About the association drama producers have formed.
The news of the formation of Tamil Stage Drama Producers Association prompted this writer, an avid follower of the Tamil drama scene, to delve into the background. T.V. Varadharajen, actor who runs United Visuals and played a significant role in the venture, was only too willing to share his views. He had just returned to Chennai after staging two of his plays in Karur.
Before listening to Varadharajen, a brief look into the past would be in order. The doyen of the Tamil theatre, the late R.S. Manohar, never approved of the term ‘amateur.' There are professionals and non-professionals, he would say. They all shared the same commitment and passion, he argued. Tamil theatre has indeed seen artists, for whom applause is the best reward. Tamil theatre, during the 1960s, Seventies and early Eighties, was dominated by great artists and writers such as the TKS Brothers, R.S. Manohar, S.V. Sahasranamam, K. Balachander, Sivaji Ganesan, Major Sundararajan, V.S. Raghavan, Nagesh, Poornam Viswanathan, Marina, Y.G. Parthasarathy, Cho, Visu and Mouli. The legacy is continued even now by Kathadi Ramamurthy, Y.G. Mahendra, S.Ve. Shekher, Crazy Mohan, T.V.Varadharajen.
The Sabha system worked out very well for troupes in those days, giving them a readymade elite audience. Any good play would see 100 shows comfortably in four or five months. Major auditoriums booked well in advance where Sir Rajah Annamalai Mandram, Music Academy, Sri Parthasarathy Swamy sabha, R.R. Sabha, Mylapore Fine Arts Club, Vani Mahal, Kalaivanar Arangam (booking of this auditorium ran the risk of last minute cancellation in the event of a Government function). There were several small halls too.
The number of troupes has gone down these days. Television and a change in lifestyle seem to be the main reason. Though there are 40 troupes, there are only eight sabha halls available.
Avenues outside Chennai in Tamil Nadu in those days were Tiruchi, Madurai, Sivakasi, Tirunelveli, Erode, Salem, Coimbatore, Vellore, Pollachi, Tirupur and Udamalpet. Inauguration of a new play would find these troupes leaving Madras on a Saturday and returning after a tour of all the centres mentioned above. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Cochin, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi were places outside Tamil Nadu. Now Trivandrum and Cochin are not on the map at all.
“Artists have found the situation depressing – less shows, little income,” says Varadharajen. Whatever is earned is ploughed back into the play for sets, light and mike, music and payment to lady artists. That leaves little or nothing for the male artists.
The producer of a play, who spends for the script work, rehearsals, set making has to invest Rs.60,000-75,000. But the number of shows would be around eight or 10. A payment of, say Rs. 5,000, is hardly enough to cover the expenses. True, outstation sabhas pay more but then the technical crew charges twice the city rate. Varadharajen decided to organise a meeting of all the troupes. They assembled and poured out their grievances. And to prove that Tamil drama is very much alive they organised a 25-day drama festival. Titled Nagaram Muzhuvathum Naalthodrum Naadagam, 28 plays of almost all troupes were staged in Chennai at various halls, to a packed house. The festival was taken to Coimbatore, where again it was a hit. Only things lacking were publicity and sponsor support. The troupes felt the absence of a forum. (There was a federation of troupes way back in the late 1960s and this writer has witnessed doyens attending meetings). The federation would discuss with the producer the cost of production and the remuneration expected. Depending on merits, the sum would be decided. That practice slowly faded out too. Commercial sabhas entered the fray. They never had any membership. They staged plays of popular cine artists and paid the troupes but the amount varied. Again, there is no fixed ticket rate for drama shows at halls.
Enrolment of members
An association therefore became imperative, according to TVV. “Bye-laws have been framed and we are planning to go in for enrolment of members,” he says. “To start with we are planning to register the troupes now producing plays in Chennai and would be extending it to all parts of Tamil Nadu. Membership fee has been fixed at Rs. 1,000 a year. We are trying to approach sponsors to support theatre by adopting one troupes,” he expands. “We are planning to request the sabhas to pay a minimum remuneration of at least Rs. 10,000, per troupe per play,” he adds. Varadharajen is aware of the sabhas' constraints but it is impossible to stage plays without breaking even, he feels. With a remuneration of Rs. 6000-7000, sets (Rs. 2,000) and lights (Rs. 1,500-1,800) have to be covered besides taking care of a team of 20 persons. Two women artists account for a payment of Rs.1500. With incidentals such as puja, etc., consuming Rs.300, what will be the male artist's share? What about his conveyance, food and costume? “Remember, not all the troupes get more than Rs. 6,000,” says TVV. The press should come to the aid of the troupes, feels TVV. “Those days all dailies and weeklies reviewed stage plays, giving them a good reach. Nowadays barring a handful of dailies and weeklies, none recognises drama,” he observes. “As a dramatist, I can understand the difficulties of other troupes and they do not have spokesmen. The Association will work for their benefit,” sums up Varadharajen.