An earlier post on Gandhi Jayanti couple of years ago covered in brief his influence on Tamil stage. This post elaborates on an incident during the staging of a play mentioned therein, Khadar Bhakti.
It was the time MG Ramachandran and his brother MG Chakrapani were part of the Madurai Original Boys Company, run by SM Sachidanandam Pillai. The troupe was staging plays by TP Krishnaswamy Pavalar, the famous playwright who used Tamil stage to great effect to propagate the ideals of the freedom movement and social messages. Some of his successful plays were Pathi Bhakti (on the evils of drinking), Governor’s Cup (betting on horses) and Bombay Mail.
Khadar Bhakti was originally a play titled Khadarin Vettri (The victory of Khadi) and was written by Krishnaswamy Pavalar at a time when the freedom struggle was at its peak. A call had been given for the boycott of foreign garments and the promotion of the Swadeshi fabric, Khadi. The play revolved around the travails of a couple and the role of Khadi in their lives. Needless to say, the play incorporated scenes that were commonplace then, such as picketing of shops selling foreign goods and setting fire to clothes that were made in the mills of England. These invariably were followed by policemen resorting to lathi charge and arrest.
The troupe at that time was staging plays at the famous Othavadai theatre on Wall Tax road. One particular scene in the play involved the protagonist and a group of boys lying down before a shop selling foreign cloth and pleading with people going into the shop to buy Khadi instead. This would be followed by a group of actors playing policemen lathi charging them. As the blows rained on them, they would shout the chants that resonated at many a gathering across the country, Vande Mataram and Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai. As if on cue, the audience would join in and the entire atmosphere would become an emotionally surcharged one. MG Ramachandran in his autobiography Naan Yaen Pirandhen writes that the roof would echo the resounding voices, in agreement with the sentiments of the public. This scene was deemed to be the highlight of the play.
One day, just before the play started, the proprietor received a message from the police stating that this particular scene had to be cut. A worried Sachidanandam Pillai was at a loss as to how to proceed without it, given its special status. MGR writes that the play started with an assurance given by Razzak Khan, the Police Inspector who had communicated the orders to Sachidanandam Pillai that nothing untoward would happen.
As the audience eagerly awaited the arrival of the scene that they held so dear to them, the play proceeded without it and moved to the next scene. As anticipation gave way to disappointment and confusion, there were angry shouts from the audience calling for it to be staged. Such was the anger that a piece of wood hurled by an irate member of the audience landed within inches of MG Chakrapani (who was lying dead on stage as per the play. Needless to say, it was enough to revive him). Though the proprietor and the rest of the troupe had heard the calls, it was only when MG Chakrapani ran in and narrated what happened that the enormity of the situation dawned on them.
It was decided that Krishnaswamy Pavalar go onstage and explain the situation to the restless and increasingly violent audience. He was however met with jeers and was forced to retreat. Razzak Khan then came onstage and appealed for calm. As he was speaking, a missile of wood flew from the audience and missing its intended target hit the light above, breaking it into pieces. The policeman decided that it had gone on long enough and that immediate action was required. Requesting Sachidananam Pillai to give him fifteen minutes, he rushed out of the theatre. With many young boys under his care, the proprietor decided to leave no stone unturned to ensure their safety. They were locked up inside the makeup room. MGR writes that though his reflexes had slowed down due to age, Sachidanandam Pillai was an expert at Silambam. He obtained two long poles and kept them ready at the entrance to the stage to be used in case of any necessity.
Razzak Khan returned with reinforcements after a short while and gave the audience an ultimatum to disperse peacefully within five minutes. As the countdown ensued, yet another piece of wood flew right through the curtains as the policemen ducked for cover. This prompted the Inspector to jump into the audience and start the action. MGR writes that after fifteen minutes or so, the sounds came to a gradual halt and they were escorted by the police to the place where they were residing. One question that racked the minds of the boys was as to how the uprising was quelled. They however lacked the courage to ask the proprietor. The answer came the next day in the newspapers. It turned out that the police had lathi charged the protestors outside and several of them had been grievously injured.
With an event of such a magnitude, it was deemed that the days of the play, and the troupe were numbered. Much to everyone’s surprise, a week or so later, the Original Boys Company advertised the staging of Khadar Bhakti yet again, with a note that the special scene could not be staged on the orders of Mahatma Gandhi. The crowds swelled as usual, the memories of the events of a short while earlier almost obliterated. It later transpired that the events had reached the ears of the Mahatma, who communicated that the official orders had to be obeyed and the scene could not be staged.
The Mahatma’s voice had won, yet again.