Cho Ramaswamy 50 years of drama

Cho is a familiar name not only in Tamil Nadu but all over India. He is known more as a political commentator who edits a Tamil magazine, Tughlaq. But little do people know about Cho as a Tamil dramatist. Cho and his friendsí drama club, Viveka Fine Arts Club, recently completed 50 years. Arup Chanda reports.

Cho RamaswamyCho Ramaswamy is a familiar name, not only in Tamil Nadu but all over India. He is known more as a political commentator who edits a Tamil magazine, Tughlaq. But little do people know about Cho as a Tamil dramatist.

Cho and his friendsí drama club, Viveka Fine Arts Club, recently completed 50 years. To commemorate the occasion, the club is enacting plays all over Chennai. There are as many versions of when the club came into existence as there are members. Advancing age and reducing memory spans may have something to do with the confusion. In the circumstances, and seeing the determination of powerful lobbies within VFAC to hold the golden jubilee celebrations this year, the simplest and the most dignified way out was to count 50 backwards from 2004 and arrive at the year of the Clubís formation. That should have settled it for all time.

But then, nothing is ever finally settled at VFAC. The members are still fighting about who really got the best actor award for Vivekaís first-ever play, about that cycle lamp one nimble member borrowed from but never returned to a shop on Fourth Street in Chennai.

Choís plays are highly dialogue-based and related to either politics or socio-economic issues. Even after 50 years, the theatre halls are packed with audiences from all social classes. The first play was written in 1954 and the actors are the same who acted in it but they still have relevance to present Tamil society. Since then, the club has staged 5160 shows. Incidentally, the actors are the same who acted in Choís first play in 1954 when they were students in Vivekananda College, Chennai. Like Saathiram Sonnathillai (The Scriptures did not say this) is about a learned Brahmin, wise in all respects except one ó his caste prejudice. Nermai Urangum Nerum (When Honesty Sleeps) is about when a chief minister suddenly dies and the party leader secretly replaces him with an identical-looking dupe.

A scene from Nermai Urangum Nerum
A scene from Nermai Urangum Nerum

A slum dweller who chances upon this secret blackmails the dupe CM into running a clean government. With the help of a college professor, they put in place good policies and isolate the party leader. But finally, the duplicate CM and the party leader join hands with vested interests. Yarukkum Vekkammillai (No One has any shame) is about a rich industrialistís family, which is in a tangle when the younger son, a lawyer, brings home a prostitute, his first case. It turns out that the elder son is the man who drove the woman to prostitution. The main character is a Muslim family friend who defends the prostitute and exposes the elder son. The play criticises society for creating prostitutes and then condemning its own creation.

One of Choís famous play is Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, which is another political satire. Two friends decide to play a joke on society by pretending that they are Mohammed Bin Tughlaq and Ibn Batuta, telling the story that they had been mistaken for dead, and had survived their entombment all these centuries with the help of some herb.

The idea is to teach the country about the corruption and double-standards in political life. Tughlaq forms a party, contests the elections and is elected. He is arbitrary and whimsical. The power goes to his head and he becomes power crazy. When his friend, who is pretending to be Ibn Batuta, suggests they call off the joke because it has gone too far, Tughlaq says he does not know what he is talking about. When Ibn Batuta begins going around trying to tell people that he and Tughlaq are ordinary people, Tughlaq ensures that the crowds jeer at him and dismiss him as a madman. The message is that the country cannot improve unless its people do.

Another play, Is God Dead? An atheist gradually begins believing in God under the tutelage of a priest. He comes across a doctor who has developed a new anti-tuberculosis drug. The doctor manages to gets a lot of publicity for the drug and eventually wins a Padma Vibhushan. Meanwhile, the drug results in the deaths of several slum dwellers.

The atheist-turned-believer begins questioning the presence of God and decides to expose the doctor. He eventually sacrifices his life to prove that the doctor is at fault, challenging the priest about the existence of God.

Enru Theniyum Inda Swantantara Thaagam (When will this thirst for freedom be quenched?) -Through the machinations of Narada, a politician who has reached Yamaloka plots with Yama to organise elections in Devaloka. The result is chaos and havoc in Devaloka. The chaos paralyses even Vishnu. The message of the play: The thirst for real freedom is still unquenched. After 50 years, Choís admirers wanted to know how he became a dramatist?

Little did they know that he gained his entry by threatening a famous Tamil playwright! When a famous Tamil playwright, Koothabiran wrote his play, Thenmozhiaal, he did not have a role for Cho at all.

That would have discouraged a lot of people, but not Cho. He just went up to Koothabiran and ordered him to write him a role. Koothabiran was not taking any lip from anyone. "It is not possible to fit you in," he said. "Well, in that case, I will walk into every scene," Cho said. The threat, combined with the mad gleam in his eye, sent shivers running through Koothabiran. He reported his encounter with Cho to the bigwigs at Viveka Fine Arts. They asked Koothabiran to relax. "Do you think he will really carry out such a threat? Donít worry, heís not capable of it," was their response. "I am and I will," Cho told Koothabiran. "I need at least three scenes. Or else you see me in every scene." The scriptwriter hurriedly wrote in not three but five scenes to accommodate him. But he could not think of a name for this new character. "Never mind, I can go with my own name," Cho said.

Koothabiran gratefully grabbed the offer and named the character Mr. Cho.

Calling all those who thought Cho got his strange three-letter name from the name of the character in Thenmozhiaal: you now stand informed that it is the other way round. Mr Cho got his name from the man who was to play him.