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Memories of Madras: Curtains up on the past

Class act: S. Mushtaq Ali in action in Madras. Photo: Hindu Photo Archives (1951)  

For all purposes, I consider Madras home. I've lived here from the time we shifted from Manjeri (now in Kerala), in 1941-42, to 25, Muthukalathi Chetty Street in Triplicane. I studied at the Raghavendra Elementary School, and vividly remember how, during World War II, we would hide in trenches or shelters when the sirens went off.

And, who can forget August 15, 1947? We could not afford a radio at home, and to listen to Pandit Nehru's now-famous midnight speech, we headed to the Marina, opposite Presidency College, as there used to be a radio there (lending it the name ‘Radio beach').

Our growing-up years, though bereft of monetary pleasures, were filled with mirth and play. Though Triplicane had lots of row houses, we had enough place to play. We would watch cricket matches played at the MCC, Chepauk. Matches meant asking appa for money, and I would hesitate to. But, love for cricket prevailed. A group of us would head to the ground at 3 a.m. to beat the queue for tickets and to find vantage spots for a 9 a.m. match. At around 8.30 a.m., one of us would do the rounds of the homes, and collect the saapadu pottalam. How we relished the thengai saadham, puliyansaadham and thayir saadham!

We would also go to the Wenlock Park near Presidency College to play cricket. And when we got bored, we indulged in verkadalai, sundal, kuchi ice, panju mittai, sticky, colourful javvumittai shaped as scorpions and watches, kamarcut… it was such fun, and we never worried about hygiene!

At the Hindu High School, Big Street, where I studied, ours was the first batch to have multiple choice questions. And, how we took advantage of it! The bright boys would raise a finger or two to let the rest know what the correct answer was! We also had nicknames for our teachers — history master Panchapakesan became ‘puncture' and drill master Veerabhadra Naidu was ‘maistry'.

Joining the Boy Scouts and Cubs was a popular thing to do during my growing-up years. In fact, the Scouts was one of the reasons for my interest in theatre. During camp fires, we would be given 15 minutes to put up skits for an audience of nearly 200. That did away with any stage fear.

We could not afford to buy magazines. But, that did not stop us from reading them. Before setting out on his rounds, Thangavelu, who distributed magazines and newspapers in our area, would give me Kalki and Ananda Vikatan that I had to read and return by afternoon! He would sleep on our verandah in the night, and the long hours I spent chatting with him helped me master Madras Tamil.

I became a professional stage artiste during my years in Vivekananda College, acting in plays such as Devan's ‘Miss Janaki', ‘Kalyani', and ‘Justice Jaganath', directed by ‘Sambu' N.S. Natarajan for Triplicane Fine Arts Club. After college, I took a year off, just relaxing at home with friends, playing cards, watching plays, and the like. Since I was the last of four siblings, I was allowed to.

Music had a huge influence on my life. I've been an avid listener of Carnatic music for more than 60 years now. I've listened to all the greats — Madurai Mani Iyer, M.D. Ramanathan, GNB, Tiger Varadachariar, K.V. Narayanaswamy…

The Parthasarathy Swami Sabha would hold concerts at the Triplicane Narayanaswamy Hall, which could seat 300 to 400 people. Jamakaalams would be spread out, and people would start filling up the venue way before the concert, if a top artiste was performing. Many would stand in the aisles till the concert ended, many a time, four hours later.

People's love for music defied explanation. Once, flautist Mali was to perform at Krishna Gana Sabha at 6 p.m. A full hall waited; he turned up after midnight, and played till 4.30 a.m., much to the delight of an audience who longed to hear the maverick flautist.

Because I was in the Scouts, we would be called to volunteer at the Music Academy. That fuelled my love for music too.

Once I got into theatre, I was totally into it. We would stage plays everywhere; unlike today, sabhas across the city encouraged theatre. They offered good facilities to stage everything from our plays to Manohar's set-filled historicals!

Those days, men would don women's roles too, as we were scared about being reprimanded at home. The famous ‘heroines' of our troupe were P.N. Kumar, and A.N. Radhakrishnan. Even Cho has played heroine! But, because of this, some sabhas in North Madras kept us out. Till, Sukumari became our first “real” heroine!

I REMEMBER

Sometime in the late 1940s, famous Indian opener Mushtaq Ali was playing in Madras. He had injured his hand, and we needed four runs off the last ball to win the game. Using his good hand, he swung a four and clinched the match, literally single-handedly!

BIO

R. NEELAKANTAN (NEELU) Born in 1936, this actor's tryst with theatre continued even after joining V.D. Swami and Co as a clerk in 1960, from which he retired 40 years later as General Manager (International Business). He has more than 7,000 stage performances to his credit, including a role in Crazy Mohan's latest ‘Chocolate Krishna'. He is a vital part of Cho Ramaswamy's troupe, Viveka Fine Arts, and has acted in more than 150 films, starting with Muktha Srinivasan's “Ayiram Poi”. He also does television, and is currently part of good friend Cho's ‘Enge Brahmanan'.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 12:54:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Memories-of-Madras-Curtains-up-on-the-past/article16240177.ece

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