The Rebels’ tune Tamil Nadu

Viswanatha Das: rousing the masses through songs

The song that made Viswanatha Das really famous was the one he sung on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

The song that made Viswanatha Das really famous was the one he sung on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On December 31, 1940, the now defunct Royal Theatre near Salt Cotaurs in Chennai, had a huge gathering to witness the Valli Thirumanam drama. The audience, however, did not expect the drama to end as quickly as it did and in a tragic manner.

The lead actor playing the role of Lord Murugan collapsed soon after he began singing the first song of the play and died. He was 54-year-old S.S. Viswanatha Das, freedom fighter and popular theatre artist, who instilled patriotism among the masses through his stage performances over the previous two decades.

Modern Tamil theatre, which took shape in the late 19 th century, played an important role in the Independence Movement. Though popular theatre remained apolitical in its early phase with itinerant drama companies largely content with staging mythological stories, the wave of nationalism that spread through the country in 1919-1920 against the backdrop of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the Rowlatt Act and the Non-Cooperation Movement changed that.

Theatre became an important vehicle to awaken the masses despite the stringent restrictions imposed by the British against performing content which was nationalistic in nature. It was done mainly through songs, the most important element of dramas then.

Almost all the popular artists of that era sang such songs, which were either composed by them or others, with veiled and at times explicit criticism of the British rule. S. Theodore Baskaran, in his book The Message Bearers - The Nationalistic Politics and the Entertainment Media in South India 1880-1945 says the most active among those artists was Das.

Born in Sivakasi on July 16, 1886, Das developed a keen interest in the performing arts from a young age, says N. Kadikachalam, in his essay on Das for the book Tamil Medai Nadaga Varalaru, brought out by the International Institute of Tamil Studies. The author says Das took an active involvement in the Freedom Movement after he was made to sing during one of Mahatma Gandhi’s visits to the Madurai region.

Mr. Baskaran points out how sly references to contemporary politics would be made even in mythological dramas. “For instance, Valli (in Valli Thirumanam) would drive away the flocks of birds that came to feed off the corn, singing: ‘From somewhere, you have come here to exploit India’,” he notes.

One such song sung by Das was Kokku Parakuthadi Paapa, which referred to the British as cranes that flew all the way from the banks of the Thames to loot India. The song that made him really famous was the one on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.

Theatre being the mass medium in the absence of talkies (until the 1930s), such songs performed on stage became popular among the masses. Aru. Azhagappan, in his book Tamil Nadagam Thotramum Valarchiyum (Tamil Drama, Origins and Development), says these songs were as popular as the songs of present-day movies.

They were sung by the public during protests against the British. Das himself gave independent concerts of nationalistic songs. Gramophone companies produced records of such songs by Das and other artists.

Citing government records, Mr. Baskaran says the police labelled Das as “the man who has the reputation of singing seditious songs.” He was arrested several times by the British. A poem written in his honour after his death records that he was jailed 29 times.

Despite being a popular artist, Das struggled financially in the later part of his life as he spent most of his money for the Freedom Movement. Moreover, Azhagappan says many drama company owners hesitated to include Das in their productions due to his proclivity to attract police action by singing patriotic songs.

Born into a community that is now classified under Most Backward Class, both Azhagappan and Kadikachalam record that Das experienced discrimination, at least during the initial phase of his career. A few of his songs were against caste discrimination, says Kadikachalam in his book.

Poet K. Bharathidasan has acknowledged the impact Das’ songs had on the public in one of his poems. Azhagappan, in his book, has stressed the need to popularise the life history of Das.


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Printable version | Aug 12, 2022 11:13:18 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/viswanatha-das-rousingthe-masses-through-songs/article65757734.ece