When Kamal Haasan starred as a woman, Avvai Shanmugi, in the Tamil adaptation of Hollywood blockbuster Mrs Doubtfire, it was the actor's tribute to his teacher and thespian T.K. Shanmugam (1912-1973), whose centenary passed off in the city on Thursday without fanfare.

In an era when it was common for men to don female roles in theatre, T.K. Shanmugam was unsurpassed for his portrayal of the poet saint and the title “Avvai” became inseparable from his name. “He curved his lower lip inwardly to give a realistic image of an old woman without teeth. He even removed two of his teeth for the role,” says T.K.S. Kalaivanan, his son.

“He had pain in his jaws for the rest of his life and the curved posture, holding a walking stick gave him constant back pain.”

T.K. Shanmugam was the third son of theatre personality Kannusamy Pillai, who was part of the Madurai Thathuva Meenalosani Vithuva Bala Sabha, a boys' troupe run by Sankaradas Swamigal (1867-1922), the father figure of Tamil theatre.

Shanmugam's name became synonymous with theatre and his brothers — T.K. Sankaran, T.K. Muthusamy and T.K. Bagavathy — came to be known as T.K.S. Brothers. They were instrumental in bringing much-deserved recognition to theatre artistes. Shanmugam's self-effacing autobiography Yenathu Nataka Vaazhkai, gives a panoramic view of the theatre from the beginning of the 20 century.

The TKS Brothers, who launched the Sri Balashanmugananda Sabha, settled down in Chennai in 1948 on an invitation from C.N. Annadurai. Actors such as N.S. Krishnan, K.R. Ramasamy, S.S. Rajendran, M.N. Rajam, director A.P. Nagarajan and one of the outstanding Carnatic vocalists T.M. Thiagarajan were some names associated with the TKS Brothers troupe. Later, it became T.K.S. Sabha and Kamal Haasan joined the troupe on the recommendation of film producer A.V. Meyyappa Chettiyar.

Today, Avvai Shanmugam Salai (Lloyds Road) runs between Anna Salai at one end and Avvaiyar statue on the Marina, in memory of the great actor. Another landmark—an auditorium in his name at the LLA complex—was long discarded and in a state of derelict.

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