The Nilgiris is an undeniably dramatic district. Its soaring mountains, its lush carpets of tea, its remarkable collection of waterfalls and streams, its magnificent wildlife (both human and non-human) make for the richest of human experiences, to say the least. And against the sumptuous backdrop of this verdant luxury plays out the inevitable soap-opera of the human condition in all its frailty and glory. There is never a dull moment in this little part of the world. Someone’s wife is invariably gadding about the tea bushes with someone else’s husband, or someone else has sold off tea mixed with sawdust, or someone has offended someone by not inviting them to a tea-party… newcomers add to the mix by stirring in their own quirky egos and ambitions to this eclectic brew.
As a district, few others offer this much scope for a living, breathing soap opera existence – and the theatrics of this wonderful and quaint population come full circle with a tradition that dates back many decades.
The Coonoor Club has been centre stage for so much of plantation life in this district. Its badminton court/stage and auditorium have seen countless events come and go. The annual Christmas choir performance, the UPASI matches, cultural recitals, book launches, informal musical get-togethers, club dances, weddings and birthdays… the Coonoor Club has seen them all. And of all these celebrations of life and living, one of the most special events will always be the staging of an annual play.
Back in the mid-1980s, the more daring of Coonoor’s citizens put up the most excellent production of ‘Blithe Spirit’. A year later they followed it up with ‘Cactus Flower’… and then some of them wrote their own play, and another year the adolescents performed a tongue-in-cheek production of the creation of the world. Today the same spirit of thespian creativity continues to surge through the town. With cast and crew comprising of the townsfolk, the productions, more recently, have got quite elaborate and increasingly professional.
A couple of years ago Simone Kaula, that elegant and talented Parsee lady had the town on its feet when she directed a stage production of ‘Jungle Book’. The production was so well-received that they were asked to do a repeat of it at Coonoor’s most famous boys’ school, St. Joseph’s College. They followed it up with the all-time favourite musical, “The Wizard of Oz”, and more recently, with the help of that famous and gifted filmmaker, Mansoor Khan, they put together a fabulous performance of ‘An Inspector Calls’ that played to yet another packed house.
Together, with little formal training (in the case of most), but with an incredible dedication and raw talent, the citizens in this lovely hill district come together regularly to create riveting dramatic performances that can take one’s breath away. The actors of these productions are from all walks of life. Some are tea estate owners, some are tea brokers, some have a house next to a tea estate, others drink gallons of it… yes, the one commonality among them all is a connection to tea.
Take Coonoor’s well-known and much-loved Anita Davaram Mathias. Her family moved to Coonoor in the early 1900s, owning and operating several tea estates, of which, today, one still stays in their management. Anita herself is a Bharatnatyam dancer, a rescuer of abused dogs, a graduate in hospital management, manager of several homestays and one of the few people in town who remembers the Coonoor that was and struggles to keep it that way, under the onslaught of the 21st century. Once always talked about as the daughter of a particularly famous police officer, she is now hailed as Bagheera the Panther, courtesy her rousing performance in the much-talked about production of ‘Jungle Book’.
And in the funny way, that Coonoor has of connecting up generations, Anita’s work with homestays – McIver – saw her working alongside one of the thespian legends of Coonoor, the very elegant, the fabulously well-spoken and highly-polished Michael Rosamund. Michael was the star of ‘Blithe Spirit’ back in the 80s production of it, and Noel Coward himself would have applauded the finesse with which Michael executed his role. Like most people who left the Nilgiris, he eventually returned to live a small and peaceful life in this most special of mountain towns, managing the lovely little restaurant at McIver. A cup of chai with this man, at this gorgeous eatery, overlooking the sweeping vista of a valley dotted with homes and swathes of tea bushes, is an experience to be treasured, such an incredible slice of life. One can see why this gentleman took the stage by storm in his heyday. For if you want the most amusing, articulate and witty recount of Coonoor and its theatrics, both on and off-stage, in a time when telephone numbers only had three digits, this must be your go-to person.
Amidst the tea, and amidst the life that swirls about the growing and makingof it, there is, and has always been, a cultural landscape that ebbs and flows with the change of generations. And as tea plantations give way to real estate, and bison wander out on the road as forests disappear, as yuppies leave cities to bring their city ways to the hills… there still remains this small group of talented, dedicated old-timers who cling to the Coonoor that was, and who commit to upholding the old ways, and keeping the colonial flavour of this gracious place intact.
As the Bard famously said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…”
So to the Simone Kaulas, the Anita Davarams, the Michael Rosamunds, the Virinchipuram Srikants, the Sheela Bhasins and all the rest who keep alive one of Coonoor’s most loved cultural phenomena… who play so many parts, and with such grace – we, as a district, say thank you. We sincerely hope you will pass on this theatrical baton into other able hands – and may the tea bushes we all love so much see future generations continue this legacy as they wend their way on and off the stage of life in the incomparably beautiful Nilgiris.
Featured banner of the staging of An Inspector Calls
Photo courtesy Anita Davaram Mathias