The Mahatma and the Tamil Stage

Today, as the nation celebrates the 146th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, here is a post commemorating his influence on the Tamil theatre world.

The popularity of Tamil stage as a medium of mass entertainment meant that it became one of the easiest ways to promote the freedom struggle. Artistes such as Viswanatha Dass and T.P.Krishnaswamy Pavalar were foremost amongst the practitioners of Tamil theatre to use it effectively. With Mahatma Gandhi emerging as the leader of the freedom movement, it was but inevitable that his ideals and methods caught the imagination of and inspired many an individual, including theatre artistes. As we saw in an earlier post , Viswanatha Dass took to Khadi on coming into contact with Mahatma Gandhi, who involved him in the freedom movement. T.P.Krishnasamy Pavalar was in regular touch with Mahatma Gandhi and many other senior Congress leaders.  When he was refused permission to stage his play Kadharin Vetri at many places by the police who wanted the scene where Congress workers were beaten up by them removed, he wrote to Gandhiji for advice, who wrote back saying that it was best that the scene was cut, as he did not want the promotion of Khadi to be seen as a means of inciting hatred against the British. Pavalar agreed to this and modified the scene. He also renamed the play “Khadar Bhakti” and staged it many times thereafter.

The distinction however of being probably the only Tamil theatre artiste whose play was witnessed by Mahatma Gandhi belongs to Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai. Hearing that Gandhiji was in Coimbatore in the middle of a tour of South India, Nawab Rajamanickam whose troupe Madurai Devi Bala Vinoda Sangeetha Sabha was in the city went and invited the Mahatma to come and watch them perform. The play chosen for the occasion was Nandanar. Impressed by Nawab’s credentials that was presented by people around him, Gandhi agreed. That the play dealt with an issue close to his heart, untouchability was also an incentive.

“When the curtains went up the Mahatma expressed his wish to be on stage to have a clear view from the wings. As he was being helped the three steps, he noticed the board that said ‘Leave your footwear here.’ Immediately, he removed his sandals, went up and sat on the floor”, recalled K.V.Srinivasan (who as a twelve year old was a part of the troupe), in an interview to The Hindu in 2012. After the play, Mahatma Gandhi showered his praises on Nawab and the troupe. A touched Nawab, who was a patriot at heart reaffirmed his commitment to the nation. He ensured that his entire troupe followed the ideals of the Mahatma. He ordered a charka for each of his troupe member and taught them to spin cloth. In his play Inbasagaran, he also included a scene where the spinning of the charka was demonstrated so that the public too could watch and learn.

The star couple of S.G.Kittappa and K.B.Sundaramabal were undoubtedly the biggest crowd pullers of their times. Congress leader S.Satyamurthy, who himself came from a stage background (having been a part of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s Suguna Vilasa Sabha) hit upon the idea of having them participate in the political meetings and sing patriotic songs. Taking advantage of the huge crowds, he also got them to sell Khadi at the annual Mylapore Festival. After the death of S.G.Kittappa in 1933, K.B.Sundarambal opted for a life in oblivion, taking up the attire by which we know her today, dressed in white Khadi with forehead smeared with viboothi. It is thanks to Mahatma Gandhi that she came back into public life.

Chozhanaadan in his book Kodumudi Kokilam writes that the Mahatma asked her if by isolating herself she thought would obtain powers like Savithri to get back the life of her loved one and counselled her to restart her service to the freedom movement. K.B.Sundarambal, who had earlier in the 1930s started recording and releasing songs commemorating various occasions such as the deaths of Motilal Nehru and Kasturiba, the hanging of Bhagat Singh and his comrades and Gandhi’s visit to the Round Table conference was convinced and thus started the second innings of her life.

In 1935, to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the Indian National Congress, a record containing speeches of S.Satyamurthy and patriotic songs of K.B.Sundarambal was released. In 1937, when Gandhiji was enroute from Karur to Erode, his car broke down near Kodumudi, Sundarambal’s native town. Satyamurthy, who had accompanied Gandhiji took him to Sundarambal’s house. An overjoyed Sundarambal arranged a feast for him and served him on a golden plate. The Mahatma asked her if he could have the plate too. Sundarambal donated it gladly, which was later auctioned and the funds used for the freedom movement.

Here is K.B.Sundarambal singing “Engal Gandhi London saerndhaar”, clip courtesy Archive of Indian Music.


One thought on “The Mahatma and the Tamil Stage

  1. Pingback: When love for Khadi turned violent | Tamil stage

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