Ramya Kannan speaks to S.S. Dhandapani, who was once the voice of Tamil plays but is now finding it hard to make ends meet
For over 50 years, S.S. Dhandapani was an integral part of how Tamil-speaking, drama-watching citizens of the world understood mythology. As the voice of R.S. Manohar in all his 31 plays, when Dhandapani sang, his audience listened, rapt.
Today, his voice remains as mellifluous and his swaram pure, but the song has gone out of his life.
He has been caught up with the business of eking out a living, having to support two mentally ill adult sons, besides his wife and younger children.
He’s held a few jobs as a night watchman, and bent and wizened as he is by his burdens, this has taken a toll on his health.
“A full 50 years,” a frail Dhandapani says, “or was it 30?” His memory seems to be failing him, just as fortune has.
“For years, I was the voice of Manohar saar. When he played Ilangeswaran, he was the King of Lanka, and I was the voice of the King of Lanka; if he was the scheming Chanakya; if he was Thirunavukkarasar (the Tamil poet-saint), then I was, too,” he says, his eyes misting over with the recollection.
It actually takes a lot of coaxing to get Dhandapani to talk, even more, to get him to break into song. Always a man of few words, life’s cruel twists and thrusts delivered after a heady rollercoaster ride, seem to have left him a near recluse.
But he obliges, with a snatch from Thirunavukkarasar, his favourite. While the boom has gone out of his voice, it is still mellifluous. You compliment him on his rendition and he says, dismissively, “I’m a trained Carnatic musician. I learnt from a teacher for nearly 20 years, though I went to school only up to the ninth standard.”
He performed as a child artiste in many films, until he struck up a friendship with A.L. Raghavan who introduced him to R.S. Manohar. The rest, as they don’t say, is forgotten history.
He went on to sing in all the Manohar plays, and as S. Shivpprasadh, Manohar’s nephew will have it, delivered about 7,950 stage shows. “Dhandapani was a self-effacing and humble person, and he never spoke an extra word, even in his heyday,” he adds.
Dhandapani was so popular on the circuit that he even got a special request from Sandhya (Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s mother) to sing at the inaugural performance of her dance academy in those days. Over the last 10 years or so, however, he has ceased to sing.
His biggest disappointment is recent, he says: he was asked to sing for a few plays after R.S. Manohar, but was not compensated.
Baffled by the memory of that betrayal, he stops talking. His daughter Jayanthi fills the awkward silence that creeps up. “He needs some help now – he won’t say it, but he can surely do with some help now.”