In the 1940s and before, the Madras Dramatic Society led a clutch of groups that staged quality English plays. From time to time, visiting groups from the West dazzled local theatre buffs. In the late 1940s, Sir Lewis Casson and Dame Sybil Thorndike, famous Shakespearean actors of West End (London), performed on three successive days, drawing huge crowds. In those days, Shakespearean plays were all the rage - aspiring stage actors hoped to essay roles in them.
In the early 1950s, my mother Phyllis Iolanthe Smith-Ansari gathered a bunch of youngsters and staged The Merchant of Venice at The Nurses Association Hall on Randalls Road (now E.V.K. Sampath Salai). Maharani Bidyawathi Devi of Vizianagaram helped her with the production. A die-hard fan of the Bard of Avon, the Maharani could rattle off vast chunks of lines from his works. This loose group of amateur artistes became a formal unit which began to give Shakespearean performances at the homes of friends and relatives.
In 1957, I joined with a few students at Mani's Tutorial College and presented The Merchant of Venice. Prof. N. Sundaram, a famous Shakespearean mono-actor, came backstage and asked us if we would join him. We agreed. Together with Prof. Sundaram, we performed at schools, colleges, the Army mess at Avadi and the Air Force mess at Tambaram. The intelligent and beautiful Nirmala Balakrishnan (later Mrs. Sudhaman), who had returned from her studies in England, was an indispensable part of the group.
Invited as chief guest to our play at the Young Men's Indian Association (Royapettah), Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer advised us to form a theatre society. On his invitation, we visited his house on Eldams Road, called The Grove. It was more a jungle than a grove, and I caught glimpses of animals scurrying into thickets at the sound of advancing feet. Thanks to his initiative, the Madras Shakespearean Society was founded in 1961 - he became its first president. Sir C.V. Raman threw open the doors of his house for our rehearsals. With support from the British Consulate and the American Consulate, the group did well. Not just Shakespearean plays, it covered a wide spectrum of English theatre. In 1962, the Society tied up with the Max Mueller Bhavan and performed Rose Bernd.
I was out of the Society's productions for a year, thanks to a once-in-a-lifetime training programme. Mrs. Y.G. Parthasarathy had brought Prof. Archibald McLeod, Head of the Department of Dramatic Arts at Illinois University, to the city on a Fulbright Scholarship to train aspiring and promising stage actors. Among the trainees were 'Cho' Ramaswamy, Srikkanth (known as Venky in those days) and J. Jayalalithaa! The classes were held at Srinivasa Shastri Hall. With his spontaneous jokes, 'Cho' kept the group in splits. Jayalalithaa was an attentive student and never ran out of intelligent questions for McLeod. Srikkanth expressed a variety of emotions with ease.
During the training, the actors got to try out their newly-acquired skills. Three plays - Knight At The Inn, The Exception And The Rule and Ekalavya (Tamil) - were staged at the Hall. The group was divided into two so as to give everyone a chance at acting. Present in both casts were Jayalalithaa, 'Cho' and Srikkanth. Graduates of the National School of Drama (New Delhi), A.P.T. Arasu and Usha Devi assisted McLeod through the programme, and also played a big part in organising these plays. The programme culminated in a grand production - The Tea House of the August Moon - performed to a packed audience at the Raja Annamalai Hall.
When I returned to the Madras Shakespearean Society, I discovered to my dismay that it had undergone an overhaul. Prof. Sundaram was no longer part of it. In 1963, I formed The Histrionic Circle by gathering actors from the group that trained with McLeod, and also those from the Society. When Sundaram was the Society's director, he had made a promise to the U.S. Consul-General in Madras, Dr. Albert B. Franklyn, to stage John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln.
The Histrionic Circle fulfilled this pending commitment on July 20, 1963, when it performed the play, under Prof. Sundaram's direction, at The Museum Theatre. This play unexpectedly opened up a career in the hospitality industry for me. Asked to take care of hairdressing for the actors, I went to Connemara to bring its resident hairdresser. As the lady attended to a never-ending stream of clients, I had time for a long chat with the hotel's general manager. He asked me if I could join the hotel - and I was only too glad to step on this new, but enchanting stage.
RONALD E. SMITH-ANSARI Born in 1939, he has held high-profile positions at top hotels including those of the Spencer's Group, the Taj Group and the Welcomegroup. He also managed the Mysore Maharaja's properties. Before his career in the hotel industry, he devoted a lot of time to theatre. He can be counted among those who tried to build a following for the fledgling English theatre in post-Independence Madras.
During World War II, my mother Phyllis Iolanthe, the lady officer at the St. John's Ambulance Brigade, conducted mock drills for the air raid wardens and ANS nurses at the open grounds in Saidapet. I usually play-acted the victim in these drills - this role sparked a lifelong interest in acting.