Thevar hall hosted plays by Raj Kapoor, Anna, Sivaji Ganesan

Tiruchi district has played a crucial role in the promotion of stage plays for many decades. Many top stage artistes, who later went on to become legendary figures in the cinema field, hailed from this district.

Evergreen heroes of Tamil film world such as M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, superstar of yesteryears, M. R. Radha, ‘Nawab’ Rajamanickam, Sivaji Ganesan, ‘Yedartham’ Ponnusamy Pillai, ‘Kaka’ Radhakrishnan, and F. G. Natesan, founder of the Rasika Ranjana Sabha, are some of the top drama and cinema figures from the district who are renowned world over even now.

The drama artistes of the district played lead role in the initial television serials telecast in Doordarshan and also in a majority of the short films produced by the Film Division.

The dramas enjoyed great patronage from the people and the status quo is being maintained despite the onslaught by cinema and television serials. The patronage for the dramas was so overwhelming that the then five-time chairman of Tiruchi municipality (1924–46), late P. Ratnavelu Thevar, a multifarious personality and a great patron of arts and culture, constructed a big auditorium.

Realising that the town needed a public hall, the civic body led by Thevar, constructed the mega hall in 1926 overcoming severe opposition from the local community and named it Municipal Public Hall. It was a tin-roofed structure with balconies and could house 2,500 people. It was declared open by Raja of Panagal, the then Chief Minister of Government of Madras and was later named after Thevar.

The Thevar hall had a giant stage, mainly for the staging of dramas. Stage personalities, including Prithiviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Kanniah Naidu troupe, Nawab Rajamanikkam troupe, T.K.S. Brothers, M.K. Thiagaraja Bhavathar, and P.U. Chinnappa, had staged their dramas in this hall. Anna had performed on this stage (Chandrodayam drama), Sivaji Ganesan (Yen Vidhi), MGR (Inba Kanavu, Advocate Amaran, Idintha Kovil), S. S. Rajendran (Manimandpam), and A. P. Nagarajan (Naalvar). Mr. Karunanidhi had acted in the play, `Kagithapoo,' on this stage.

Drama artistes of the district joined together and formed Tiruchi Amateur Actors’ Association about three decades ago, but it could not continue for long due to various reasons.

Yet another association, Tiruchi Mavatta Nataka Kalaignargal Sangam was formed in 2006, which was rechristened Tiruchi Mavatta Nataka Nadigargal Sangam a few years later. The Sangam has been taking sincere steps for the promotion of art and culture and its efforts have started bearing fruits with the staging of dramas in the city regularly.

The Sangam has been celebrating its anniversary for the past three years with drama festival at Rasika Ranjana Sabha. This has evoked overwhelming response and it could be gauged from the fact that 12 dramas were staged in 2010, 14 each in 2011 and this year, according to M. S. Mohamed Masthan, general secretary of the Sangam.

Mylapore Academy, Chennai, headed by leading social worker Sarojini Varadappan, presented a special award – award for the best Sabha in mofussil centre - to Rasika Ranjana Sabha, Tiruchi, in recognition of its outstanding service for the Tamil theatre. The award in recognition of staging the maximum number of dramas in the entire state (about 40 dramas, including 14 dramas staged by the Sangam) during 2011-12.

The activities of the Sangam have been hailed by Department of Art and Culture. Following the recommendation of the department, South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur, has joined hands with the Sangam in organising the annual drama festival, says R. Gunasekaran, Deputy Director of Art and Culture.

“The Sangam has been doing excellent work with very limited resources, which is not witnessed in any part of the state. The department has also recommended the name of the Sangam to Sangeet Natak Akademy, New Delhi, the national academy of music, dance and drama, for its assistance and patronage,” Mr. Gunasekaran added. The Sangam has instituted financial assistance and awards to encourage the retired and current artistes. Every year, the Sangam presents a cheque for Rs.10,000 to poor drama artistes, and confers ‘Kalai semmal’ awards to the drama artistes who had over 40 years of experience.

The drama field is in the verge of extinct. However, the Sangam has been doing a remarkable job in taking this art to the next generation. Both the Centre and the State government should come forward to provide all assistance to such associations for keeping the art alive, says Muthulakshmi, a homemaker and drama enthusiast.

Mr. Masthan is sad that government help is not forthcoming. The troupes have to take their own initiative for staging dramas. The present day drama artistes are rendering a yeoman service for keeping this traditional art form alive and could not prolong for long without outside support.