He did not live long. Not even till 30. But the British government that was ruling the country then ran special trains in the name of this famous artist, the “first superstar” among Tamil actors. “The ‘Kittappa special trains' would bring several hundred fans to Thanjavur jilla, who were eager to watch S.G. Kittappa perform. They would sit through his plays all night, spellbound,” recalled theatre personality A.R. Srinivasan (ARS) here on Monday. Along with actor Y. Gee. Mahendra, he spoke on Tamil theatre as part of the Madras Week celebrations organised by Chennai Heritage and Madras Musings.

Tracing the history of Tamil theatre to the ‘Therukoothu' form, which blended elements of music, dance and dialogue powerfully, the speakers pointed to references to theatre in ‘Silappadigaram'. The literary classic is said to have spoken of aspects such as dimensions of the stage and the angle from which the audience ought to view the dais.

It was Sankar Das Swamigal who really set the stage for what we know as contemporary Tamil theatre. The era saw several brilliant plays based on mythology. It was a time when actors who knew to sing were preferred, for the plays were rich in music, too.

In fact, great musicians such as Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer were stunned listening to S.G.Kittappa's rendition of Atana in one of his plays. MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar was a phenomenon as an actor-singer. The throw in the T.R. Mahalingam voice was unique. Y. Gee. M recalled: “As a little boy, I was once at the Annamalai Manram before a play. I heard T.R. Mahalingam's voice and assumed he was somewhere near the stage, possibly in the wings. It was only later that I came to know that he was actually at a café a few metres away, testing his voice.”

Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai, was another trendsetter who brought in great production values to the stage. “There were trick shots and very effective lighting…I remember a play in which ten Krishnas would make an appearance one after another. It was magical!” said ARS. “Many of the effects today in Broadway shows were tried out way earlier in Tamil theatre,” Y.Gee.M added.

With “bit notice” publicity, the Tamil plays would attract huge crowds that would cheer the artists all night, often requesting a “once more” after their favourite song in the play. “Even if the character dies after singing a song, the actor would have to oblige and perform the same portion again… when artists and the audience were so passionate, logic became irrelevant.”

Speakers drew attention to many other stalwarts who contributed to the richness of Tamil theatre, such as TKS Brothers and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. Following in their footsteps were those such as the Y.G. Parthasarathy-Pattu duo, K. Balachander, R.S. Manohar and Cho Ramaswamy.

Several actors, who were very successful in the film industry, including Sivaji Ganesan, M.G.R., K.P.Sundarambal, M.R. Radha, Nagesh and Kamal Hassan, have had a significant stint in Tamil theatre.

Pointing to celebrated actors, who deemed it an honour to engage with theatre, Y. Gee. M said: “In the West, actors like Denzel Washington say they want to do theatre to reorient themselves as actors. But here, barring Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth who show interest in plays, no other actor is interested. It is quite disheartening.”