History & Culture

A century and counting

SSR and MGR   | Photo Credit: HAND OUT

It isn’t easy running a sabha. It is certainly not easy to keep a sabha going for 100 years. And it definitely isn’t easy if the sabha is not in Chennai, which has, for the last several decades been the centre of all cultural activities. But 101 years old Vani Vilasa Sabha in Kumbakonam, still has a robust presence in the arts scene. The sabha is as iconic as the Town High School of Kumbakonam, where mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan studied.

Vani Vilasa Sabha was founded in 1914 by lawyer N. Krishnaswami Iyengar, along with leading lawyers, doctors and businessmen of Kumbakonam. The first president of the sabha was A.S. Balasubramania Iyer, sub-judge in Kumbakonam. The sabha made its entry into theatre with a play — ‘Parijatha Pushpaharanam’, which was staged in Palace Theatre. The response was excellent, with the first show netting Rs. 1,200 through sale of tickets. But renting auditoriums proved to be expensive, and it was decided that the sabha should have its own building. In 1920, N. Krishnaswamy Iyengar — president of the sabha, and other committee members hit upon the idea of issuing debentures to raise money. With the money raised, they bought a plot of land for 1500 rupees. But the building finally was completed only in 1926, largely through the efforts of Sundaresa Sastrigal, M.C.N. Muthukumara Chettiar, K. Santhanam Iyer and A.R. Rajagopala Chettiar. Famous lawyer from Chennai S. Srinivasa Iyengar inaugurated the building.

Initially, the sabha staged only plays. In 1936, it was decided to widen the scope of the sabha’s programmes and music concerts began to be arranged. The first concert was that of Tiger Varadachari. Finding itself strapped for funds, the sabha later leased out its auditorium for the screening of films, with the stipulation that twice a month the hall would have to be made available to the sabha for its programmes.

The sabha was not content with merely providing a platform for artists. The founders wanted the sabha to be a training school for actors, musicians and dancers. MGR and his brother Chakrapani, who were both students of the Anai Adi school in Kumbakonam took acting lessons in the sabha. When MGR was six years old, he acted in the play ‘Lava Kusa,’ staged by the sabha. Most of the actors could also sing, and Semmangudi and Fiddle Rajamanickam Pillai were music directors for some of the sabha’s plays!

K.K.S. Raja, secretary of the sabha, whose father had also been a member of the sabha, arranged a meeting for me with some of the oldest members of the sabha. Ninety-four-year-old Somasundaram, who played the role of comedian in most of the sabha’s plays, recalls how T. Sampath, who was assistant public prosecutor in Ariyalur would come every evening to Kumbakonam to teach younger members the nuances of acting.

Somasundaram acted as the hero in ‘Aravamudan Asadaa,’ a play that was staged in Chennai too, to a full house. This writer remembers seeing reviews of it in old Ananda Vikatan issues in her father’s collection. “Dr. Mahalinga Iyer, an ophthalmologist, played the role of an old widow, and he had to carry me across the stage on his back,” says Somasundaram. “I was 40 then. We even brought a buffalo on stage, and there was a song about the buffalo, which turned out to be a huge hit!” Somasundaram can still recall the song, and sings it for me, with suitable gesticulations.

Why did Mahalinga Iyer don a woman’s role? Were there no women actors available then? “We didn’t have any in our sabha troupe. Once, when we staged a play in Chennai, T.K. Bhagavati, impressed with the performance of the heroine, asked us who the young girl in the play was. The ‘young girl’ was Vaidyanathan, a clerk in the Kumbakonam Sub Collector’s office. T.K. Shanmugam told us that even he had shed his conservatism and had lady artists in his troupe. He advised us that we should include women in our troupe. A few years later we brought in women.”

Seventy five-year-old Sambandan, who was elected secretary of the sabha 11 times, says that a dance master called Ramamurthy would come all the way from Courtallam to train the actors. K.P. Jayaraman, also a long-time member, has acted in 200 plays, and he reprised the role played by S.S. Rajendran in ‘Mani Magudam’. M. Murugaiyyan, says since they staged many historicals, they needed a lot of extras, who were brought in from cinema. Panneerselvam scripted plays for the sabha, and because of the quality of the scripts, was later asked to write plays for Madras, Trichy and Nellai radio stations. Vani Venkatraja, actor and singer in the sabha’s dramas, says the prefix ‘Vani’ is his way of showing his affinity for the sabha which nurtured his talents. Every member of the sabha has been an artist. That too is something unique about this sabha.

The sabha has been witness to unexpected events. M.R. Radha was supposed to stage the Ramayanam, but as was his wont, he deviated from the script, and presented a play that took potshots at tradition and orthodoxy, and at his political opponents. The play was considered so offensive, that the award that was supposed to have been presented to him was withheld, and he was marched off to the police station.

I want to take a picture of Somasundaram, the oldest living member of the sabha, and offer my hand to help him up from the chair. But he refuses my help. “I want to be self- reliant,” he says. And the sabha that is dear to him has been quite self reliant too. Despite the efforts of the sabha to stay afloat, financial crises did recur, and the members resorted to novel ways of augmenting their resources. In 1968, the year of the Mahamaham festival in Kumbakonam, the sabha organised an exhibition in Town High School and also staged plays every evening. “Our profit at the end of 48 days, was Rs. 1,34, 000 ,” says Somasundaram. Later many such exhibitions were held, proceeds from which added to the sabha’s kitty.

“When the sabha was unable to pay actor K.A. Thangavelu the promised amount for his play, S. Ramakrishnan, sold his gold chain to meet the expenses,” recalls Veerasamy, a member of the sabha.

It is that kind of commitment that has kept the sabha going for a century. “We want children of former members to become members of the sabha and we are trying to contact them,” says S. Kalyansundaram, secretary of the sabha.

Sell-out show

R.S. Manohar, would usually be paid Rs. 30 000 for three shows, but Manohar said that he was willing to settle for less, because he was from Needamangalam, and therefore had a fondness for Chozha Nadu. As it turned out, the tickets were all sold out, and the sabha made Rs. 40 000 . “Many had to be turned away, because tickets were sold out within an hour of the counter being opened,” says Vani Venkatraja.

More Facts

Sivaji and Gemini Ganesan were patron members.

Director K. Balachander used to watch the sabha’s plays, when he was in school.

In 1979, MGR said this was the best sabha in the whole of South India.

The sabha performed a play titled Tyagayyar, near Tygaraja’s Samadhi in Thiruvaiyaru. Tirukkodikaval Papa acted as Tygaraja.

Film actor S.S. Rajendran has performed villupaattu in the sabha.

Nagaswaram maestro T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, Maharajapuram Viswantha Iyer and famous comedian Sarangapani have all acted in the sabha’s plays.

MS said that of all her titles, she was particularly fond of ‘Isai Vani’, which was conferred on her by Vani Vilasa Sabha.

M. Karunanidhi, after watching T. Sampath’s performance as Avvaiyar, began to refer to him as ‘Avvai’ Sampath.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 7:52:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/a-century-later-vani-vilasa-sabha-in-kumbakonam-continues-to-be-the-hub-of-cultural-activities/article8223517.ece

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