The last day of 1940 was a day like no other in the history of Tamil stage. The scene of action was the famed Salt Cotaurs theatre (Royal Theatre) on Wall Tax road. The play being staged that day was the famous Valli Thirumanam. A huge crowd had gathered in great expectation, for although the play had been staged several times earlier by various troupes, they had come to watch and cheer the man playing the role of Lord Muruga, S.S.Viswanatha Dass. He had captured their imagination with his wonderful voice and had used the stage to good effect to arouse the patriotic fervour and spread the ideals of the freedom movement in them. Little did they anticipate what was in store.
Born into a family from the Maruthuvar community of Sivakasi on 16th June 1886, Viswanatha Dass started acting at an early age, learning the craft from the legendary Sankaradas Swamigal. Having first donned the grease paint at the age of 8, Viswanatha Dass established himself as an actor of repute and by the age of 14 had made a name for himself performing both Rajapart and Sthreepart. He was blessed with a melodious voice, which he put to good effect to attract huge crowds.
A meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in Tuticorin in 1911 led to Viswanatha Dass involving himself actively in the freedom struggle. Invited to sing the prayer songs at the public meetings, Viswanatha Dass was soon drawn into the movement by Gandhiji, who was captivated by his voice. Dass accepted the offer and took to wearing khadi and also ensured that the character he was playing on stage too wore khadi. It was thus not uncommon to see him don the roles of Lord Muruga or Kovalan dressed in Khadi! He would also include patriotic songs penned by the likes of Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas in his plays. With other troupes following suit, this soon became a common occurrence and idea of using the stage to stoke the fire of patriotism gained momentum. Viswanatha Dass traveled to places such as Singapore, Burma, Malaysia and Sri Lanka with his group, the “Shanmukhanandam Drama Troupe” and spread the message of the movement through his plays and songs.
His active participation in the movement meant that he was never far away from trouble. It was commonplace for the police to wait at the venue where Viswanatha Dass was performing and arrest him as soon as he sang patriotic songs. Legend has it that he was arrested 29 times in the 29 years since he first met Mahatma Gandhi, with legendary figures like V.O.Chidambaram and Muthuramalinga Thevar often appearing to bail him out.
With nothing to fall back on for finance save theatre, Viswanatha Dass was regularly under financial strain. In 1940, his ancestral property in Thirumangalam, Madurai had to be given up for auction due to his inability to repay loans raised on it. It was at this time that he was contracted for staging three plays in Madras. With a hope of raising some money to save the house, Viswanatha Dass left for Madras, unaware that it was to be his last visit.
The crowd (and the police) waited with bated breath as the play started. Seated on a peacock, and dressed in full regalia, Viswanatha Dass entered to thunderous applause singing “Maaya Vaazhve im mannmeedhe”. That was as far as he got. With a sudden seizure, he collapsed and lay motionless on stage. The police converged to control the chaos that ensued and doctors were summoned to attend on Viswanatha Dass. They arrived and pronounced him dead from a massive heart attack.
As the news of Dass’s demise spread, huge crowds thronged the theatre to pay their last respects to the man who had given them so much of joy with his singing and exploits on stage. The owner of the theatre, Cunniah Wodaiyar declared the place closed for further shows as a mark of respect to the great personality. On 1st of January 1941, huge crowds joined the funeral procession that started from the theatre and reached the Moolakothalam cemetery, where he was consigned to the flames at around 7 PM.
Today, Viswanatha Dass is a distant footnote in the annals of the freedom movement in Tamilnadu. Save for a statue near his native town, Thirumangalam and his house (which was demolished and converted into a memorial cum marriage hall recently), there is little to perpetuate his memory today.
The Archive of Indian Music website has two of his recordings, which can be accessed here: