When literary references and rhetoric dominated debates, S. Raja ushered in freshness with real life anecdotes and rose to popularity
“I’m more interested in what is happening today than something that happened in the past,” he says. Pitted against stalwarts such as Tha. Ku. Subramanian, Gandhimathi, Rajaram, Ramachandran and Sol Vilangum Perumal, Raja had to and did exhibit his oratorical prowess.
From a quiet child in Keezhamathur village near Thuvariman, Raja reached the American College for under-graduation and ended up with a job in United Bank of India. But he went through a rough phase during his growing up years and that, he says, taught him quite a few important lessons in life, most important being how to fight challenges confidently.
Even in the wildest of his dreams, Raja had never thought that he would become a speaker one day. But he rose to celebrity status in debate programmes!
Raja travelled extensively with the team of Tamil scholar Solomon Papiah. “For more than 15 years I only listened to ayya’s (read Solomon Papiah) programmes. I still remember the days when I travelled on the lap of star speaker Rajaram to attend a programme in Keezhakuilkudi because there was no space in the car. I followed the team like crazy.”
Perseverance pays and he got a chance to speak at a debate programme as a substitute since the original speaker failed to turn up. “Ayya asked me to speak. I knew it was a make or break situation. I was neither prepared nor equipped to speak. But, I grabbed the opportunity and spoke confidently. The humour in my speech caught the attention of the audience. The first words of appreciation -- ‘Super...’ -- came from the person operating the public address system. He was my first fan,” he recalls.
Today, he is famous as Pattimandram Raja. “It is a result of the impact ayya has created on me over the years,” he says.
Pattimandram, the art of debating, flourished in Madurai with the help of literary associations but now with the continuous projection on television channels, the pattimandram speakers have catapulted to a star status.
Raja gained popularity with his logical arguments and he soon became the peoples’ representative on stage. “I credit this success to the members of ayya’s team. Even as a novice, I was given a free hand to speak,” says Raja, who many times had to take on much more experienced and established speakers. “Had they objected to my counter arguments, I would not have reached this far,” he adds, acknowledging their magnanimity in accepting him as a part of their team. “Their whole-hearted support and encouragement helped me to climb up the ladder,” he says.
Blessed with the gift of the gab, Raja strikes an instant chord with the audience. “I don’t have a literary background. My strength is my knowledge about the common man and his struggles. My daily dose of news from papers provides me with ample information about real life incidents,” he says, not forgetting the influence of ayya’s speech on him.
Raja believes in constantly updating himself because he feels if you are away from news, you become an island.
“I try to link the day’s news to the topic of the programme as public acceptance is more if the incidents are the most recent,” says Raja.
He also believes in speaking extempore. “We never discuss a topic. Everything is done on-the-spot. Many times, we are given the topic only after reaching the venue,” he says.
His witty arguments on television also fetched him an opportunity to act in films. Ever since popular filmmaker Shankar offered him the maiden chance, Raja has done 15 films. Raja also anchors Vaanga Pesalam on a popular satellite channel with co-presenter Bharathi Bhaskar discussing every topic under the sun, from science and technology to art and architecture. “It has attracted all sections. We try to share a lot of information and when we hear that it is useful for the students, we feel great. In fact, I have spent more time preparing for this show than for the pattimandram programmes,” he says.
Fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses, Raja is careful about the choice of his words on stage. “I always think from the audience’s perspective,” he says and adds, “I don’t advice, I only try to keep public in good humour.”