Kathadi S. Ramamurthy on how theatre was a stepping stone to cinema, the joy of living in Mylapore, and hanging out with friends at Nageshwara Rao Park
Living in Mylapore was a matter of pride. The majority of front-ranking advocates resided there. With a proliferation of fine arts clubs after Independence, Mylapore showed the first visible signs of an effort to promote local cultural traditions. For these reasons, I believe I could not have moved into this locality at a better time. In 1953, I went to live at my uncle N. Raghunatha Iyer's house in Alemelumangapuram, near P.S. High School.
Mylaporeans were filled with a sense of self-sufficiency. Why not? At a time when bus routes were few, Mylapore had the lion's share of them. Mylapore to Tondiarpet (4) was the longest bus route in Madras. Mylapore to Customs House (21C) and Mylapore to Egmore (23A) were among other popular routes in the locality.
Except for stretches of row houses on every street, Mylapore and Mandaveli looked very different from what they are today. Many of what we consider landmarks today were non-existent in the early 1950s. For one, the Ramakrishna Math was yet to arrive; the present-day Ramakrishna Mutt Road was called Brodies Road. And, the Reserve Bank was located where the Kamadhenu theatre later stood for a long time!
Despite being ‘second runs', films at Kapali Talkies almost always ran to packed houses. Those with first-class tickets alone could sit in chairs. Those with second and third class tickets sat on benches with or without backrests. It was a world that was absolutely devoid of sophistication. At Rayar's Café, nobody thrust a bill under your nose. After ordering all that you wanted, you walked up to the counter and mentioned all that you had gobbled. After indulging in a bit of mathematics with a slate and a chalk, the man at the counter told you how much you owed the café.
If you were a Mylaporean, there was no escaping theatre. As if affected by the vibrations from clubs, educational institutions in the area promoted theatre in a big way. In the mid-to-late 1950s, Vivekananda College stood out in dramatics. During this period, the college's drama troupe won the inter-collegiate dramatics event at Guindy Engineering College with regularity. I was part of the team that included Ambi (Cho. Ramaswamy's brother), Neelu and VRS. All of us passed out of Vivekananda in 1958. The very next year, the four of us, along with J. Muthuswamy and P.N. Krishnaswamy, formed the Viveka Fine Arts Club.
As a group, we hung out at Nageshwara Rao Park, which did not possess a quarter of the lustre it has been imparted today, or at the lawns of Gupta State's Hotel, located near the Buckingham Canal at Luz. Packed houses were an encouragement for us to continue in theatre. Unlike now, theatre did not face competition from multiple mediums. Its only threat came from cinema — but the competition between the media was not life-threatening. In fact, theatre contributed immensely to cinema. Actors could not hope to make it in films unless they had proved their mettle as stage artistes. The first question for an aspiring actor looking for a chance in films was: “Which troupe are you a part of?”
Therefore, there was a pride attached to being a stage actor. Probably even greater than the pride of being a Mylapore resident.