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A flood of memories and magical moments envelop theatre director Kumara Varma, as he stepped inside the Indian Theatre Department of Panjab University. It’s a place he describes as home, a space which was established in front of his eyes, when he joined to assist Prof Balwant Gargi in 1973 to begin a new phase here, after his formative years at Delhi’s National School of Drama.
And here, Varma taught for 35 years, as professor, department’s chairman and dean of Faculty of Fine Arts and Design. “This city, my students, friends are and will always be a part of me, I don’t get this love even in Kerala where I was born and it’s great to relive it all here,” said Varma, who was in Chandigarh after a long gap for the shooting of a documentary on his work by Mahesh Panju, a theatre actor, director, writer and documentary filmmaker. Panju says that not much work has been done to study and evaluate the work of some important theatre persons of south India, and so his documentation focuses an analytical appraisal of Prof S Ramanujam and Kumara Varma, who have been actively engaged in every sphere of theatre ever since they left NSD in 1967.
Ramanujam’s documentary, titled Dramanujam, took two years to complete and bagged the Kerala State Award for Best Biographical Documentary, 2015. “These productions are a work of passion and my independent initiatives, and if I receive funding and support, I hope to do a series of documentaries on theatre veterans of the country, with the next planned on Ratan Thiyam,” explains Panju. The documentary, which Panju has shot extensively here, looks at Varma’s formative years at NSD, influences of his teachers and peers, contribution to the Natakakkalari movement (New Theatre Movement) in Kerala, organising workshops and directing plays in collaboration with playwrights like CN Srikanthan Nair, G Sankara Pillai and Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, and critically acclaimed productions like Saketam, Sankara Pillai’s Bandi and Sakshi. “Here at the department, Gargi gave us a chance to meet and work with the best in the field, with creative freedom to experiment and evolve. My students were of my age, and we learnt and evolved together,” reflects Varma, who directed Sanskrit plays for a modern audience, with a new interpretations and styles of production.
With every play, says Varma, the effort is look at life with new eyes. “Theatre makes us noble, as we cannot go through every experience in our life, theatre gives one a chance to understand everything, as here at the Department, we staged both Western and modern Indian plays,” he says.
Travelling and studying theatre in different countries, Varma introduced students to new idioms in theatre. Encouraging his actors to break method acting and bring to the stage what is within, Varma says he didn’t need to watch his actors to know what was happening on stage, just listening to them was enough. “I like to keep the climax with me, and create an excitement for actors, and magic for the audience. Of course, you have to be sure what you have to do. This documentary has made me look at my work and life here with a fresh perspective,” says Varma, who is working on a production on Kathakali and also female impersonation in the performing arts.