Fifty years after it was written, K.M. Chidambaran’s play
Thuramukham (
port) set in the backdrop of the Cochin Port’s transition from the primitive “chappa” method of work roster to a more humane mode of labour, is set to have its first full-fledged performance this weekend.

Gopan Chidambaram, the playwright’s son and theatre practitioner, thought it was only appropriate to resurrect the play and stage it, as the port – passing through a phase of alienation from the life of the town – is in its 90th year now.

The performance is on July 20 and 21 at Uru Art Harbour in collaboration with Collective Phase One and with a cast predominantly featuring Mattancherry locals.

“My father was from Palluruthy and was a teacher. He wrote the play in 1968, exactly 15 years after the infamous Mattancherry police firing on workers in which three of them were martyred. The play was in circulation in the 1970s, but somehow faded from public memory later on,” says Gopan.

Plays on workers

All three plays written by K.M. Chidambaran were on workers, the last two written for employees of the Cochin Shipyard and HMT.

The play presents a family comprising an aged mother, her two sons, a daughter-in-law and a daughter, fallen on hard times after being spurned by her Arab husband.

Link with port

Their struggle is inextricably linked to that of the port, whose advent had raised high hopes of better life and employment for the people of the region.

In the backdrop of the play is the social mobilisation, the formation of the first port workers’ union in India by the Communist Party against the uncivilised chappa system – in which those who win the scrabble to secure the copper chips cast into the crowd get employment for the day.

“Locals have been cast in lead roles as I wanted the play to be in its original context. Its dialogues have a diction that’s hyperlocal and starkly realistic. Over time, the Mattancherry firing has become something akin to a folk tale, handed down generational memories through workers’ songs and evocative slogans. We have resurrected some of these songs for the play for which researcher Thomas Joe is scoring music,” says Gopan. He went around meeting people like K.A. Abu, who still have vivid memories of the Mattancherry workers’ struggle.

“I was just a 16-year-old then and the incident, which I had seen from the bazaar, made me a Communist,” recalls Abu, a Mattancherry resident, who later became the CPI(M)’s long-standing local committee secretary at Mattancherry.

Discussion on politics

Still more reason for Gopan to rejuvenate the play was the fact of Kerala ports, which once held a key role in civilisational exchanges, beating a retreat from the lives of the community around it. “I wanted a discussion on the politics of this development, about what happens to the communities around ports. Therefore, some minor changes have been made in the play to make it contemporary,” says Gopan.

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