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“Trend of combining theatre and politics dates back to era of freedom struggle”

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Pictures from the Past: Visitors viewing exhibits on the theme “Chennai and the Independence Movement” at the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Taramani on Friday.
Pictures from the Past: Visitors viewing exhibits on the theme “Chennai and the Independence Movement” at the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Taramani on Friday.

Vidya Venkat

Exhibition at Roja Muthiah Research Library delineates Chennai’s role

CHENNAI: During the British rule the print media was heavily censored and the radio was State-owned. How then did the freedom struggle find support among the masses of Madras Presidency?

It was through theatre, folk songs and other such popular media, explained writer S.Theodore Baskaran in a talk on “Stage, Screen and Freedom Struggle,” organised by Roja Muthiah Research Library (RMRL) with the support of Chennai Willingdon Corporate Foundation here on Friday.

Mr.Baskaran spoke about how the trend of actors turning politicians emerged during the freedom struggle in Madras, when popular drama got politicised and became the medium for nationalistic propaganda. Madras-based entrepreneurs set up drama companies based on the Marathi and Parsi theatre companies in the late 19th century and these came to be known as “company drama”.

In the early 20th century, Madras had about 250 such drama companies which later became centres of political activity. “The Otravaadai theatre in Mint was one such place,” Mr.Baskaran said. Some plays that had political content were Kadarin Vetri and Banagurattu Veeran which are available for reference in the library.

“Between 1930 and 1940 several theatre actors were instrumental in mobilising the masses for the freedom struggle,” he said. One such person was M.N.Chidambaranathan, who organised a ‘salt satyagraha’ in Santhome in 1931 and received support from freedom-fighter Durgabai Deshmukh . Chidambaranathan later went on to play the lead role in a movie “Madurai Veeran” in 1935 (the one starring MGR came only much later!)

“Even folk songs sung by workers in agricultural fields had political content and the message of fighting for the nation’s freedom thus spread by word of mouth,” he said. A number of such songs that were sung by ordinary men and women in Madras as a mark of support for the freedom struggle have been documented at the Roja Muthiah Research Library .

When cinema arrived in 1916, a Madras-based entrepreneur by name Nataraja Mudaliar set up “India Films” and produced films in Tamil. “Mudaliar wanted to be different from other film companies of the time that donned names of English origin,” Mr.Baskaran pointed out.

He referred to a film Kalidas, which ran for a long time in Murugan talkies in Madras and had a scene where the hero spins the charkha in prison and sings a song on Gandhi. “Thus through movies potent nationalistic symbols were popularised,” he said.

Mr.Baskaran also mentioned Bhaskara Das whose song “Gandhi oru parama ezhai sanyasi” was extremely popular in the countryside. Song and books containing nationalistic propaganda were banned by the British and some of these banned works figure as exhibits in the library.

Among these are some rare collections of Bharatiar’s songs and a book “Amirutasaras patukolai” by B.G.Horniman.

The exhibits are part of the “Chennai and the Independence Movement” exhibition that got under way at the Library.

The exhibition, of rare photographs and written works by freedom fighters, would be on till August 22.

Historian S.Muthaiah, Chennai Willingdon Corporate Foundation Director V.Narayanan and Director of the Library G.Sundar participated.

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