It saw its heyday in the 1960s. Television then undercut its charm. But after a lull of a few decades, Tamil theatre seems to have recovered ground

When a live horse came onstage at Vani Mahal recently, the audience was stunned. The experiment by Shraddha, which presented the play Vaadavooraan, more than paid off for G. Krishnamurthy, one of the founders of the troupe.

The experience also seems to indicate that after several decades of a lull, drama in the city is staging a comeback.

Drama as an art form had existed as theru koothu and in the early 20th century, influenced by Western practices, plays began to follow a set format. Thanks to Sankardas Swamigal, the father of Tamil drama, who spurred a movement, modern drama emerged.

Dramas of the early 1900s were musical performances by artistes who obliged the audiences and largely ignored time and storylines.

As nationalist sentiments swayed the audiences, even Lord Muruga wore khadi onstage, recalls A.R. Srinivasan, veteran drama artist.

Along with independence emerged rationalist playwrights Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, actors N.S. Krishnan, Sivaji Ganesan, M.G. Ramachandran and M.R. Radha, propelling dramas and the movement forward.

For nearly 40 years, scores of aspiring talented actors followed their example and graduated from the footlights to the silver screen.

The sabhas (auditoria), an answer to the club culture the British left behind, were a natural progression and sophisticated, elaborate sets became the norm. While dramatists like R.S. Manohar and S.V. Sahasranamam innovated relentlessly, some freely adapted from English plays, especially Shakespeare. Multiple screens and a focus on sound and lights and special effects like rain on stage (V.S. Raghavan), to name a few, were common by then. By the 1960s, there were over 70 sabhas and as many, if not more, drama troupes – each specialising in a genre and commanding a full house.

The early 1960s spawned a new generation of theatre artists – amateurs who dabbled in theatre with steady jobs elsewhere. Playwrights broke new ground – ‘Pattu’ of United Amateur Artists, ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy and K. Balachander (KB) became household names. Cho, who maintains, “Script is my strength”, embraced political satire and courted trouble from the police and the government. The audience admired his audacity.

KB perfected the art of setting the stage. “I have studied theatre by practice,” says Mr. Balachander, now 83. He may have been a successful filmmaker but he loves theatre,. His latest play will be enacted in the city over the weekend.

Such is the passion for good drama in the city that a decade after Cho’s Viveka Fine Arts staged a few of his plays as a farewell gesture, an ardent fan T.V. Varadarajen re-enacted one of his plays to a full house.

B. Chandramouli (Mouli), S. Ve. Sheker and ‘Crazy’ Mohan, who came in the 80s, made their entry into films sooner than their predecessors MGR or Sivaji Ganesan, both of whom had honed their skills on stage. Each of these dramatists was innovative and experimental, and well received.

Technology, however, has a way of catching one off-guard and sabhas lost out to television. But the circle is now complete – not even the many entertainment channels available on television can captivate an audience if a good drama comes to town.

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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