“Shouldn't you be writing about our Kalamandapam,” its principal, A.V. Krishnakumari asked me as she took me on a tour of the NKT campus, in Triplicane. She spoke of how the school had received patronage from Chennai's eminent personalities in politics, education and the arts, how its functions were graced by distinguished citizens, how several students had gone on to become the who's who of the metropolis. The Kalamandapam, its brightest jewel, was designed as a theatre of fine arts by founder Thirumalachariar and opened to the public by Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer on August 26, 1951. “Ask NKT Muthu about it.”
“Ah, the famous Kalamandapam, the open air theatre with a gallery,” nodded Muthu. Appointed its Honorary Cultural Advisor in 1967, he was instrumental in bringing all the major plays to Kalamandapam, he said. “MGR, Shivaji, Manohar (7-play series for Rs.5 in 1970), TKS Brothers, Cho, K. Balachandar, AVM Rajan, ARS, V.S. Raghavan, YGP, S.Ve Sekar – you name it, they have all staged their plays there. At the end of Manohar's series, we placed a box and asked the audience to suggest a title for him. MGR picked the chit with the word “Natakapathukavalar”. You know, MGR would stay till curtains down before voicing his opinion about the play, and people would wait to hear him. I also organised the first 7 of Cho's plays as a series.”
In the 70s and 80s, Kalamandapam was the go-to place for all major theatre groups. Golden/silver jubilees of all popular plays were staged here. In the central area, the audience would sit on wooden chairs and when it rained, would simply lift them over their head! Later, people sat in 2500 folding-chairs and a 1000 more squeezed into the gallery. Many would stand at the sides and watch the three-hour plays. Banners covered the compound walls. “Just before curtains-up on Shivaji's Kattabomman, crowds thronged and I was asked to announce ‘Housefull’ in this open air theatre! I humbly submit it was because of my efforts.”
So many memories, said actor/manager, Viveka Fine Arts, S.V. Sankaran, adding that 700 of their 5000 shows went on stage here. “At the end of the third scene of Sambhavami Yuge Yuge, the famous words with their translation would ring out: paritranaya sadhunam (for the deliverance of devotees), vinasaya duskrtam (annihilation of miscreants), dharmasamsthapana-arthaya (and re-establishment of principles of conduct), sambhavami yuge yuge (I appear millennium after millennium), and at the last yuge the spotlight would dramatically focus on the carving of Krishna, the charioteer, on the front beam of the stage. That announced the title of the play, the audience never failed to appreciate it!” All our 100th shows were held at Kalamandapam, said Udaya of Cho's troupe.
You would never get such numbers in closed auditoriums, pointed out Sankaran. If the audience at NKT responded with enthusiasm we knew the play was going to be a success. It was real “drama” to have a full house, the theatre determined the benchmark. Did you notice the pit in front, he asked. A live orchestra played there, unlike the CDs of today. And behind that in the VIP dug-out we often saw Thirumalachari sitting with family. The stage space is large, making it easy to move from one side to another behind the screen. The green rooms at the back are well-removed, convenient when we tended to talk. The noise didn't reach the stage.
Building the theatre was a visionary act, said the principal. In the absence of large arangams, NKT-Kalamandapam became the hub of plays and concerts. “M.S. Subbulakshmi filled the air around with divine music, Vyjayanthimala graced it with stately recitals. I've heard YG Mahendra played tabla for Mohammed Rafi, Vaalee's immortal Pakkathu veettu paruva machan (Karpagam) was first rendered here. Wasn't the title Mellisai Mannan conferred on M.S. Viswanathan on this stage?” For decades, the school's famous Andal play has been its annual feature.
It's amazing how NKT's reach extended in intangible ways that couldn’t be measured. Posts Ravi@Govindachari, a law student, on Cho Ramaswamy Fan Club Facebook page: “Hello Cho sir, I remember the golden days when you conducted the drama series at NKT-Kalamandapam during my school days. I need your advice, co-operation, guidance.” Writes Gopala in his blog: “All my knowledge of music comes from listening to it. As a volunteer at NKT Kalamandapam I had the opportunity to listen to many kutcheris free-of-cost.”
This historic theatre needs help. The bamboo poles near the ceiling had mud pots to absorb sound and worked as echo cutters, Krishnakumari informs me. “Will your readers find me an artisan who can fix it?” She would like people to share experiences of the Kalamandapam for the brochure she is preparing. “Any Tamil play lover will have a memory associated with NKT-Kalamandapam.”