Madras Day | What was Chennai like in the 1930s?

If we were to declare the 1930s to be among the most transformative decades for Chennai, would you be convinced? Writer and historian AR Venkatachalapathy tells us why.

August 16, 2023 02:44 pm | Updated August 17, 2023 02:48 pm IST

Writer A R Venkatachalapathy at Madras Literary Society.

Writer A R Venkatachalapathy at Madras Literary Society.

Chennai in the 1930s was when cinema began talking, Lux soap advertisements starred Tamil heroines, and the radio began playing at home. It was also the time when the intellectual milieu of the city started to express themselves with art and literature.

A flux of revolutionary Tamil writers like Pudhumaipithan, Kalki and TS Chockalingam gathered in the city, writing about empowered women and a free Indian nation, said author AR Venkatachalapathy, addressing an audience at the Madras Literary Society recently.

The historian said that he can wax on about this particular decade for hours but would limit himself to a 50-minute lecture encapsulating the cultural markers of the ‘30s with instances of nationalism and proficient storytelling. He covered publications, writers, cinema, a weakening colonial power and the birth of the Tamil short story in swift detail, reminding the audience of chapters from Bill Bryson’s novel ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.

Filling hollows with racy pamphlets

“Reading is a transformative experience. It helps one think and dream. It creates idealists. Unlike the WhatsApp messages of the day that are full of hatred and constitute the worst forms of voyeurism, reading books leaves a profound impact,” said Venkatachalapathy.

By the mid-1920s, many pertinent Tamil authors including the likes of Subramania Bharati, VVS Aiyer and A Madhaviah had all died in their prime leaving behind a stream of readers keen on picking up new books. To fill the gap, the decade of periodicals and short-story writers was born, he said.

The 1930s saw a sharp rise in the number of dissenting voices through newspapers and weeklies. The racily-written pamphlet — only eight pages in length but full of cartoons, news and scandal was the biggest benefactor of new readers. “Before the police could come and seize the pamphlet that cost kaal anna (four annas), they would be completely sold out. Imagine 20,000 copies sold thrice a week within minutes during a time of serious censorship by the weakening British empire.”

The author added that the decade also lead to the popularisation of the short-story format, stating that the demanding format requires readers to be hooked from the start to finish. He quoted author Anton Chekov to illustrate his point, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Nearly all the Tamil authors who became popular during the time, including the likes of Kalki who serialised the famed Ponniyin Selvan and Sivagamiyin Sapatham had their work sold out in minutes, said the author. “People would wait for the boat of the Kalki-edited Anandha Vikatan magazine and nearly fight over the copies.”

Puthumaipithan

Puthumaipithan

He explained how the Manikkodi magazine by Stalin Srinivasan, V Ramaswami Iyengar and TS Chockalingam published first in 1933 is a seminal piece of Tamil literary history. This bi-monthly magazine helped essays gain the position of an ‘artform’. Explosive writing and literary avant garde came to define this magazine that provided the space for writers like Pudhumaipithan and KP Rajagopalan. Each of them explored a world beyond what was written for the conservative middle class.

Venkatachalapathy said that it was also the time when women finally began getting published under their own names after masking them for decades, and quoted the example of author Visalakshi Ammal.

Besides taking the audience through the whirlwind space of Tamil publishing, Venkatachalapathy said that cinema and radio boomed in Chennai during the ‘30s, becoming the hub for unions, classical music and new – albeit terrible – acting. “When the talkies finally emerged, it changed the face of cinema. We however, did not have the best actors at the time. MKT Bhagavathar was perhaps a good looking man but he could not act to save his life. I do not mean to offend his fans in the house,” he said with a laugh.

Theyagaraja Bhagavathar and M.R. Santanalakshmi.

Theyagaraja Bhagavathar and M.R. Santanalakshmi. | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai_R.K.Sridharan

The 1930s laid the foundation for cultural transformation in its subsequent decades, he added, ending his talk about the relationship between this particular time period and the city we call home. “The effervescence — the artistic and literary flowering of the decade comes to an abrupt stop when the 1940s begin. Chennai is evacuated because of the bombing threats. People who had moved from the hinterlands to this cultural capital, return to their houses. This includes writers, poets and journalists. The revival of the arts is painfully stopped by the Second World War.”

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