Sixty years on stage and ‘Kathadi’ Ramamurthy’s passion remains undiminished.

In the summer of 1953, a 15-year-old, who had just completed his Class X exam at Banadurai High School in Kumbakonam, was asked by his uncle, R Raghunathan (of The Hindu) to come to Madras to pursue his higher education at Vivekananda College, Mylapore. He did not know then, as he boarded the train, that his uncle’s order was going to change his life. Sixty years later, the still simple and humble Sundaresan ‘Kathadi’ Ramamurthy has become a household name. The first big milestone came in his first year at Vivekananda College as he took part in the annual day drama, playing Pakiri, the villain’s assistant in Devan’s ‘Gomathiyin Kathalan.’ Ramamurthy along with Jaishankar, Ambi (Cho’s brother), Narayanaswamy, A.N. Radhakrishnan and P.N. Kumar (the last two played female characters) became part of this drama troupe.

At the end of that decade, Ramamurthy approached Natesan Iyer, the then secretary of R.R. Sabha for an opportunity. Coincidentally, Bageerathan, a renowned writer of the time, was there chatting with Natesan Iyer about a book, ‘Thenmozhiyal,’ that he had just written. Natesan asked Ramamurthy if his troupe could convert the book into a play. Ramamurthy approached ‘Radio Anna’ Koothapiran to dramatise this book. It was a play that also saw Cho make his debut. Ramamurthy enacted the role of Pannaiyar’s assistant and a drunkard, a role that received positive feedback from the audience.

Production house launched

In 1965, Ramamurthy launched his production house, ‘Stage Creations,’ with Shivaji Chaturvedi, T.D. Sundararajan and Bobby Raghunathan. When they were searching for their first script, Aravalli Easwaran suggested contacting Kothandaraman of The Hindu , who was a well know ‘situation comedy’ writer.

Ramamurthy called Kothandaraman (K.K. Raman) and was greeted as ‘Kasi’ (a role that Ramamurthy had played in ‘Sambavami Yuge Yuge’), which gave him the confidence that people were taking notice of him. Ramamurthy liked Kothandaraman’s script and his troupe presented ‘Inai Illa Jodi’ at Mylapore Fine Arts. For the second time, The Hindu connection had played an important part in Kathadi Ramamurthy’s life. It was Ramamurthy who introduced Visu in a directorial role in ‘Dowri Kalyana Vaibhogame,’ (Delhi Ganesh too made his debut in this). Over the next decade, Visu and Kathadi worked together in successful plays such as ‘Sirithu Kondu Azhugirom,’ ‘Satyavan vs Savitri’ and ‘Pattina Pravesam.’

K. Balachandar (KB) watched his play, ‘Pattina Pravesam,’ four times. Thirty-five years later, Ramamurthy still treasures KB’s comment: “This happens only in cinema. You go and watch a movie repeatedly and everything is the same. I have watched the play four times and each time, every single scene from start to finish has been played out absolutely in the same way. Never before have I seen such a thing happening in a drama, such was the precision.”

KB adapted the play into a movie by the same name using several of the artists of the troupe. (Delhi) Ganesan was introduced in this movie. Kathadi Ramamurthy reprised his role of ‘Innocent Dhandapani,’ in the movie. Of the 75 films he has acted in, Kathadi ranks this role as his favourite.

The turning point came when Kathadi was introduced to Crazy Mohan in the late 1970s by Bobby Raghunathan. In the Crazy Mohan scripted ‘Ayya Amma Ammamma’ that was telecast on Doordarshan in 1982 as a three-part serial, Ramamurthy played Raghupathy, the obedient husband who burns the midnight oil to brush up on his economics, as instructed by his wife, because she wants him to get a promotion at office. Ramamurthy made this character memorable, playing an irresponsible bachelor in the first part and then after marriage, a trapped man caught between his wife and mother.

His dialogue delivery, which enhanced Crazy Mohan’s beautifully crafted script, became a craze in the 1980s an example being, ‘Indian economy is the best economy.’ Kathadi Ramamurthy refers to his enactment of Raghupathy, “as his most appreciated role” worldwide.

Once on a visit to the U.S., a person asked him how the Indian Economy was faring. Ramamurthy replied that he had nothing to do with the current state of the Indian Economy and that he was there to visit his daughters. The person’s response thrilled him: “Raghupathy Sir, I am a big fan of yours and was referring to your ‘Ayya Amma Ammamma’ dialogue.”

Another big moment in his career came when Sambu Nataraja Iyer informed him one evening about his plans to revive ‘Thuppariyum Sambu’ and picked Ramamurthy for the title role. Ramamurthy was speechless.

During the play’s opening, Nataraja Iyer joked, “I have nothing to lose. Either way, I will be praised for this decision. If Kathadi does a good job, I will be praised for the selection. If he fails, people will praise me saying that no one can match Nataraja Iyer.” After the play, he patted Kathadi Ramamurthy on the back with the words, “You have played Sambu much better than I did. I am proud of you.” Unforgettable words of praise that Ramamurthy cherishes.

Ramamurthy lauds his wife Meenakshi, whom he married in 1966. He says, “I didn’t keep track of household matters. She took care of everything and raised my two daughters as I balanced office (he worked at Jenson and Nickolson Paints for over three decades) and theatre.”

Kathadi Ramamurthy has staged over 40 plays and presented 6,500 shows. ‘Dowri Kalyanam’ and ‘Honeymoon Couple’ have been staged 350 times.

He has been Kalaimamani, and is a recipient of several titles, including Nataka Kala Sironmani, Nadiga Choodamani, Best TV Serial Comedian and Nataka Rathnam.

Despite the achievements, accolades and awards, he remains humble. He says, “We did not do plays for monetary benefits. Applause meant everything. We breathed theatre. All our evening and late night discussions centred on the next play and trying to make it entertaining for the audience.”

His passion for acting hasn’t waned since he made his formal debut in 1954.He keeps himself busy and is often seen shuttling between play rehearsals and shooting for TV serials. He says pursuing his passion at this age gives him a lot of positive energy.

He says he recently had a big fight with his wife over the issue of the drawing room showcase overflowing with trophies. His wife had the last word and allocated a room just for his awards. As a parting remark, Kathadi says, “Like in ‘Ayya Amma Ammamma,’ I had to concede to my wife.” He is relieved, though, that unlike Janaki in ‘AAA,’ she does not want him to study economics!

This article has been replaced with the correct version of the story.