Queen of the Stage – II
And here’s Part II of the Kalairani Conversation. We stopped at “Mazhai”, if you remember. Coming up, she talks about her workshops, her movie experiences, and Awards.
Kalai and fellow theatre enthusiast and filmmaker R V Ramani have also worked towards bringing our scholarships and awards for shadow puppet theatre artists, as they are little recognized even in their sphere. Shadow puppeteers were the original filmmakers who created moving images on screen. They led a nomadic life, travelling, camping, setting up screens and performing the story of Ramayana, adapting local languages and flavours. “Today there are only a few puppeteers still practicing this art form. Stories and lifestyles have changed,” she muses. Together, in 2003, she and Ramani presented a Shadow Puppet theatre Festival, based on their experiences on making a film on the subject, Nee Engey (“Where are You?”). Workshops were conducted where their talent was showcased, and Awards distributed to two artists, each year.
How does she manage to bring so much energy into her performances? Does she perform yoga and other such spiritual practices?
“Actually, I believe in being in tune with my body – I listen to it. It tells how I should perform, when I should perform. It has never let me down, so far. I’ve never hankered after spiritual experiences or meditation – to me, acting satisfied all that. It was my therapy. It helped me release the pressure. It helped me understand the other’s viewpoint. And that increased the positive energy around me. I was more tolerant, more relaxed. I consider myself fortunate, really. I get to do what I like, what I enjoy.”
Undoubtedly, she must have encountered several gender-specific issues.
“Well, I’m not a feminist,” she grins. “I’m a womanist. I don’t really agree that a woman must constantly fight to excel over a man – she has her own talents and powers. A mother for example, goes through so many emotions and experiences that a man can never hope for. Her feminine side really adds to her personality. I’m not in favour of denying that.”
Kalai has done numerous workshops for children and women. Working in schools, handling sessions on voice modulation, tension relief, and teaching sessions like Thevarattam, the Parai – ancient art forms of Tamil Nadu, fulfil her. In particular does she remember a workshop she did with a group of Aravanis, in battling stress.
“Imagine their lives,” she says. “In the North, they get at least some form of recognition… but here, it’s quite horrible. They’re ridiculed and made fun of every minute. They can’t even walk to the toilet, in privacy. Imagine the terrible stress that must build up, in their minds.” She taught them to use their voices and their own body in understanding and eliminating tension.
She has also worked a lot with teachers. “It’s exhausting enough when you’re an actor, requiring preparation for hours for just a half-hour performance. Imagine what it must be like for teachers, who have to perform for eight hours at stretch. And the number of students you have to handle. And they have to teach not the frontbenchers, but the last benchers too. How do you reach the students sitting right at the back, the ones whom you will not reach? So I teach them to throw their voice. The teacher’s voice has to have that quality that registers in the student’s mind. The way they teach must ensure that what they say registers. We usually ‘hear’ much better than we ‘see.’ We don’t give nearly as much importance to listening – we must. After all, don’t we memorise endless cinema songs easily? I believe that we can actually use movies and music to make a point. They have as much emotion as theatre, I feel.”
Conversation moves to her work in movies. One particular performance of hers in Nasser’s movie “Devathai,” where she tells a haunted, long-lost legend to the heroine was one of the first scenes that brought her talent to the fore. She agrees that this piece is easily one of her favourites.
“Movies survive,” she muses. “You wouldn’t appreciate a Sivaji Ganesan so much if his work hadn’t been preserved on film, would you? His work would have vanished. ”
True … but why does she always do stereotypical roles? Why is she always the wailing, distraught mother?
“That’s a very good question,” she laughs. “In this industry, it’s a curse if your role works out – they typecast you all the time. And the death scenes! They would make me lie down on all these logs and stuff dried cow dung patties on me. And my face would itch like anything. I would try desperately to try and scratch my face – but I wouldn’t dare! So I usually had an assistant who scratched my face when I needed it,” she twists her face, imitating the scene.
Not surprisingly, it is her work in movies that has made her a far more recognizable name, not to mention the awards she has won, for several memorable roles in movies such as “Ramana” (which got her the Best Supporting Actress Award), “Dhool”, and others.
Which among these Awards would she rate as the one closest to her heart?
“None of them,” she answers quietly. “What I really consider my Award is something that happened on the sets of director Thangar Bachaan’s ‘Solla Marantha Kathai.’ I was this haggling village woman who went about lamenting about my fate … and I carried my role even after the shot was over. I went to the artists, the set-people and everybody, wailing about how I’d lost my husband and how the movie people would have to feed me, as I was throwing myself on their mercy. Well, there was this other village woman who thought I was from her own village! And she kept lamenting about how much I earned from talking about my sorry state, and the meals I had. All day, she followed me around, talking to me as though I were actually a village woman like her, trying to make a quick buck. And she kept counting every paise I got, and all the meals I ate, which were actually provide to me, as an artiste! She never found out the truth right until the end. That’s the real Award, if you ask me.”
What are her plans, for the future?
“Helping people when they need it. I want to help the people who’re in terrible metal distress, you see – because that is far more difficult to understand … but such a relief to the sufferer, when it’s solved. And theatre provides me with that perfect outlet. And the opportunities to see people. To connect with them. It sharpens my perceptions and I can reach them that much more easily. To give relief to a troubled mind is the greatest gift I can give.”
Indeed she does.
For, as a scroll gifted to her by Dancer Chandralekha says …
“She is radiant like the rising sun,
Her beauty lights up the world,
She wears the sun and moon as her jewels,
Her eyes are the lotus and darting deer …
Her face is fragrant like the Champaka and hair like incense…
She has capabilities
She is active
She is aware
She is fearless
She is free.”