Plight of Tamil theatre artistes: They may be kings and queens on stage but struggle to make both ends meet off it, finds T. SARAVANAN

“Kayatha Kaanagathe….Nindrulavum Kaarigaiye…,” sings M.S. Sathyam in full-throat. “That was a golden period. I regularly donned the role of Lord Muruga and I had seen people doing puja in front of me,” laughs Sathyam, who is a popular stage artiste and disciple of the legendary T.R. Mahalingam.

Well past his prime, Sathyam still feels young at heart. With dwindling number of supporters for musical plays, he has turned his attention towards performing ‘nataka kutcheris’ (he sings songs from popular plays of yesteryears). An expert in singing musical plays of T.T. Sankaradoss Swamigal, father of Tamil Musical Drama, Sathyam at present is busy training few interested people.

Apart from being the seat of Tamil language and literature, the city is also the hub of Tamil theatre. Gone are the days when people flocked to auditoriums and street corners to see those epic and historical characters come alive. While many artistes find it difficult to come out of this activity and stagnate, some had moved out setting up their own businesses like designing and renting out drama costumes.

“I play Rajapart roles (King’s part or the protagonist),” beams Prasath V.C. Rajendran, who now owns a costume store. “Most of the drama artistes in the city struggle to eke out a living. When epic and historical plays become hard to come by, I started accepting roles that came to me. I had even donned comic roles,” smiles Rajendran, who is a former secretary of the Tamil Nadu Nataka Nadigar Sangam.

He started as a child artiste in the popular R.S. Manohar’s troupe during early 60s, where he learnt the basics of drama. He then moved on to Devi Nataka Sabha, which was one of the famous Boys companies in the state. “Then we were totally independent. We did all the work related to theatre. That practice is helping me now as I do costume designing and make up,” he says.

Though he came into drama scene much later, V.M.S. Liaquat Ali Khan takes pride in being associated with theatre activity. “I was the hero of our Bala Kala Mandram. I used to dress like M.G.R and popular actor Vadivel played the comedian’s role,” says Liaquat, who reflects his on-stage characteristics off stage by doing a lot of social service. For this owner of broiler chicken shop, drama is more than a hobby.

“I have seen my father dress up like a king and act on stage. Even I wanted to become one. But I could not because drama has gone out of favour by then,” says D. Kannan, whose father S.S. Dhinakaran was once a popular stage actor. He is quite happy to get connected with drama by involving himself in his father’s small costume renting business. Kannan is busy renting out his collections to educational institutions. “We now survive on this business. We are kept busy by the schools and temple festivals,” he says.

It has become a matter of existence for them. Passion is definitely there, but the prospect of a busy calendar is bleak. “Not really,” says V.M.A. Muthuramalingam, secretary of the Tamil Nadu Nataka Nadigar Sangam. The 90-year-old sangam has meticulously displayed the names of the enrolled members and the characters they specialise. “Most of the artistes enrolled with us are busy at least six months in a year. The peak season is between April and July when most of the temple festivals take place in the state,” he says.

But, Muthuramalingam agrees that public patronage in the city for dramas has come down considerably whereas musical and historical plays attract good crowd even today in rural areas.