lowino’s rage, her terrible grief and loss. Lowino laments, beats herself, wails and throws herself on the ground. She loses not just protection, compassion and love … but sex as well. Isn’t that a great loss too? Doesn’t it have to be shown as well? That pain is very true. Very real. It has to be expressed. It’s the same way with breast-feeding too. It’s something natural, uninhibited. I performed it the way I saw it – every part of my body must speak, without making it seem vulgar and obscene. There’s no thought of sex in your mind when you look at a woman breast-feeding, is there? That’s how it should come across. I did it this way.”

She recalls one particularly risqué piece of dialogue that made the men squirm. “I would scream the words,” she grins. “You should see the men’s faces. But the script and acting demanded that. That is how the character would speak. Natesh, the scriptwriter, is known for his colloquial dialogues. So I spoke it, making the right gestures. It provoked some comment – but everyone agreed that it made the performance that much more realistic.”

Lowino’s intense performance lead to another, cleverly adapted play: “Varugalamo Ayya …?”, by Gopalakrishna Bharathi. In essence, it interpreted Bhakthi as protest, and re-rendered the agony of Nandanar, a saint. The performance sought to depict the agony of choicelessness imposed on him by a caste hierarchy and resulted in the oppression. The text is often performed by classical dancers in the traditional mode, but in Kalai’s performance, the traditional devices of Bharathanatyam were dispensed with, heightening the force of oppression and urgency to deal with it.

“I wore a sort of shapeless sack cloth, because that removed my personal identity,” she recalls. “I wasn’t even Nandanar; I was just a poor, beaten man who was kept from attaining his aim. Actually, it wasn’t even Nandanar – the same trials attack a woman too. It’s common to every beaten entity. I performed the play in a quarry, a field, even inside knee-deep water – I acted in all these places because I wanted to remove the idea that a play is confined to the stage. It isn’t. It is an experience, a rapport between the actor and the audience.”

2004 saw her perform another solo called “Mazhai,” – one of the first ventures of her own Trust, the Kalai Foundation, initiated by like-minded individuals, coming together for a common cultural cause. “Rain is not something external. Not about getting drenched. When our little dreams come true, the rain falls inside us, wetting our landscape and tears outside stop. As a metaphor for our dreams and wishes inside us, we need rain both inside and outside us. Believe it or nor, I was inspired by sweat. It’s a symbol of work. Like a sparkling diamond in light. I wanted to bring that out.”

(to be concluded …)

9 Comments so far

  1. Aysha Rau (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 8:40 am

    There is only one word to describe Kalairani….Brilliant! And she is also amazing with children.

    Terrific article, Pavithra!

  2. Ravi (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 10:14 am

    Wow, is your write-up comprehensive or what? Super stuff, Pavithra!

  3. Maruthu (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 6:48 pm

    I have one word to say about this article ‘Awesome’.

    I am looking forward for the second one.

    I could see the paper flying in front of my eyes in the starting and the rain in the end.

    Great write-up Pavithra, Keep it up


  4. prakash (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 7:31 pm

    pavithra, outstanding, as usual..

    have i read this before?

  5. randomguy (unregistered) on January 19th, 2007 @ 10:18 pm

    Wow, didn’t realize she’s so talented… what a pity that Kodambakkam wastes all this when it stereotypes her in standard “oppari” roles, all the while promoting talentless people who happen to have the right connections.

  6. david (unregistered) on January 20th, 2007 @ 9:15 am

    My God, what a compleat actor! Would love to meet her and listent to more of her experiences! And Pavithra, what a wonderful job you’ve done of bringing alive your experience of chatting with Kalai! Take a bow. And hurry up with the next installment-I can hardly wait!

  7. Pavithra (unregistered) on January 22nd, 2007 @ 4:52 pm

    Aysha: Hey, great to see you here. Thanks. :)

    Senor: You’re too kind. Kalai deserves her due.

    Maruthu: Thanks. You ought to have seen her in person, she’s schintillating.

    Prakash:Nope, you couldn’t have. First time I’m posting it online. Thanks anyway.

    Random Guy: Very true. She really ought to get better roles – and she tries. Ah well.

    David: Thanks for the kind words. Next part’s up.:)

  8. Manoj Menon (unregistered) on January 25th, 2007 @ 3:13 pm

    Excellent Article!!!! Is she training Kalaripayattu?

  9. elena (unregistered) on January 25th, 2007 @ 4:26 pm

    My name is Elena Koutoulidis-Carrel, french theatre director settled in kochi, Kerala. I am planning to direct a frencvh contemponary french play in english. I just started the audition. I am very interested by having Kalairani contact number and meet her.
    Thank you in advance,

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