Koothabiran on the enduring romance of the radio, discovering the great outdoors and sharing the stage with stalwarts

For many in Madras, mobility centred around trams. If they had to reach areas not connected by tramlines, they walked. During the 1940s, this combination worked very well for me.

Every Saturday and Sunday, I went by foot from our house in Arunachalapuram (Adyar) to Luz Church Road, where I took a tram to Mount Road and walked the rest of the distance to Marshall's Road, where the All India Radio station stood in those days. I religiously took part in AIR's weekend programmes for children because of a sure reward — participants were unfailingly given sweets, savouries and tea.

It appears to me that Madras, 70 years ago, was an uncomplicated and endlessly fascinating world for a child. Denied the present-day luxury of information being beamed into living rooms, we had to be outdoors to make discoveries about our world. When a Test match was played at Chepauk, we took a tram to Mount Road and proceeded to The Hindu office where a huge scoreboard was installed for the benefit of the public.

During the tram rides, I discovered a few strange facts. One, almost all the conductors were very old men. Two, around noon, trams were filled with people who carried paid lunches to offices. In those days, a pain balm called ‘Madiwalla' — which was primarily targeted at lunch carriers in Bombay who climbed steep stairs and, as a result, developed knee problems — was popular in Madras.

Comparing the past with the present, it is clear we had lived in a world dreadfully devoid of facilities and services that are now taken for granted. For example, there was a dearth of news marts and we had to go to one at Luz Corner to pick up a copy of Sport & Pastime. To listen to the radio, we went to a tea shop in Chekumedu, close to Arunachalapuram. But it was a humane world. Profit was not as important as it is today. When a play was staged at R.R. Sabha, youngsters hanging around the place without money to buy tickets were invited to watch it for free.

Youngsters were drawn to stage arts. Many of the plays in those days were made for children. The mythological plays of Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai — built on the idea of theatre by children, for children — ensured huge turnouts at the Congress Grounds in Teynampet. After passing out of Besant Theosophical School, I jumped into theatre and immediately got to rub shoulders with men who later become doyens of the arts. Rehearsals would be conducted at the famous Mani's Tutorial in Luz. A young ‘Cho' Ramaswamy would give spotless performances even during the rehearsals, his pronunciation was immaculate. K. Balachander directed some of our plays. Theatre was a stepping stone to films. Guhanathan, who later became a film director, was a fellow student of a one-year drama course instituted by the Kalakshetra and taught by acclaimed European theatre actor Palstorm. Formal teaching in theatre was scarce in those days and most of the learning came from doing. People interested in drama invariably dabbled in it; a few amateur groups even rivalled the popularity of top-of-the-line professional ones. It was clearly Madras theatre's heyday, and for that reason, I am glad I was born into that world.

I REMEMBER

Kripa Amateurs — a drama troupe founded by Dr. V. Ramamurthy and comprising professionals in other fields – was without equal when it came to male artistes essaying female roles.

BIO

KOOTHABIRAN Born in 1932, he achieved fame for a variety of children's programmes he organised on All India Radio for over 25 years and earned the sobriquet ‘Vannoli Anna'. An accomplished theatre person, he has been running Navabharat for 26 years. The troupe gives importance to social themes and also concentrates on national integration. He received the Kalaimamani award in 2002 and two lifetime awards, one from the magazine Wisdom and the other from The Mylapore Academy.