Those who go through the LLA Buildings on Mount Road in order to access the British Council Library at the rear rarely pause to look at a pink building on the right. This is a theatre built in 1973, to commemorate one of the giants of the Tamil stage — ‘Avvai' T.K. Shanmugam.
He and his three brothers — Sankaran, Muthuswami and Bhagavati — were born to Seethai and T.S. Kannuswami Pillai, the father being a well-known stage actor who specialised in women roles. At an early age, the brothers were apprenticed under Sankaradas Swamigal, the founding father of Boys Companies in which roles were essayed, as the name suggests, entirely by boys and young men. Having worked in his Madurai Tattuva Minalochani Bala Vidwat Sabha they also trained under Krishnaswami Pavalar (Bala Manohara Sabha) and Kandasami Mudaliar. In later years, they formed their own company, The Devi Bala Shanmukhananda Sabha.
The brothers, all fine actors, also acted in one of the early talkies — Menaka (1935). In the first ever elections to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1935, the brothers actively campaigned for the Congress. Later, they became close associates of reformists such as Periyar, Anna and Jeevanandam. Inspired by this, they also added several social plays such as Kumastavin Penn, Kadarin Vetri and Desa Bhakti to their repertoire. But Shanmugam was best known for his portrayal of Avvaiyar, the legendary Tamil poetess.
The motto of their company, significantly, was “Workers of the World, Unite!” The brothers took reform of the theatre very seriously. Shanmugam was the founder of perhaps the only Tamil tabloid exclusively meant for the theatre fraternity. Arivucchudar had stories, articles, politics, snippets, explanations for the Tirukkural and also letters to the editor. This did not run for long. Shanmugam, distressed at the high levels of ignorance in his fraternity, founded Arivu Abhivrutti Sangam, a club based in Madurai where artistes could read magazines, be taught languages and also listen to speeches by several leaders.
He became the head of the Actors' Guild in 1950 and his services were utilised by organisations such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and by state-level associations as well. He essayed character roles in films as well, and received the Padma Shri in 1971. His brother Bhagavati acted in films too, and is today best remembered for playing Ravana in Sampoorna Ramayanam.
In April 1972, Shanmugam brought out the first part of his biography, titled ‘Enadu Nadaga Vazhkai (Vanati Padippagam)'. He passed away shortly thereafter. In 1973, the theatre was inaugurated with much fanfare by the then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. Was the inauguration the only event it ever saw? It is now a convenient dumpyard for disused furniture from LLA Buildings. This being Avvai Shanmugam's centenary year, hopefully something will be done.
In the 1980s, Lloyds Road, where Shanmugam lived, was renamed ‘Avvai' Shanmugam Salai. In recent years, Kamal Hasan dedicated his Avvai Shanmugi to his memory.
Sriram V. is the convener of INTACH, Chennai chapter.