Kalaimamani award winner F. Soosaimanickam takes a trip down memory lane as a theatre artiste and schoolteacher

With an upright stance, expressive eyes and a pleasing demeanour, septuagenarian F. Soosaimanickam is a cheerful person. This retired schoolteacher is on cloud nine after the Tamil Nadu Government honoured him with the Kalaimamani award in recognition of his exemplary work in the field of theatre.

Mr. Soosaimanickam dedicates his time to writing, directing and acting in plays, where he is as inspiring and motivating as he has been to his students. He stands out from the clan of amateur theatre artists for his equal felicity with teaching and performance. So far, he has written and directed 50 plays. If you ask him how he is able to sustain interest even at this age, he has a history of more than half a century to narrate. He has lost count of the hurdles he crossed, sleepless nights he spent and challenges he faced to reach this stage.

A true follower of the Christian faith, Mr. Soosaimanickam has performed for 38 years in the Passion Play, a dramatic presentation of Jesus Christ?s trial, suffering and death, organised at the Sacred Heart Church in Idaikattur, Sivaganga District.

Born and bred in Idaikattur Village, he honed his acting skills by performing in the play. It provided enough fodder for his aspirations as he rose from being a spectator to an actor and then a writer-director. ?I don the role of Judas in the drama,? says Mr. Soosaimanickam. ?It is my conscious choice just because the scope for acting is more. Even the great actor M.N. Kannappa, who was then a popular hero in the Nawab Rajamanickam theatre group, preferred the negative character of Judas for the same reason,? he says.

But as a young man, his immediate concern was to look for a steady income to feed his family. That forced him to settle down as a secondary school teacher in Madurai. ?It is one of the toughest decisions I have taken in my life. Even then, I continued to nurture my passion.?

His exploits as schoolteacher took the students by storm, as he converted the classroom into a stage. His expressive presentations made him a popular figure in school as he made learning easy for the students. In a way, it also satisfied his acting aspirations. ?I had a big student force behind me wherever I went,? he says. ?I used them for several social service activities in school. We started the ?social service league? and helped the needy.?

Mr. Soosaimanickam staged his first play, ?Acharyamana Thanthai?, as writer-director-actor in 1958. It was well received by the public. Buoyed up by the overwhelming response, he started writing social and historical dramas including ?Thadumatram?, ?Naane Naan?, ?Pesa Mattaen?, ?Ethir Thuruvangal?, ?Irattai Drogi?, ?Police Ponnusamy?, ?Bharathiar? and ?Karikalan?.

?There was no sophisticated lighting equipment,? he says. ?Instead, we used petromax lanterns for illumination. Whenever there was a night sequence we had to cover the lanterns with gunny bags to give the desired effect.?

The early 1950s was the period of transition, when drama shifted base from Madurai to Madras and the focus was more on social themes than historical. Cinema was just becoming popular, but theatre was buoyant. Mr. Soosaimanickam had his own group of performers and took them to different places to stage dramas. A self-taught theatre artiste, he also trained numerous performers.

?All along, I was busy trying to etch my name as an able teacher and a decent theatre performer but when I looked back on the day of retirement as schoolteacher I did not have anything to substantiate my deeds. Only then my friends and family members applied for this award. Now Government?s acknowledgement has renewed my vigour in acting,? he says. At 72, Mr. Soosaimanickam is now acting in the movie ?Krishnaveni Panjalai?.