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He bestrode the Tamil stage

As I peck out these lines, ready for release on Pongal Day is Kamal Hassan's newest starrer, "Pammal K. Sambandam", presumably a tribute to a man he considers his guru. And it promises to be quite a change from the traumatic experience that "Alavandan" was for everyone; Kamal's back to comedy. But whether it's about Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar or not, a comedy is something PSM would have enjoyed, for the man, who from all accounts was the `Father of Modern Tamil Theatre', had a rich sense of humour.

We'll know in the weeks to come whether comedy is the only alternative to melodrama and violence that will bring in audiences to watch the big screen. Meanwhile, PSM deserves to be commemorated for his lifelong contribution to Tamil theatre. Even better than the print and audiovisual media would be to remember him by bringing alive again the stage he bestrode and naming it, a restored Victoria Public Hall — the Town Hall — the Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar Hall. It would be even more meaningful if the restoration effort was facilitated by the theatre group that he founded in July, 1891, the Suguna Vilas Sabha, which today thrives richly supported social club, its theatre heritage forgotten.

SVS was founded by PSM even while he was a 19-year old at the Presidency College. It grew out of his love for theatre born from reading Shakespeare's works in his father's large library. Pammal Vijayaranga Mudaliar cultivated in his son a healthy appetite for books while the boy's mother, Manicakavelu Ammal, brought him up on a regular diet of Indian epics, religious lore and folktales that were to inspire much of his later writing. It wasn't long before the schoolboy was writing plays, which he directed and in which he, his elder brother and younger sister acted at home to an audience of parents and neighbours. It was a wise father who further nurtured this interest in a son by encouraging him to watch stage productions at a time when theatre was considered disreputable and the players (in an era of all-male cast when boys played women's roles) koothaadi passungal (shall we say `the burlesque boys').

When Bellary Krishnamacharlu, a well-known lawyer, brought his amateur troupe, Sarasa Vinodini Sabha, to Madras in 1891 to stage several Telugu plays, PSM was fired by the crowds that flocked to see lawyers, doctors, government officials and members of well-to-do families perform on stage and founded Madras's own amateur group, SVS, that he was to make a legend.

Being an able lawyer in later years and, then a judge so dedicated to his work at the City Civil Court that he even attended court just hours after the funeral of his father, did not stop PSM from writing, producing, directing and acting in success after success at the Town Hall. His first play was Pushpavalli, in 1893. That it was not the greatest of successes, did not deter him. Sarangadhara followed, and he was on his way, playing throughout the Presidency. Soon there were plays so successful that they became part of film lore as well, after the Tamil talkie came to stay in 1931. Sati Sulochana, Vedala Ulagam, Ratnavali and the most successful of them, all Manohara and Sabapathi, are just a few of the still remembered successes of the over 100 plays he wrote. They remain in memory as films, but their author who first staged them is almost forgotten.

Acting in them were men who were some of the best-known names in the Presidency, particularly in the world of law and politics. Among them were S. Satyamurthy, R. K. Shanmukam Chettiar, V. V. Srinivasa Ayyangar, C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar, V. G. Gopalaratnam and M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar, the father of the famed actor M. K. Radha. PSM's plays and the contributions of these luminaries in many fields made Tamil Theatre respectable and gave life to the modern Tamil stage, a life that the Tamil film slowly crushed and which television has virtually finished off. But in its day, it was a splendid art from made more splendid by Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar.


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