Madras Miscellany History & Culture

In Madras, when entertainers were political campaigners

Fifty years ago, the Dravidian Movement came to power in Madras that became Tamil Nadu and since then all the Chief Ministers have come from the film world except for the last couple. The curious thing about this phenomenon is that that connection had much to do with a Congressman, maverick though he may have been, S Satyamurti.

Born 130 years ago, Satyamurti in time became a lawyer but got involved in politics after a 1919 Congress meeting where he denounced Annie Besant. He went on to lead the nationalist faction of Congress then based in Madras.

An outstanding orator in English and Tamil, he was regarded as an exceptional debater in the Indian Legislative Assembly in Delhi to which he was elected in 1935. This followed projecting Congress’ viewpoint in England, serving in the Madras Legislative Council and taking part in the Civil Disobedience movement. But it was when he campaigned in the Province during the 1937 election that he introduced the element that led to the developments of thirty years later.

That element was getting entertainers involved in his campaigning. No mean stage actor himself, he got his fellow artists, cinema stars and singers to join him in campaigning for Congress, telling them, “We shall sing our way to freedom.” Which they did in word or song on the platforms of many a Congress leader in Madras. TK Shanmugam of the TKS Brothers Drama Company was one who helped much with roping in entertainers as political campaigners, but the person who made the difference was KB Sundarambal. Satyamurti persuaded her to act in Nandanar (a 1935 hit) after she had refused all offers to act or sing again after the death of her husband SG Kittappa. It was Satyamurti who again persuaded her to go beyond films and sing for freedom.

All this led to the Congress winning Madras in 1937 with a greater percentage of seats than in any other province. In Madras it won 159 seats out of the 215 and routed the Justice Party, a bête noire of Satyamurti. But for all this success, the Congress failed to appreciate what the entertainers had done or could do. This was not the only point on which Satyamurti differed with Gandhi and the Madras Premier Rajagopalachari. They disagreed on several other issues, including Prohibition.

Seeing Congress draw itself away from the entertainers, the leaders of the Dravidian movement — bitterly opposed by Satyamurti from Justice Party days – among whom several had connections with the stage and screen, took over Satyamurti’s brainchild and gave it new life. CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi, both playwrights, stage actors and, later, scriptwriters for films then ‘sang’ the Dravidian movement into power.

Another stage and screen personality who was to help the Dravidian movement was the popular comedian NS Krishnan who throughout Satyamurti’s years campaigned for Congress and extolled it in various ways. But when in the first General Election after Independence (1952), Durgabai Deshmukh persuaded Krishnan to contest as a Congress candidate, some Congressmen from Madras, echoing an earlier view of theirs that entertainers were koothadigal (comical street dancers), told the national leadership that komalis (clowns) should not become legislators. Krishnan promptly withdrew his candidature and, before long, was campaigning for the Dravidian movement and helping form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

Congress forgot Satyamurti a long time ago. Today even the members of the DMK would not remember how Satyamurti’s ideas helped them to come to power.

Dare in the city

I was delighted to hear recently that Pachaiyappa College was planning to restore its heritage buildings. One of them, I was surprised to hear, went by the name of Dare Bungalow. As usual in the case of most old homes, its provenance was linked with the Clives, though I was happy to hear in this case it was son Edward and not father Robert. But Edward Clive was Governor c.1800 and this building is certainly not of his time. I’d like to offer another theory — a much more simple and realistic one. It was the palatial home of John William Dare who arrived as an Assistant in Parry & Co. in 1810 and was Thomas Parry’s chosen Managing Partner by 1818. Dare is known to have lived in Dare’s Gardens, Chetput, and the College campus is very much in Chetput.

In Madras, when entertainers were political campaigners

Parry & Co’s growth from something more than a trading house to the giant it became was entirely due to Dare. Recognising Dare’s ability, Thomas Parry made his firm Parry and Dare in 1819 and Parry, Dare & Co (the Co to placate a few kin) from 1823. It became Parry & Co in 1839 after Dare’s death the previous year, the kin removing the Dare from the firm’s name feeling Parry had overlooked them. But from 1824, Dare was very much Parry’s till his death.

The growing firm decided in 1929 it needed more and better-looking space and began planning to change the landscape of Parry’s Corner. With the help of Hercules Insurance, a four-storey building with 30,000 sq.ft of space, a floor or two of which could be rented, was planned, but there still was a financial gap to be bridged. Debentures did that by September 1938 and orders were given to start the work. Pile-driving started on April 12, 1939 and was completed in record time — despite the War. In October 1940 there opened the first air-conditioned offices in Madras. Gerald Hodgson, then Senior Partner, thoughtfully named it Dare House — and at one time that was the name the locality was better known as than Parry’s Corner. The first tenants included the Chamber of Commerce, the American Consulate, Sun Life and an Imperial Tobacco subsidiary.

In Madras, when entertainers were political campaigners

Dare was a tough boss, from all accounts, but also was very generous and enjoyed the good life. His generosity extended to taking into his bachelor home in the 1920s the widow Mrs. C G Howard and her three children, Cosmo, Gordon and Elizabeth. He looked after the education of the children, spent lavishly on gifts for the whole family and left them each a lakh in his will. A Parry’s ledger of 1935 refers to the payment for portraits of Mrs Dare and Miss E.S. Dare. Recorders of Parry history, however, say it was very likely the work of a clerk “not very deeply interested in the inhabitants of Chetput.” Given the times, I’m inclined to say “Tell it to the marines!”

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

Corrections & Clarifications: The earlier article erroneously carried the wrong initials of S.G. Kittappa. It has been rectified.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 3:40:08 PM |

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