The rise of Suguna Vilas Sabha was linked to the dynamic laywer-turned-playwright Rao Bahadur Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar.
It is an accepted fact that The Music Academy pioneered the December Music Festival in 1927. But 12 years prior to this, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha (SVS), founded in 1891, ushered in the concept of a cultural festival in December, when, to celebrate its silver jubilee year, it organised the staging of 45 plays during the month.
Founded on July 1, 1891, SVS had certain tenets – its members had to be men and University graduates at that! The stage curtains featured the Senate House to indicate the educational status of the members. Men enacted all the female roles. Among the leading lights of the SVS was Rao Bahadur Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, one of the original seven signatories to its founding.
Under its auspices he was to emerge as a playwright, better known today in this capacity than as a lawyer, which he was by profession. He wrote 94 plays during his long association with the SVS besides translating several from other languages. Many members were from the legal fraternity and at one time, it was said that if anyone wanted to become a Judge, he needed to be an SVS member. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar became Judge of the Small Causes Court.
At the VP Hall, which became its venue and later its home, the SVS presented new ideas and innovations, many of them attempted for the first time in Madras. The first Tamil tragedy, the introduction of an intermission in Tamil plays and the first hosting of a fancy dress competition for Indians… the list is seemingly endless.
The early plays of the SVS lasted six hours, with the audience leaving at 3.30 a.m.! This was soon felt to be an impediment as most members and guests were government servants, professionals and businessmen who needed to report for work early the following day. The SVS pioneered the concept of evening shows when for the first time on October 21, 1906, the play ‘Kaadalar Kangal’ was staged at the VP Hall within three hours, beginning at 6 p.m. This soon became the norm and when cinema came to Madras, it followed the same timings.
Several of the SVS plays were to become successful films – ‘Manohara’ and ‘Sarangadhara’ being just two. In 1902, the SVS had to bail out the VP Hall itself for the building was constructed with what was thought to be a monetary gift from the Maharajah of Vizianagaram which later transpired to be a loan. The SVS staged ‘Virumbiya Vithame,’ which was inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It.’ An interesting fall out of this play was that the SVS began translating and re-working on several of Shakespeare’s plays to suit an oriental setting. Arising out of this came plays such as ‘Jwalita Ramanan’ (Romeo and Juliet), ‘Vaanipuratthu Vanikan’ (The Merchant of Venice), ‘Sarasangi’ (Cymbeline) and ‘Amaladityan’ (Hamlet). In 1905, the SVS began the practice of celebrating Shakespeare Day at VP Hall. This gradually expanded into a Shakespeare Week, with the increasing crowds necessitating an outdoor staging of the plays. A stage was put up at the tennis courts at the rear of VP Hall and the plays were enacted there.
VP Hall became home to the SVS in 1902 when the latter began renting a small room on the Western side of the Hall. By this time, the SVS was also blossoming as a social club, providing cards and reading room facilities. Gradually, the SVS expanded its occupation of the VP Hall.
By 1915, the SVS had begun to outgrow the VP Hall. Funds had been systematically set aside since 1900 for the purchase of a suitable plot of land which, in Sambanda Mudaliar’s words, “would accommodate an auditorium at least six times the size of VP Hall.” The Government agreed to lease the Napier Park (present May Day Park) for this purpose and on January 31, 1925, the foundation stone was laid for this by T.V. Seshagiri Iyer. Within three years, the stone was back in VP Hall, Napier Park being found unsuitable for the purpose. Money continued to accumulate, with performances in the mofussil, Colombo and Bangalore being particularly remunerative. Ten years later, Pitty Tyagaraya Buildings on Mount Road, which belonged to the Justice Party and which was keen on selling following its decline, were negotiated and purchased for Rs. 95,000.
The SVS finally had a new home but its theatre days ended soon thereafter. The space earmarked at the front for a theatre became Plaza, a cinema house that was later demolished. Today, the organization is a Sabha in name and in reality, a social club. Its office-bearers however still retain designations such as Tamil/Telugu Conductor, a throwback to the days when the Sabha was active in theatre.