Actor ‘Delhi’ Ganesh on a time when regional theatre flourished, the charms of Mylapore, and the thrill of riding a Lamby to Mangadu

My first visit to Madras was in 1964 when I arrived in Tambaram to join the Indian Air Force. I landed the job at the right time and right place, for I wanted to leave Madurai, and see the world. I then moved to Delhi, before finally returning to Madras a decade later as a civilian. By then, I'd made a name for myself in Tamil theatre in Delhi.

In Madras, I lived in my uncle's house on New Street, near the Kapaleeswarar Kovil, and started job-hunting. I landed a stenographer's job at a factory in Padi. I would take a bus to Egmore, and then on to Padi; the distance was long, and I would doze off, getting up just in time for my stop — the fragrance wafting across from the Britannia biscuit company near office did the trick! The evenings were a different story; life was spent on the footboard!

Even when I was working there, my evenings were reserved for theatre. I got introduced to Kathadi Ramamurthy, through T.D. Sunderarajan, a co-artiste from my Delhi days, and made my Madras stage debut in ‘Dowry Kalyanam' as Mambalam Kuchelan. I was about 28 then, and played a middle-aged man.

Those days, celebrities and members of other troupes would view the final dress rehearsal and the first show. That was how my first film chance came about — through K. Balachander. He saw me in ‘Pattina Pravesam'. One evening, Visu came home on his Jawa bike and told me that good news would reach me tomorrow — KB offered me the same role in the movie version.

Every Sunday, we would have three shows, one each at a different venue. The Triplicane Parthasarathy Sabha, in fact, would have two shows for its members — splitting them into batches. That was the kind of response theatre drew. Later, the audience whittled down to just one batch; then, three sabhas got together to organise one play…

Mylapore was an amazing place, despite the fact that we did not live in luxury. During the monsoon, water would drip in from the roof, and I would race against the rain to place vessels at vantage points so that the floor stayed dry. And, what a culturally-alive place it was! We would devotedly watch the Arubathimoovar festival. And, there were the fiery speeches by political leaders at Mangolai, opposite the Kapaleeswarar temple.

I have fond memories of strolls on the beach and the maada veedhis, watching the boats gently bob on the waters, trips to Santhome church, the R.R. Sabha and Luz Corner, and shopping at a small textile shop, which was to later turn into the huge Rex Fashions. And, how can I forget Rayar's Café, where Nagesh, Srikanth, Major Sundarrajan and I would feast on crisp rava dosai, and the wonderful breeze that represented everything nice about Mylapore?

Soon, I got married to my cousin, and moved from New Street to Nadu Theru in Mylapore, paying a rent of Rs. 100, and an advance of Rs. 1,000. I continued balancing work and theatre, but one Independence Day, I plunged into the arts full-time. Doordarshan used to have a one-hour drama slot on Tuesday, and I was a regular on those shows. It felt nice to be recognised when one was travelling by bus or auto. Later, I saved enough to buy my dream vehicle, a Lamby. Every week, my wife and I would ride to the temple in Mangadu. The drive through greenery and tree-lined roads used to feel like a picnic. Once there, we would feast on delicious idli, vada and pongal at a local eatery.

I slowly established myself in films. Those days, artists used to travel in different classes depending on their standing in the industry. Many would start off with second sleeper, before moving on to the A/C classes. Since I was a KB discovery, I started off with A/C!

As I progressed in life, I moved on to other areas, before finally settling at Nesapakkam. But, home, for me, remains Mylapore. I've achieved a lot now, but lost out on Mylapore's soul.

BIO

Born in 1944, this veteran actor worked in the Indian Air Force before the love for theatre saw him turning civvie. Ganesh has acted in 20 plays (each staged a 100 times!), 400-plus films, and 50 serials, and counting. He won the State award for “Pasi”, and has been honoured with the Kalaimamani.

I REMEMBER

K. Balachander, who saw me in ‘Dowry Kalyanam' asked to see me for a role he had in mind for his latest movie. I walked in, and he apologetically told me that there had been mistake; he wanted to see the middle-aged Mambalam Kuchelan, not a 28-year-old man!