A tribute to S.A. Kannan, who passed away recently.

On March 22, 2010, when this writer wanted details for an article about 93-year old G. Dharmarajan, stage artist, known for his excellent sets, he was given the telephone number of S.A. Kannan. G.D’s children said that only Kannan knew the quantum of work that the veteran had done for Tamil theatre. And Kannan was only too glad to share memories of the days at the drama company and the contribution of Dharmarajan. Kannan’s demise on September 28 made this writer recall the long session he had with the gifted artist.

Saliamangalam Appaswamy Kannan (SAK) worked his way up in the field of drama going on to direct several plays (his experience and calibre had evoked respect in no less a person than Sivaj Ganesan) and films. Born on January 7, 1929, to Appaswamy Iyengar and Pattammaal, Kannan ran away from home when he was barely 10. He found employment in a hotel, where he worked for five years rising to be its halwa master. His charming looks and demeanour attracted the attention of senior drama artists, who took him away and Kannan joined Sri Sakti Nataka Sabha, where M.N. Nambiar and S.V. Subbaiah were his seniors. Thus began a voyage that would last for decades.

Soon Kannan got to play hero when Nambiar fell ill. The play was ‘Kaviyin Kanavu’ and his performance won acclaim. Celluloid beckoned Nambiar and his exit firmed up Kannan’s place as lead artiste.

In 1946 V.C. Ganesan had come to Dindugal with the fond hope of joining the troupe. Kannan’s performance in ‘Vidhi’ made a deep impression on him and both became pals. ‘Parasakti’ launched Ganesan’s remarkable film career and Kannan too quit the drama troupe to join L.V. Prasad as actor and assistant director in his movies “Poongothai” and “Petra Manam.”

SAK acted in numerous films alongside Sivaji Ganesan and other heroes. He appeared in ‘Parasakthi’ as a lawyer in the climax, as Jackson Durai in ‘Veerapandiya Katta Bomman,’ in ‘Irudhuruvam,’ ‘Sorgam’ and ‘Adhey Kangal’ (as the dubious gatekeeper) to mention a few.

Meanwhile, Shakti Nadaga Sabha folded up with senior artistes leaving for greener pastures in cinema. But not all were lucky. It was to help such people that Sivaji Nataka Manram was started, on the suggestion of Kannan. The troupe produced several plays, ‘Needhiyin Nizhal,’ ‘Naaga Nandi,’ ‘Veerapandiya Katta Bomman,’ ‘Pagal Nila,’ ‘Jehangir,’ ‘Vietnam Veedu,’ ‘Kalam Kanda Kavignan’ and ‘Thanga Padhakkam’ to name a few. The title ‘Sivaji’ was given to Ganesan by E.V. Periyar, a tribute to the actor’s performance in “Sivaji Kanda Hindu Samrajyam.”

After ‘Veerapandia Katta Bomman,’ SAK became a full-time manager of the troupe, in charge of direction and production. Both Sundaram (‘Vietnam Veedu’) and Mahendran (‘Thanga Padhakkam’) started their career under Kannan’s baton.

In 1975, SAK co-produced and directed his first film ‘Sathyam’ starring Sivaji Ganesan, S.V. Subbaiah, Devika, Jayachithra and Kamalhassan. He made Marina’s famous ‘Thani Kudithanam’ into a film. His next film was “Geetha Oru Shenbagapoo’ starring Sangeetha, Jai Ganesh, Surulirajan, Sachu, etc. Chandrahari, a satire on the story of Harichandra, was stopped midway as Silk Smitha, who played the lead role died.

SAK directed ‘Chatrapati Sivaji,’ a short film produced by AVM for the Bombay Doordarshan Kendra in 1974. Later it was telecast as the first programme on Chennai DDK. It was a marvellous mono-act show by Sivaji Ganesan. SAK went on to act and direct plays for TV such as ‘Kadavul Maraithu Vaitha Rahasiyam’ and ‘Chandra Hari.’ He acted in the serials ‘Panchami’ and ‘Adhu Mattum Rahasiyam’ – which were popular.

SAK was conferred Kalaimamani in 1975. He was also awarded the Kalai Chelvam Award. Padmashree Avvai Shanmugam Award in 2006, the Berkley Drama Award from The Mylapore Academy in 1993 and WISDOM International Award for the best playwright in 2005 were the other feathers in his cap.

The irony of the situation hits me as I recollect SAK’s words when I took leave of him. Holding my hands he said, “You have my cell number; if anything happens to GD please inform me. I can’t expect his children to do it in their hour of grief. I’ll be failing in my duty if I don’t pay my last respects to him, best friend and a great human being.” SAK is no more and an ailing Dharmarajan, suffering from dementia, can hardly appreciate the fact.

A day at the drama company

Working schedule when the drama company was flourishing, as described by S.A. Kannan:

Normal drama timings (10 p.m. to 1 a.m.)

1.15 a.m. A glass of milk and banana

1.30 a.m. To bed

8-8.45 a.m.: Morning ablutions followed by a cup of coffee and bath.

8.45-9: Prayer and puja. Bhakthi songs to be sung. 9 to 9.15: Breakfast (idli, poori, uppuma, etc) 9.15-10.15: Dance rehearsals in solo and group. 10.15-1.15 p.m: full drama Rehearsal.

(11.30 a.m. :Break when two glasses of green gram porridge sweetened with jaggery would be served.)

Disobedience will be punished.

1.15 to 2 p.m.: Lunch - special vegetarian and non-vegetarian items with fruits. 2-4.30.: Compulsory sleep. or get beatings. 4.30-4.45: Snacks and coffee. 7.30: Dinner.

When there were two shows on Saturdays and Sundays at 6.30 p.m. and 9.30 p.m., dinner would be served at the venue. itself. or in normal for 10pm dramas at 7.30 pm. 9 to 10.00 pm getting ready with make-up and costume for drama.

Every Wednesday and Saturday compulsory oil bath. Once in a month compulsory castor oil intake. Every year, four sets of dhotis and shirts. All toilet items such as soap, powder, etc. provided. Dhobi and haircut borne by company.

First year no salary; from second year monthly payment of Rs. 5 to a maximum of Rs. 45. as per grades. Tuitions arranged to teach Hindi, English, etc. with hired tutors weekly twice. Although any number of post cards would be supplied free of cost all cards would be scrutinised before despatched. Reply letters would not be shown immediately. to be sent would be screened and then only posted however reply cards would be shown as and when necessarily convenient for drama company. For example if the boy’s father, mother or relative passed away they would be casually informed only later on when their drama programmes are not affected. Those days doctors would be craving to treat drama people free of cost at any point of time.

When plays were staged at Pattukottai, audience from Tiruchi and Thanjavur came by train and only after that train reached Pattukottai, the show would start. drama would start irrespective of drama schedule timing. ‘Kaviyin Kanavu’ was staged for six months at a stretch at the same venue. While other dramas would be staged atleast for 100 times at the same place.

When did a healthy superbly progressing drama company close down? perish?

When the leading artists were lured away with higher payments by rivals. other drama companies. this flourishing company would have its unnatural death. The kind of food served by the company in doldrums defunct drama company would forced even the die-hards to flee in search of better pastures.