“Thanneer! Thanneer!”

In Tamil, these words are a reiteration, a plea for a drop of water. They echo the rattling of empty metal buckets against the stone walls of parched wells. They are an almost melodious invocation to the rain gods.

In Komal Swaminathan’s classic play from the 1980s, titled Thanneer, Thanneer, the words are a hoarse whisper, a death rattle uttered by Swaminathan’s hero, Vellaisamy, who has wandered into a deserted village, inhabited by the ghosts of men who have lost all hope. A year after the play was first performed, the well-known film director K Balachander made a National Award-winning film by the same name, based on the play. Soon, the words were on every one’s lips – Thanneer, Thanneer had become an incantation of revolt against an unjust political system and entrenched social order.

Swaminathan’s play is set in the village of Athipatti, in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. The protagonist, Vellaisamy, is fashioned as a Marxist hero – his father is a farmer, who sells his land and becomes a bonded labourer, so that he can educate Vellaisamy, in the hope that his son will change the world someday.

Vellaisamy’s name has an ironic twist, as he explains in a dialogue in the play, when he first arrives as a stranger to Athipatti: “I was named ‘Vellai-Samy’ – White Samy by my father who wanted to remember the white man.”

The elders of Athipatti are impressed and suspicious of Vellaisamy, who leaves his own village to escape his father’s fate. They laugh at him when he asks for water – the cursed village of Athipatti has none.

“Don’t you know this is the village that has not had water in five years,” they exclaim.

This year, on the 80th birth anniversary of Swaminathan, who passed away in 1995, Thanneer, Thanneer has been revived once more. It was performed last week in English by Chennai’s oldest theatre group, the Madras Players.

“Watching Swaminathan’s play made a huge impact on me,” said PC Ramakrishna, the director. Ramakrishna was previously the president of the Madras Players theatre group, as well as one of their best-loved actors. When he discovered an English translation of the play by a professor of English at the University of Hawaii, S Shankar, under the Seagull imprint, he knew that he had to bring it to the stage again.

Ramakrishna’s first stint as a director was in the 2012 production of Water, a film based on Swaminathan’s original play. This is the second time he is both the director as well as an actor in a production. He takes on the key role of the teacher, Marimuthu, who gives Vellaisamy a chance to a second life at Athipatti.

“The play is as relevant today as it was when I first saw it 36 years ago, Athipatti still exists,” said Ramakrishna. “Sadly, we are still facing severe shortages of water to this day.”

Ramakrishna said that the genius of Swaminathan’s play lies in its unpredictable, revolutionary characters, like the young woman named Sevanthi who first brings Vellaisamy a drink of water.

“After the play opened in 1980, there was a tremendous hue and cry in Tamil magazines and periodicals on the scene of Sevanthi throws her thaali [a necklace that married women wear] at her husband. When queried on his stand on the matter, about how an illiterate village girl could do such a thing, Swaminathan’s quiet comment was: ‘Yenn Sevanthi apdi senjaa’ (my Sevanthi did so).”

Ramakrishna’s success, in turn, lies in the way he deployed his actors, to inhabit the characters of Swaminathan’s distant village with their body language. They transcend the borders between Tamil and English by morphing into the bare-bodied shriveled old men in their grimy veshties (lungis), who emerge from their palm-thatched huts, or slither, like the young priest of the temple, who only wants money to slaughter a goat for the goddess, or leap into the air like the drummer boy, Kovalu.

“My approach has been to concentrate on the flavour of the language, milieu and communication, rather than on the word itself,” Ramakrishna said. “To my mind this produces body language that is true to type. In Tamil, we say, capture the ‘mann vasanai’ (flavour of the soil). Water is set in a village of illiterates. We had to fight against caricaturing.”

It would not be wrong to compare the dynamics of the play to both Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap and the Murder on the Orient Express. The village resembles the closed mansion that harbours a mysterious stranger with a deadly secret. The villagers, like the passengers on the train, are complicit in the crime of hiding the facts from the gaze of outsiders. The character of Vellaisamy shifts at different points of the play from abject stranger begging for a drop of water, to an activist who might be a saviour, to a hunted criminal wanted by the police. Just as the villagers rise to the challenge of Vellaisamy’s promise of getting water for the village, there is hope as well as betrayal that Swaminathan invokes in the text, and Ramakrishna, in the play.

This additional layer of mystery may explain why, in spite of numerous performances, the play exerts a fascination beyond its promise of Vellaisamy’s idealism, of fulfilling the change that he is meant to be.