History & Culture

Navaratri at Suguna Vilasa Sabha

Victoria Public Hall, where Navaratri celebrations were held   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar is considered one of the founding fathers of Tamil theatre. Born on February 1, 1873, he developed a flair for English and Tamil literature at an early age, influenced by his father Vijayaranga Mudaliar, who worked in the government Education Department. Pammal Sambanda qualified as a lawyer in 1897 and enrolled as an advocate in the Madras High Court.

Interestingly, for a man who introduced many novel ideas to Tamil theatre, he began by disliking vernacular theatre, considering it crude and obscene. It was a visit in 1891 to a performance by Sarasa Vinoda Sabha, run by the then noted stage actor Bellary Krishnamacharlu that changed his opinion, and he went on to establish Suguna Vilasa Sabha with a few friends on July 1 that year.

Over the course of the next five decades, the group, which made Victoria Public Hall its home, became one of the foremost in Tamil theatre, and Sambanda Mudaliar, its most reverential figure. His memoir, Nataka Medai Ninaivugal, is a remarkable account of theatre of the early and mid-20th century. It also mentions the Navaratri celebrations at Suguna Vilasa Sabha that makes for interesting reading.

Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar

Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Sambanda Mudaliar writes that in 1905 Suguna Vilasa Sabha held for the first time an elaborate Navaratri celebration; before that only Saraswati puja had been celebrated. Interestingly, it was the extensive Vinayaka Chathurti celebration that year that gave him the idea.

Sambanda Mudaliar writes that several members brought kolu dolls from their homes for the affair. Daily pujas were performed and the expenses borne by the members.

With each year, the number of people partaking in the celebration increased, and to accommodate them a temporary enclosure had to be put up on the southern side of Victoria Public Hall. Even this proved insufficient and a huge tent began to be erected. Over the years, the first floor of the hall was also hired for the festival. From singing devotional songs, soon plays also began to be staged during Navaratri.

With the increase in the scale of the celebration, the expenses rose too and it was decided to create member groups to defray them, with members divided based on various criteria such as lawyers, merchants, beri chettis, and arya vysyas.

For women and children

From 1906, one day was dedicated to women, and the expenses were borne by Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer. From 20-30 women participating in the initial years, Sambanda Mudaliar writes that the numbers crossed a thousand some years later, with Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer still continuing his patronage. With Victoria Public Hall now spilling over, the grounds of the South Indian Athletic Association were also hired. Next, one day was set aside for children, with recitation and singing competitions.

This account was written in 1933, the 28th year of the sabha’s Navaratri festivities, making it one of the most important events in its annual calendar. The Sabha moved to its current location in Mount Road around 1935 and today functions as a social club.

The writer is a heritage buff and amateur Tamil theatre artiste.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 9:11:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/navaratri-at-suguna-vilasa-sabha/article36876116.ece

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