Interesting Snippets: Scene 4

Scene 4: Conferences and some attempts at theatre reform

17. As early as 1933, SK Parthasarathy Iyengar a playwright and District Munsif of Mannargudi formed an organisation known as the Tamizh Naadaga Medai Seerthirutha Sangam to bring about reforms in Tamil theatre. A booklet containing 50 points covering various aspects of theatre such as acting, makeup, dialogue, music and stage settings was brought out to provide pointers to bring about a transformation on the functioning of Tamil theatre.

18. ‘Avvai’ TK Shanmugam was instrumental in organising The first Tamil Theatre Conference in Erode in 1944. The Conference was held in the face of a massive protests spearheaded by Periyar, whose distaste for the arts ran deep. It required some skillful diplomacy and tactful handling by CN Annadurai to ensure that the event went off without any trouble. The Conference also saw the conferment of the honorific ‘Avvai’ on TK Shanmugam by RK Shanmukham Chetty following the staging of Avvaiyar at the concluding session. The success of the conference paved the way for two more successful conferences, one in Thanjavur in 1945 under the auspices of the Karandhai Tamil Sangam and the other one in Madras the following year.

19. ‘Avvai’ Shanmugam was also involved in several other activities for the development of Tamil theatre and its artistes. These included running a magazine known as Arivucchudar exclusively for theatre artistes and the founding of the Arivu Abhivrutthi Sangam, a club based in Madurai where actors could gather to learn languages, read magazines and listen to great leaders.

20. An organisation called the Nataka Academy was formed in 1950 comprising amateur and professional actors, authors, technicians and drama patrons in the face of growing difficulties to stage plays on account of the entertainment tax levied by the Government of Madras. A petition listing the various difficulties faced by drama troupes was presented to the Government by a delegation led by Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. An open-air theatre festival which had an attendance of more than 5000 people was held, where ministers were invited to take part. The persistent efforts paid off and in 1951, the Government of Madras exempted drama from levy of entertainment tax. The successful conduct of this theatre festival was followed by several other similar festivals. Dramas began to be staged at various exhibitions and fairs conducted by the government.

Tamil Stage reform

Interesting Snippets: Scene 3

Scene 3: Tamil Stage and the Freedom movement

11. Arya Sabha was the first nationalistic play in Tamil. It was written by a Tamil Pandit K Gopalachar of Triplicane and commemorated a decade of the Indian National Congress.

12. SS Viswanatha Doss was one of the earliest artistes to use Tamil theatre as a platform to spread nationalistic ideas and use it to propagate the freedom movement. A staunch devotee of Mahatma Gandhi, he took to wearing khadi after a meeting with the leader and ensured that the characters he portrayed on stage too wore khadi! He also included patriotic songs penned by the likes of Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas in his plays. He died in 1940 while performing on stage as Lord Muruga in the famous Salt Cotaurs Theatre in Wall Tax Road.

13. TP Krishnaswamy Pavalar, the elder brother of the famous Tamil scholar TP Meenakshisundaram was yet another personality who used the medium of Tamil theatre extensively to spread the ideas of the freedom movement. A sathavadhani, he was also a multi linguist with proficiency in Telugu, Hindi and Sanskrit besides Tamil. An ardent nationalist at heart, he quit his job as the Chief Tamil teacher at the Muthialpet Boys School in George Town and joined the freedom movement in 1917 on the arrest of Annie Besant on sedition charges. He became a part of the Indian National Congress and attended all its sessions across India. He wrote several plays such as Khadarin Vetri, Pathi Bakthi and Desiyakodi based on the happenings in the freedom movement which were staged by various troupes. He died in March 1934.

14. Several legends of Tamil theatre such as SG Kittappa, KB Sundarambal, SV Subbiah Bhagavathar to name a few recorded songs on the gramophone written by the likes of Madhurakavi Bhaskaradas and other poets on the important events in the freedom movement and its leading figures.

15. Following SG Kittappa’s death in 1933, KB Sundarambal went into a self imposed hiatus. Her comeback into the world of theatre and music was thanks to Mahatma Gandhi, who 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.

16. Very interestingly, the 5.30 AM broadcast of the All India Radio announcing India’s freedom on 15.08.1947 was by Poornam Viswanathan, who would go on to become one of Tamil stage’s most successful personalities.

Motilal Nehru

Interesting Snippets: Scene 2

Scene 2:

6. The first decade of the 20th century saw the emergence of Boys Companies. As the name suggests, these troupes comprised only of young boys who learnt the art under the watchful eyes of teachers, or vaadhyaars as they were known. A Boys Company followed the gurukula system, where the boys were involved in the daily routine of the troupe, while learning acting and several other skills such as carpentry, painting, stage settings, book keeping, stores maintenance etc. One of the earliest Boys Companies was Jagannatha Iyer’s Bala Meena Ranjini Sangeetha Sabha, which was the training ground for several stalwarts such as Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai, M R Radha, K Sarangapani etc. Other popular Boys Companies included the Bala Shanmukhananda Sabha run by TKS Brothers, the Madurai Original Boys Company and PS Velu Nair’s Arya Gana Sabha.

7.’Yadartham’ Ponnuswami Pillai is one of the less spoken about stalwarts of Tamil theatre. His drama troupe, the Madurai Sri Bala Gana Sabha comprised nearly 80 members. With such a huge cast at his disposal, he came up with an interesting concept wherein when the troupe was staging a play at a town, he would send members not acting in that particular play to perform a different play at other places under the same banner, thus making it multiple plays by the same troupe at the same time! He also came up with another revolutionary measure wherein he made his troupe members stakeholders in the troupe, sharing profits of the performances with them. He however assumed full responsibility for the debts! One of the country’s finest actors, Sivaji Ganesan had his early theatre training in this troupe.

8.The TKS Nataka Sabha run by TK Sankaran, TK Muthuswami, TK Shanmugam and TK Bhagavathi was one of Tamil theatre’s most successful drama troupes. The brothers came to be associated with Sankaradas Swamigal and came under his tutelage. They then started the Bala Shanmukhananda Sabha and later the TKS Nataka Sabha and reigned over Tamil theatre for more than three decades. Some of their best known productions include Raja Raja Chozhan, Sivakamiyin Sabadham, Ratha Paasam, Avvaiyar and Sivaleela.

9. Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai’s Devi Bala Vinoda Sangeetha Sabha founded in 1934 specialised in mythological and historical plays. Some of its most successful productions were Nandanar, Inbasagaran, Krishna Leela, Gnanasoundari and Ayyappan. Mahatma Gandhi on a visit to Coimbatore watched the troupe’s Nandanar and was greatly impressed. Rajamanickam Pillai was greatly instrumental in creating widespread awareness of Lord Ayyappan in Tamil Nadu with his play on the deity and undertook several visits to Sabarimala. One of Tamil cinema’s best-known villains, MN Nambiar was trained under Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai and later became a renowned Ayyappa Guruswamy. 

10. SV Sahasranamam, one of Tamil cinema’s finest character actors had his early theatre training at the Bala Shanmukhananda Sabha. He founded his own troupe Seva Stage in 1953 and ushered in an era of experimentation in Tamil theatre. The troupe’s first play was Kangal, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Vision. Amongst the troupe’s most successful plays were Irulum Oliyum, Vaanavil (where the audience was for the first time treated to a revolving stage), Policekaran Magal and Panchali Sabadham. Sahasranamam was instrumental in bringing to stage several legendary personalities in the field of literature such as BS Ramiah, T Janakiraman etc.

TKS Brothers


Happy World Theatre Day!

Happy World Theatre Day to all the wonderful artistes, technicians and theatre lovers I have had the great fortune of knowing and interacting with!

Over the past few years, I have been doing a lot of reading on Tamil theatre, its history, its legends and several other interesting aspects. On this occasion of World Theatre Day 2020, which coincides with Day 3 of the 21 day national lockdown, I embark on a venture to share some interesting information from Tamil theatre’s hoary past. Over the remaining period of lockdown, I hope to present a set of 100 snippets which bring out the rich legacy of Tamil theatre.

Happy Reading folks!

Here goes Interesting Snippets- Part I

1. Special Drama as a concept is unique to Tamil theatre, where the lead performers do not belong to the same troupe but are hired ‘specially’ for particular performances. They meet only on the day of the play and go on stage with little rehearsal. Their performances involve liberal doses of creativity built around the standard written script which they would have already learnt in full. The works of Sankaradas Swamigal, one of Tamil theatre’s earliest pioneers constitute most of the corpus of Special Drama, which is still performed in parts of South India.

2. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, considered as the Father of Tamil Theatre as we know it today founded the Suguna Vilasa Sabha in 1891. It was Tamil theatre’s first amateur troupe and was formed by students and graduates. The curtain of the Sabha had a drawing of the legendary University Senate House to denote the educational pursuits of its members. Over the course of its journey, the troupe had several firsts to its credit. For instance, at a time when performances were held only at night, the troupe started performing matinee and evening shows.

3. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar is also credited with introducing the works of Shakespeare to Tamil theatre. He adapted several works of the bard into Tamil and gave it titles that bore a phonetic resemblance to the original names. For instance, Romeo and Juliet was Jwalita Ramanan, Macbeth was Makapathi, Cymbeline was Sarasangi etc.

4. Kumbakonam Balamani Ammal founded the first ever all-ladies drama troupe, the Balamani Drama Company. It comprised mostly of destitute women in need of shelter and security. She is credited with having introduced Petromax lighting on stage and also being the first to reserve separate seating for ladies at her performances. She was one of the earliest to take up social themes in Tamil theatre, performing the first social drama in its history, Kasi Viswanatha Mudaliar’s Dambachari Vilasam. Her performances drew huge crowds and legend has it that the Railways ran ‘Balamani Special Express’ trains to cater exclusively to her theatre audience.

5. SG Kittappa was Tamil stage’s first superstar. Born in 1906, his early theatre training was under Sankaradas Swamigal. Blessed with a divine voice, he held sway over audiences not only in Tamil Nadu but also in places such as Malaya, Singapore and Ceylon. His partnership with KB Sundarambal, whom he married (despite a first marriage, with Kittamma from Tirunelveli) was legendary and the couple reigned supreme on Tamil Stage. The couple’s celebrity status was utilised by freedom fighter Satyamurthy, who hit upon the idea of having them sell khadi at the Arupathumoovar festival of the Kapaleeswarar temple. Kittappa passed away in 1933 at the young age of 27.

SGK as Nandanar

SG Kittappa as Nandanar


Buffoon Shanmugam

Buffoon Shanmugam


The ‘Buffoon Part’ was an integral part of Tamil theatre of yore, esp Special Drama.It basically was an act that brought in lighter moments to the plays that were otherwise heavy in melodrama.The Buffoon Part was either standalone (fillers in between scenes) or was woven into the story and was a much awaited segment of the performance. The actors who played these parts were given recognition on par with the lead roles and their names mentioned on the drama advertisements. One of the most famous Buffoon Part actors was Buffoon NS Shanmugam.

There is very little information about this theatre personality or his life. VK Ramasamy in his memoirs Enadhu Kalai Payanam however gives some interesting information on his theatre career.

According to VK Ramasamy, Buffoon Shanmugam’s heyday in theatre was between 1925 and 1940. Blessed with a wonderful voice, he was also a regular gramophone artiste, who recorded with the famous Broadcast Label of Surajmals. He forged a formidable partnership with the legendary ‘Raja Part’ actor of those times, SV Subbiah Bhagavathar and the duo were much sought-after for performances. Drama contractors would also cast Shanmugam in plays that had not so renowned actors by paying him a hefty sum, as his presence would boost the gate collections. Such was Shanmugam’s popularity that at a time when the ‘Raja Part’ actors were paid more than others, he insisted on being paid on par with them and also on being accorded the same facilities such as first-class train travel!

VK Ramasamy adds that Shanmugam had the notorious distinction of having been banned from performing in Chettinadu thanks to a song that he had recorded which slighted the honour of the ladies of the region. He was then forced to apologize publicly before being permitted to perform again!

Shanmugam also acted in movies such as Gnanasoundari, Subhadra Parinayam and Manonmani .

He certainly seems to have been one of the most colourful characters of Tamil theatre!

When love for Khadi turned violent

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.




Major Chandrakanth: From Stage to Celluloid

Major’ Sundarrajan was one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known character actors.  His dialogue delivery which mixed English and Tamil phrases was sophisticated and unique and rather unsurprisingly, he was the first choice when it came to portraying characters such as a rich father. For someone with no connection to the armed forces whatsoever (he was employed with the Telephones Department), his identity as ‘Major’ Sundarrajan was came about thanks to Major Chandrakanth, the successful stage play and movie.

Tamil cinema over the years has seen many directors who can be considered trendsetters. One of the biggest names in the list is that of Dadasaheb Phalke awardee, late Kailasam Balachander. Born in Nannilam in 1930, Balachander developed a keen interest in Tamil theatre at a young age and as a boy used to write, act and direct small skits in his village. He moved to Madras around 1949-50 after graduating from the Annamalai University and a brief stint as a teacher and joined the Accountant General’s office. It was around this time that the amateur theatre movement, which would see its heydays in the 1960s and 1970s had started to take roots, with the likes of United Amateur Artistes, Triplicane Fine Arts Club, Mylapore Fine Arts and Indian National Artistes (run by VS Raghavan) regularly performing to packed audiences. Added to this were the recreation clubs of the various Government and private sector offices. The Accountant General’s office had an active recreation club and soon K Balachander started becoming part of the theatre circuit, writing and acting plays.

‘Major’ Chandrakanth was born in the Accountant General’s office. A new Accountant General from Bengal had taken charge in Madras and a function had been organised to welcome him. The mantle of writing a play to be staged on the occasion fell on K Balachander, who decided that it had to be in English to ensure that the Accountant General understood the play. The story, titled “Courage of Conviction” revolved around a blind Major. K Balachander played the role of the protagonist and received great appreciation for his authentic portrayal of a blind man’s mannerisms.

K Balachander decided to expand the play into a full length script for Ragini Recreations, the troupe that had been formed by his friend PR Govindarajan (later Kalakendra Govindarajan) in 1958. By this time he had developed close friendships with people such as S.Raman (later more famously known as ‘Nair’ Raman), Harikrishnan, ISR and Venky. They were an integral part of the plays staged by the troupe. Over the next few years, the troupe would attract the likes of Nagesh, Major Sundarrajan and Sowcar Janaki, making it one of the most formidable ones on the amateur theatre circuit.

The story of ‘Major’ Chandrakanth dealt with an honest and morally upright blind army officer who gives asylum to a murderer on the run from the police for having killed a person in a fit of rage. The victim had been his sister’s lover, who had cheated her on promise of marriage leading to her suicide unable to bear the shame. On the case to find the murderer is the Major’s elder son, a police officer. It then comes to light that the person who had been murdered was the Major’s younger son and that both the Major and the murderer were unaware of each other’s identity for a long time. The story ended with the officer arresting the murderer and the Major for having harboured a criminal.

The role of the Major was played by Sundarrajan, who was then performing small roles with the Triplicane Fine Arts, while that of the elder son was played by Venky. Govindarajan donned the role of the younger son. Interestingly, the character of the sister was an invisible one with only references to her being made onstage and was developed into a full length role only in the movie, while the brother’s character was played by Gokulnath. The play was a stupendous success and before long, it had been adapted into a movie. The adaptation was in Hindi, the movie Oonche Log. Produced by M/s Chitrakala Films and directed by Phani Majumdar, it won the Second Prize in the Hindi movies category at the 13th National Film Awards for the year 1965. It was Feroz Khan’s first major hit, where he held his own against veterans such as Ashok Kumar (who played the Major) and Raaj Kumar. The Tamil version of the movie was produced by AVM Productions and came out the following year. Directed by K Balachander himself, the movie was a stupendous hit.

The play led to two other christenings. Venky, who was then employed in the American Consulate was named Srikanth after the character by K Balachander. He would go on to feature in several other plays and movies by Balachander and become a popular actor in the 1960s and 1970s. A decade or so later, Balachander gave the name of the younger son’s character to a person who today is the country’s biggest superstar, Rajinikanth.

This post was first written for The Cinema Resource Centre blog.

Kaasedhaan Kadavulada: From Stage to Celluloid

Chitralaya Gopu is one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known humour writers. His association with his classmate and close friend from school, the legendary director CV Sridhar and his unit Chitralaya has been responsible for some of Tamil cinema’s most memorable movies such as Then Nivalu, Nenjil Or Alayam, Policekaran Magal and the evergreen Kadhalikka Neramillai.

Unlike many of his colleagues from the film world who came from a theatre background, Gopu’s association with stage came about quite by chance.  “It was the time of the Chinese aggression. The Tamil Nadu Government requested Sivaji Ganesan and Sridhar to arrange for an entertainment programme involving all the top stars of that time that could be staged across all the major districts of the State for fund raising. I was asked by Sridhar to write short plays for the programme. I wrote two pieces, one a ten minute skit involving Gemini Ganesan and Savitri titled Naveena Dushyanthan Sakunthalai and the other, a multi-starrer 45 min play about a man and his attempts to get his four daughters married. This was Galatta Kalyanam, which was later made into a movie by the same name. It was my first proper attempt at stage plays”, says Gopu.

“It was around this time that an amateur theatre troupe called the Unity Club was functioning in Triplicane”, he continues. “Primarily comprising members who were lawyers or employed with various offices, its star attraction was Major Sundararajan. Following his exit, the troupe was on the lookout for a suitable replacement, who could help their cause with obtaining performance opportunities. Thanks to my film connections, I was roped into the troupe by my cousin who was its secretary. I managed to get Manorama to act in a script written by Ananthu, who was part of K Balachander’s unit. Since I had approached her to be part of the troupe, I was given a role in the play too. It was probably a way of ensuring that I was committed to be present at all times”, chuckles Gopu, who soon started writing full-fledged plays. The troupe continued its journey continued with fairly successful plays such asSreemathy and Dhikku theriyadha veetil. Its biggest hit was however Kaasedhaan Kadavulada”.

The story of Kaasedhaan Kadavulada revolved around the matriarch, the boss of a wealthy family. The second wife of a henpecked husband, her miserly ways cause great consternation with the son of the first wife and his cousin, who forever look for ways to make her part with the wealth. Taking advantage of an opportunity that arises with the news of the arrival of a Swamiji to their home, they enlist the services of a petty thief turned tea shop owner, a childhood friend to impersonate him and steal the money. The hilarious sequence of events that follow his arrival form the crux of the story.

“By this time, apart from Manorama, we had managed to rope in the likes of Muthuraman, Venniradai Moorthy and V Gopalakrishnan to act in our plays. The first three were part of Kaasedhaan Kadavulada. Muthuraman played the role of the son, while Venniradai Moorthy played his father. The role that was the biggest hit was however that of the Swamiji. It was essayed by Ramani, a popular mimicry artiste who was a colleague of K Balachander at AGS office and also a part of Ragini Recreations. Manorama played Muthuraman’s love interest”, remembers Gopu.

The play was a resounding success. AV Meiyappa Chettiar and his wife enjoyed it immensely and their sons watched it in succeeding shows. “Manorama told me that it was sure to be made into a movie, as the entire family had witnessed the play. Sure enough, I was soon called to AVM Studios. AV Meiyappa Chettiar was particular that I direct the movie. It marked my debut as a director. Muthuraman and Venniradai Moorthy reprised their onstage roles. As Manorama was not a regular heroine artiste, she was made the matriarch of the family, while Lakshmi was brought in to play Muthuraman’s love interest. For the pivotal role of the Swamiji, the name of Thengai Srinivasan was suggested, to which I readily agreed. The onstage success of the character was replicated on celluloid. A huge hoarding of Thengai Srinivasan was put up by AVM at Pilot theatre, where the film was running to packed houses”, recollects Gopu.

An interesting anecdote revolving around the play which was written about in the media was the death of a man who had come to watch one of the shows. His hearty laughter apparently caused him seizures due to which he had to be hospitalised, only to pass away shortly after!

That the movie attracts a great fan following and continues to be regularly shown on television channels to this date is perhaps the greatest tribute to the genial Chitralaya Gopu and his brand of clean humour.

The play has been recently revived by YG Mahendra’s UAA, with a few modifications by Gopu’s son, Chitralaya Sriram.

(Special thanks to Chitralaya Gopu for his inputs and to his son Chitralaya Sriram for having facilitated the interview).

This article was first written for The Cinema Resource Centre blog.

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.

S.S.Viswanatha Dass

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: