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`Devarum magizhkindra senthamizh natakam'

Tamil theatre has a rich history with illustrious persons adorning the pages. SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI traces the legacy.

The TKS Brothers with Velu Nair, dramatist who was looked upon as mentor by the younger artistes.

THE YEAR 2004 marks the 131st birth anniversary of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar and it would be appropriate at this juncture to take a look at the drama scene in he early part of the 20th century. Most famous on the drama scene were the `boys' companies, so called because the troupes had no women, and teenage boys played the roles of women. It was Sankar Das Swamigal who first started a `boys' company, and others like Nawab T. S. Rajamanickam Pillai and TKS brothers followed in his footsteps.

Rajamanickam Pillai's company was called Madurai Devi Bala Vinodha Sangita Sabha. He was famous for his mythological plays like `Dasavatharam,' `Sampoorna Ramayanam' and `Ayyappan,' which had filmi elements like songs and dances, though occasionally he did enact plays of a different genre too. In one of these, where a wedding was shown on stage, his Baby Austin served as the jaanavasam car and was driven on to the stage by his driver Ratnam! Pillai paid great attention to detail and would get the zari for the costumes from Surat. He even had punkah pullers who travelled with his troupe — to him the comfort of the audience was of great importance. But he was unable to keep the show going beyond the late Fifties. His son Devipaadam tried to revive the company but failed. TSR was destined to join the ranks of those who are legends in their own time but are soon forgotten. While Nawab TSR was famous for his mythological plays, there were others who staged plays calculated to rouse the patriotism of the people. One such play was Sakthi Nataka Sabha's "Kaviyin Kanavu," which opened to rave reviews in 1945. The story had M. N. Nambiar in the role of a scheming Rajaguru. Through his machinations the king and queen are killed, but the prince is saved by those loyal to the slain king. He is brought up by a poet, Kavi Anandar (S. V. Subbaiah) and later reclaims the throne and imprisons the Rajaguru.

The play with its powerful dialogue could well have attracted a ban from the government. For instance there was Nambiar's parting shot to the jeering onlookers as he is taken to prison: "You lack unity. That is why an outsider like me could keep you enslaved for so long." Thankfully the play was not banned.

Gemini Mahalingam, Gemini Ganesan, M. N. Rajam and M. N. Nambiar... the illustrious icons had their beginning on stage.

Some years later Nambiar did a similar role as the villainous Rajaguru in the film "Mandirikumari". S. V. Subbiah's performance as Bharatiyar in the film, "Kappalottiya Tamizhan" was reminiscent of his role as Kavi Anandar.

There were also plays that were fired by a reformist zeal. One such play was TKS brothers' "Andaman Kaidi," first staged in 1948. Its aim was to speak against girls being forced to marry men old enough to be their fathers. At a time when such marriages were all too common in poor families, the play was indeed a bold attempt and appealed both to the sense and sensibility of the audience.

Nawab TSR (right) felicitated after a play, with Mayor Ramanatha Iyer (1956 file photo)

It was the first play to use a flashback technique and it goes to the credit of the actors that there was no flagging of audience interest in the three-hour play. Natarajan (T. K. Bhagavathi) a prisoner serving a life sentence in the Andamans tells his story to his cellmate in a series of flashbacks. T. N. Sivathanu provided the comic relief.

There were quite a few dramatists like C. R. Mayileru, well known for their humorous plays, Mayileru also published a collection of serious plays under the title, "Enna Vazhkai Idu?" The lawyer V. C. Gopalratnam not only wrote plays for AIR but also published some of his plays under the title, "Haasya Naatagangalum Katturaigalum".

Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar

Today there are many troupes that stage their dramas in other countries, but the pioneer in this respect was Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. In 1911, at one of the meetings of their sabha, Mudaliar suggested facetiously that they should stage their plays in Colombo V. V. Srinivasa Iyengar, the eminent lawyer who was Mudaliar's close friend, was delighted with the suggestion, and asked Mudaliar to make arrangements for the trip. Mudaliar's protests that he had only been joking fell on deaf ears. Finally, Mudaliar had to agree. But he had reckoned without the Iyengar cooks who usually accompanied them on their outstation trips. They used to cook at Iyengar marriages and were afraid that if they crossed the sea they would be ostracised by their community and would lose their cooking contracts. But Mudaliar was at his persuasive best and the cooks relented. The troupe set sail from Tuticorin. The sea was particularly rough and everyone except Mudaliar was seasick.

But this story has a happy ending. Not only was there an excellent reception for Mudaliar's plays but the cooks were not ostracised. In fact the "foreign-returned" cooks were more eagerly sought after!

The Tamil diaspora never forgot their tradition of iyal, isai, natakam, wherever they lived. In the 1940s there was a Tamizh Sangam in the Hindi heartland in Benares Hindu University! In 1944, they staged a play called "Vazhkaiyin Sodhanai," in memory of Satyamurthy, to which they even invited Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

S. V. Subbaiah

It's a shop worn clichι that all the world's a stage and all of us are actors. True we are. But does this mean we would all be good actors on stage? The answer would be an emphatic no. In life we act roles of our choice and spout dialogue that we ourselves have scripted. We blink back a tear, fake a smile, choke back an emotion and lie without batting an eyelid. But acting on stage is a different story altogether, because here we have to act roles assigned to us by someone else, and speak lines written by someone else. It is not therefore given to everybody to be a stage actor.

In a sense, however, drama is close to real life. In a drama as in real life there are no second chances. In a drama as in real life the saddest words are these `It might have been.' Sadly, however, there are not as many awards for drama artistes as there are for musicians and dancers. We must remember that it was the Tamil theatre that seeded Tamil cinema, and two of the best-known faces of Tamil cinema — Sivaji and MGR started their careers as stage artistes. Tamil plays, described by Sankaradas Swamigal as "devarum magizhkindra sentamizh natakam," need more patronage and drama actors and dramatists deserve more awards and recognition than they get at present. It would be a tragedy if we allowed our drama artistes to fade into oblivion unsung.

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