Lack of funds and hardship did not in any way lessen T.K. Shanmugam’s passion for Tamil theatre.
The venue was a theatre in Ooty. The season, winter. The actors, who were camping there to stage plays, had no money to buy warm clothes. In one of the plays, the hero was supposed to emerge from a well, dripping wet. The actor had requested that the barrel, cleverly camouflaged to resemble a well, be filled with warm water, considering the cold weather. But fuel cost money, and so the actor had no option but to plunge into ice cold water when it was past midnight, for the play had begun at 10 p.m. The actor was T.K. Shanmugam. This is a tribute to him in his centenary year.
But why was his drama company in such straitened circumstances? It is a long story - one of privation, disappointment and dejection, but above all - of perseverance. In 1918, Kannusami Pillai, an actor, sent his three sons, Sankaran, Muthuswami and Shanmugam, to Sankaradas Swamigal to be trained as theatre artists.
Shanmugam’s first role was Narada in ‘Satyavan Savitri.’ He played the title role in ‘Manohara’ at the age of 10, causing Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar to observe that he was the “unchallenged Manohara.” However, it was not just the ‘cute factor’ that won him audience adoration. Shanmugam could handle a mature role even as a child.
In 1925, Sankaran started a drama company called Madurai Sri Balashanmugananda Sabha. Shanmugam had to train newcomers to sing, and he found that one of them from Nagercoil knew enough to teach the other boys. This newcomer became famous as Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan.
The company went on to stage mythologicals and did not make much money and floundered, but the brothers refused to give up.
One of their successful plays was ‘Menaka,’ which in 1935 was made into a film by director Raja Sandow with Shanmugam playing the same role.
Back in Madras, Shanmugam went back to theatre. His perseverance with drama paid off, and plays that earlier had a poor turnout, now ran to packed halls. ‘Sampoorna Ramayanam,’ in which T.K. Bhagavathi the youngest of the TKS brothers was Ravana, became a huge hit.
Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar wrote ‘Siva Leela,’ based on ‘Thiruvilaiyaadal Puranam’ and the play, inaugurated in 1939, saw Shanmugam in six roles. It was staged continuously in Madurai at the same venue for 108 days!
The role of Parvathi in ‘Siva Leela’ was played by A.P. Nagarajan, who later directed the film, ‘Thiruvilaiyaadal.’
Films on patriotic themes were also part of the repertoire of TKS Brothers. The company did 157 benefit shows of the patriotic play, ‘Desa Bhakti,’ to collect funds for the Congress party. ‘Avvaiyar,’ is the play Shanmugam is best remembered for. For the role of Avvaiyar, Shanmugam curled his lower lip to give the impression of an old woman, spoke in a tremulous voice and had to maintain a stoop for four hours. His acting not only earned him the title, ‘Avvai,’ but also the persistent and life-long pain in the lower back and jaw.
Shanmugam was the first to organise a conference on Tamil drama in Erode, and the first to organise a drama contest, in 1945. One of the prize winning scripts was ‘Raja Raja Chozhan,’ which was staged in 1955 with Shanmugam as prince Rajendra. ‘Raja Raja Chozhan’ was also presented at the Motilal Nehru Centenary celebrations in Delhi in 1961, earning compliments from Nehru for the splendid acting. In Singapore, ‘Raja Raja Chozhan’ was also enacted 90 times. Overall it was staged 2,146 times.
Shanmugam played the role of Maamallan in Kalki’s ‘Sivakamiyin Sabatham’ and the sets were grand, befitting the story. For the scene in which Paranjothi tames an elephant that runs amok, two men inside a specially made elephant, operated levers as they walked in unison.
The progressive views of the TKS Brothers resulted in plays with social reform as the theme, and this earned them the friendship of Periyar. Many of the Communist leader Jeeva’s songs were included in these plays.
‘Gumasthavin Penn,’ which was about the travails of a young widow, appealed to C. N. Annadurai, who wrote a novel based on the play, but gave it an ending in consonance with his views. Shanmugam wrote the foreword for the book. When AVM wanted to film Anna’s ‘Or Iravu’, Anna said he would give permission only if Shanmugam was given the role of Karunakara Thevar.
S.V. Subbiah, M.N. Rajam, S.S. Rajendran, Friend Ramasami, K.R. Ramaswamy, S.V. Sahasranamam and many others cut their teeth in the drama company of TKS Brothers. One day a young man came to Shanmugam with a story, which impressed him so much that he told the young man to write the dialogue for the story. The play titled ‘Ratha Pasam,’ was a great success and marked the ascent of the writer, who became a famous film director in later years. He was C.V. Sridhar!
“MGR had great regard for my father,” says Shanmugam’s son, Kalaivanan. “When MGR became Chief Minister for the first time, he said in his swearing-in ceremony, that had my father been alive, he would have been a minister in MGR’s cabinet.”
Shanmugam was known for his magnanimity. In Malaysia, his plays were so successful that the sponsor wanted him to come again the next year. But Shanmugam said that there were many deserving drama troupes in Tamil Nadu and that one of them should be invited instead.
When Shanmugam died, his sons donated his collection of 7,500 books to Madurai Kamaraj University along with the original manuscripts of his plays. A couple of years ago, on a visit to the library they discovered that the manuscripts were lying uncared for in a loft. Many of the books were lost too. People at the University advised them to take back the books, for there was no guarantee that what remained would not be lost too!
Kalaivanan once asked his father why he had turned down the many film offers he got when he could have made so much more money in movies than in theatre. Shanmugam said that if he too went the cinema way, there would be no one left to nurture Tamil drama.
The question we have to ask ourselves today is how well have we nurtured Shanmugam’s memory?
•Shanmugam played a masterly villain in the play, ‘Inspector,’ and later in the film.
•Shanmugam learnt music for sometime from Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai.
•The boy who played the role of Valli in ‘Valli Thriumanam’ was T.M. Thiagarajan, who went on to become a Sangita Kalanidhi! Shanmugam said that he (Shanmugam) as Murugan found Valli’s Sankarabharanam entrancing!
•Kamal Haasan and ‘Pakoda’ Khadar entered the theatre world as child artists in Shanmugam’s play, ‘Appaavin Aasai.’
•‘Bhakta Ramadas’ had dialogue in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, with N.S. Krishnan playing 10 roles.