Monday, August 26, 2013


Long before the movie era, the huge popularity of the Tamil stage meant that it was an effective medium of mass communication. Stage actors and actresses enjoyed the adulation and following comparable to that enjoyed by top film stars of today. Stars such as S.G.Kittappa and Kumbakonam Balamani were so much sought after that the Government had to operate “Kittappa Special” and “Balamani Special” trains to transport people to places where they performed. Needless to say that with such a huge audience base, Tamil stage became one of the most popular means to promote the freedom movement in Tamil Nadu.

In his book “Viduthalai Poril Tamizh Valarntha Varalaru”, Ma.Po.Sivagnanam writes that the first nationalistic play was “Arya Sabha”, written by K.Gopalachar, a Tamil scholar. Written at the end of the 19th century, this play was based on the work of the Indian National Congress and its achievements in the first 10 years of its existence. Also involved in promoting the cause of freedom through Tamil drama was the famous freedom fighter Subramania Siva who through his troupe, the “Sri Bharata Vilasa Sabha” staged the lives of heroes such as Sivaji Maharaja, Desingurajan etc and invested all the funds gained through the performances in the freedom movement.

One of the earliest artistes to have used the Tamil stage to arouse the patriotic fervour was S.S.Viswanatha Dass. Born on 16th June 1886 in a wealthy family from the Maruthuvar community, Viswanatha Dass came under the tutelage of Sankaradas Swamigal. His first stage performance was at the tender age of eight. Soon he started making a name for himself with his acting prowess, specialising in female roles and the “Rajapart” in Special Dramas.

It was a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi that led to Viswanatha Dass involving himself actively in the freedom struggle. Invited to sing at the meetings of Mahatma Gandhi during his visit to Tuticorin in 1911, Viswanatha Dass was drawn into the freedom movement by Gandhiji who was captivated by his voice. Dass accepted the offer and soon took to wearing khadi. Not only did wear khadi, he also ensured that the character he was playing on stage too wore khadi. It was thus not uncommon to see him act as Lord Muruga in Valli’s stage play dressed in Khadi or as Kovalan in Kannagi’s play wearing khadi. This idea of using the stage to stoke the fire of patriotism gained momentum and soon it became common sight to see characters in plays such as Kovalan, Valli Thirumanam, Harischandra Mayana Kandam being staged by various other troupes too singing patriotic songs on stage. Viswanatha Dass’s own theatre group, the “Shanmukanandam Drama Troupe” travelled to places such as Singapore, Burma, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and spread the message of the movement through his plays and songs.

His active participation in the freedom struggle meant that he was never far away from trouble. It was common occurrence for the police to arrive at the venue where Viswanatha Dass was performing to arrest him as soon as he sang the songs propagating the freedom movement. Legend has it that he was arrested 29 times in the 29 years since he first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1911. It is also said that in one case where he was being tried for treason against the Crown, appearing for him was V.O.Chidambaram, the famous “Kappalottiya Thamizhan”. On another occasion, it was Muthuramalinga Thevar who bailed him out after he was arrested in Ramanathapuram for singing songs arousing the patriotic fervour.

Given his dedication and passion for the stage and the freedom movement, it was in a way fitting that his end came on stage. Dressed as Lord Muruga and seated on the peacock during a performance of “Valli Thirumanam” at the Salt Cotaurs theatre on 31st December 1940, Viswanatha Dass suffered a massive attack and passed away. Huge crowds thronged his funeral procession which wended through Elephant Gate, China Bazaar and Mint Street before ending at the crematorium at around 7 PM. As a mark of tribute to the patriot, the theatre owner refused to allow any plays to be staged there after this incident and later disbanded the stage.

The State Government has converted his house at Thirumangalam in Madurai into a memorial as a mark of respect to a man who played a significant role in arousing the patriotic fervour amongst the people.

Yet another stage personality to have used the far reaching medium of Tamil stage to spread the message of the freedom movement was T.P.Krishnaswamy Pavalar. Born on 29th August 1890, Krishnaswamy Pavalar displayed a flair for languages at an early age and became a multi linguist, studying Sanskrit, Telugu and Hindi besides Tamil and earned proficiency in them. In this regard, he took after his father Ponnuswamy, who had earned a reputation for being a renowned Hindu scholar with immense knowledge of the ancient scriptures. It is interesting to note that Krishnaswamy’s younger brother was the famous Tamil scholar T.P.Meenakshisundaram, who too later went on to attain heights of academic excellence.

It was the arrest of Annie Besant on charges of sedition in 1917 that spurred the immensely patriotic Krishnaswamy Pavalar to quit his job as the Chief Tamil teacher at the Muthialpet Boys School in George Town and join the freedom movement. He became a part of the Indian National Congress and attended all its sessions across India. This brought him into close contact with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Bala Gangadhara Tilak, C.Rajagopalachari, C.R.Vijayaraghavachariar, T.V.Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar etc.

Krishnaswamy Pavalar’s tryst with stage started with Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s Suguna Vilasa Sabha. In his book “Naan Kanda Nadaga Kalaignargal”, Sambanda Mudaliar says that Krishnaswamy Pavalar played the role of Rajapriyan in his magnum opus, Manohara and the role of Sumantra in Sarangadhara. Krishnaswamy however later quit the Sabha, as he felt that the plays they staged were far removed from the issues that were plaguing the society and decided to start his own troupe that would stage plays on social themes such as evils of drinking, untouchability, gambling etc. Thus was born the “Bala Manohara Nataka Sabha” in 1920.

Krishnaswamy Pavalar started the Pavalar Boys Company after closing the Bala Manohara Sabha due to various reasons. The Boys Company performed Pavalar’s patriotic plays such as, “Kadharin Vetri”, “Desiyakodi” and “Pathi Bhakti” across Tamil Nadu, drawing huge crowds wherever it was performed. Needless to say, these plays often ran into controversy.

Pavalar was refused permission to stage Kadharin Vetri at many places by the police, who wanted the scene where Congress workers were beaten up by them removed. Krishnaswamy Pavalar refused and had to face repeated opposition. He thus stopped the staging of the play for a while and wrote to Gandhiji for advice, who wrote back saying that it was best that the scene was cut, as he did not want the promotion of Khadi to be seen as a means of inciting hatred against the British. Pavalar agreed to this and modified the scene. He also renamed the play “Khadar Bhakti” and staged it many times thereafter. Desiyakodi, based on the Nagpur flag riots too ran into controversy.

Krishnaswamy Pavalar’s biggest success was however when his Boys Company was invited to perform at the Wembley Exhibition in 1924-25. To stage plays promoting patriotism in the country from which freedom was being sought required tremendous conviction and hence this was a monumental achievement.

Pavalar also held various positions in the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee. He also ran a weekly paper called the Desabandhu and a monthly magazine called Bharathi. He also ran a daily “Indraya Samacharam” between 1914 and 1918, which served as the Congress mouthpiece. He passed away on 1st March 1934 after suffering a bout of Tuberculosis. It is indeed sad that he remains virtually unknown today outside of Tamil theatre.

The star couple of S.G.Kittappa and K.B.Sundarambal too were involved with the freedom movement.They were roped in by Congress leader S.Satyamurthi to participate in his political meetings. K.B.Sundarambal was particularly active in the freedom struggle, singing songs at political meetings, campaigning for the Congress and even selling Khadi during the Mylapore festival. The likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Kamaraj were amongst her ardent admirers.

In what was an amazing coincidence, the first bulletin of the All India Radio on 15th August 1947 at 5.30 AM proclaiming the Independence was read out by Poornam Viswanathan, who later became one of Tamil stage’s most renowned personalities.

This article was first published in Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to the city.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


Cricket, a sport that enjoys the status of a religion in our country is undoubtedly one of the most significant legacies left behind by the British in India.

The game was introduced in the country by the soldiers, merchants and the sailors of the East India Company. The first recorded cricket match in India was played by sailors of the East India Company in Cambay, Gujarat in 1721. The credit for the oldest organised cricket club in the country however belongs to the Calcutta Cricket and Football club, said to be in existence earlier than 1792, as the Madras Courier reports of cricket matches played between Calcutta and Barrackpore and Dum Dum in this year. Bombay’s recorded cricket history began in 1797.

The earliest reference of the sport being played in Madras is in the year 1792, as seen from an oil painting of a match in progress produced by the famous uncle nephew duo of Thomas and William Daniell. Though titled “Cricket in India”, it is presumably a representation of cricket being played in Madras, as the duo was then based in the city. The painting depicts a match in progress at The Island, a venue that would continue to play host to the sport for a long time.

The organised cricketing history of Madras began in 1846, with the formation of the Madras Cricket Club. The founder was Sir Alexander Arbuthnot, the famous civil servant who for a brief time also served as the Governor of Madras. The association of the Arbuthnot family in Madras was a notable one, the most famous link (later to attain notoriety) being that of Arbuthnot & Co., the leading bank whose crash in 1906 was one of the Presidency’s most shocking scandals. Sir Henry Pottinger, Governor of Madras was elected the first President of the club.

By the 1860s, the Club was well established and cricket became a regular weekend activity. The matches were played at The Island, where makeshift pitches were laid close to the Cooum River and across from what is today the Medical College. With a view to establishing a more permanent arrangement, the Club sought the permission of the Chief Secretary to the Government to make a cricket ground and enclose a portion of The Island for the purpose. The permission however was not forthcoming. A couple of weeks later, Lt.J.Pennycuick, the newly elected Secretary of the Club wrote to the Government again, this time requesting that a portion of the ground on the premises of the Chepauk Palace be granted to create a cricket ground. The Government, which had acquired the Chepauk Palace and grounds in 1859 saw no objection to this proposal and handed over the land to the Club, which thus shifted from The Island to the grounds of the Chepauk Palace. The ground was levelled and the Club moved to a permanent abode. A pavilion built to the design of the legendary Robert F.Chisholm was built at a cost of Rs.3700 and was inaugurated in 1866. This served as the pavilion for a quarter century, before being pulled down in 1891 to make way for a new pavilion that was built to the design of Henry Irwin. This was inaugurated in 1892 and served as the pavilion for nearly 90 years, before being pulled down in 1981 on the grounds that with the new stadium that was coming up would no longer provide a view of the cricketing action.

In the meantime, Madras played its first match in 1862 versus Bangalore. Unfortunately,there are no details of that game except that it resulted in a win for Madras. The match, which was played at Guindy became an annual home and away fixture, being played well until the 1890s.

For nearly 90 years after its founding, the Madras Cricket Club remained the exclusive preserve of the Europeans. In 1935 however, Kumararaja M.A.Muthiah Chettiar was admitted as the first Indian member. The distinction for being elected the first Indian President of the MCC belongs to A.M.M.Arunachalam, who was elected the President in 1959.

Two decades after the birth of the MCC was born a man who would go on to earn the moniker “Father of Madras Cricket”. Born in 1868, Venkatamahipathi Naidu, or Buchi Babu Naidu as he was more popularly known was adopted by his own grandfather Modhavarapu Dera Venkataswami Naidu, who had no male progeny. Venkataswami Naidu was a wealthy man who made his fortune working as the Dubash of Parry and Co. Buchi Babu took to cricket at a young age, the tennis courts and long verandas at their family home Lakshmi Vilas in Luz, Mylapore serving as pitches and the servants of the household playing the role of the bowlers.

Struck by the fact that the doors of the only organised facility for playing the game the MCC were open only to Europeans, Buchi Babu took upon himself the task of starting a club that would admit Indians and raise teams to play the game. His efforts bore fruit with the formation of The Madras United Cricket Club (MUCC) in 1888. It would not be far-fetched to say that the formation of this club that was situated on the Esplanade laid the roots for the birth of Indian Cricket.

Thanks to Buchi Babu’s untiring efforts, the club developed excellent facilities and was much sought after by keen players of the game. His finest moment however was when the MCC invited the MUCC to play a game against their team. This was made possible thanks to the efforts of Mr.Partridge (of the famous law firm King and Partridge) who was then the captain of the MCC team. Buchi Babu agreed on the condition that his team would be allowed to lunch in the MCC pavilion. Mr.Partridge was faced with the unenviable task of convincing the other members of the MCC agree to this. But they did relent to it and the game between MCC and MUCC became a reality. It was a fixture that would become a regular feature.

Buchi Babu passed away in 1908. His legacy was carried on magnificently by his three sons, M.Venkatramanujulu, M.Baliah and C.Ramaswami, all of whom played the sport with distinction. His legacy extended to other sports too. C.Ramaswamy was a double international, representing India in both cricket and tennis. Later generations of the family too made a mark in various sports.

Organised League Cricket came to the State in 1932. Eighteen teams took part in the Championship, which was conducted by the Indian Cricket Federation (forerunner to the BCCI). The winners, Triplicane Cricket Club were presented a trophy donated by the Rajah of Palayampatti. It is a practice that continues to this day, with the teams in the First Division competing for the Rajah of Palayampatti Shield. The success of the first edition of the tournament saw the addition of more divisions. Today, 5 divisions constitute this very strongly contested league.

Madras took on Mysore in the first ever Ranji Trophy game. Played in November 1934 at Chepauk the game finished in just a day, with Madras winning by an innings and 23 runs. Madras scored 130 runs while bowling out Mysore for 48 and 59 runs in their two innings. It is a matter of regret of keen followers of the game in the State that despite this auspicious beginning, the Tamil Nadu side has won the trophy on just two occasions, in 1954-55 and 1987-88.

The formation of the Madras Cricket Association in 1935 was yet another significant milestone in the history of the sport in the city. It was renamed the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association in 1971 and to this day remains the apex body for the administration of the sport in the State.

Given the city’s strong connections with the sport, it was a fitting tribute of sorts that India recorded its first ever test win at Madras. Captained by Vijay Hazare, it defeated England by an innings and 8 runs. The star of the game was Vinoo Mankad who took 12 wickets in the match, including 8 wickets in the first innings.

The Corporation Stadium (Nehru Stadium) played host to test matches for nearly a decade, between 1956 and 1965. It was at this ground that Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy put on a partnership of 413 runs for the first wicket against New Zealand in 1956, a record that stood for more than 50 years before being broken by the South African pair of Neil Mckenzie and Graeme Smith in 2008. The “Pongal Test” was yet another integral part of Madras cricket, with more than 10 tests being played during the harvest festival season. With the weather being at its most pleasant, crowds thronged from all over the State to watch these games. It is a tradition that many old timers wish to be revived.

This article was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to the city.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


In the meanwhile, Sambanda Mudaliar made rapid strides in his professional life too. Qualifying in his law exams in 1897, he joined as an apprentice under Sundaram Shastri, the son of the legal luminary Ranganatha Shastri and in 1898, enrolled as an advocate of the Madras High Court.

Practicing predominantly in the Small Causes Court, though he appeared in cases before the City Civil Court and the Police Courts too, Sambanda Mudaliar developed a strict work routine according to which clients could approach him only between 9.30 AM and 5.00 PM, after which he focussed on his Sabha activities. He took up cases according to their merits and avoided taking those that he felt were against the law or were unreasonable. He developed a reputation for being an expert on cross examination and rose to the position of Judge of the Small Causes Court. He also served for a brief while as the Chief Presidency Magistrate. Retiring from service on 1st February 1928, he went against the then prevailing practice of retired judges donning the lawyer robes again, instead choosing to devote more time to the study of Tamil language and the functioning of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.

He was involved in several other social activities too. Serving as the dharmakartha of the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore for nearly a quarter century, between 1900 and 1924, he was instrumental in bringing about changes to ensure that the conduct of the annual festival in the months of March-April was streamlined. His biggest contribution was however overseeing the construction of the temple Gopuram and constructing proper steps for the tank.

A sum of Rs.5000 which had been collected by a Sadhu for the work on the steps was nowhere sufficient to undertake such a mammoth task. With the temple Hundis yielding only another Rs.8000, there was a need to undertake a massive drive for collection of funds to complete the work. Sambanda Mudaliar hit upon an idea according to which names of people who donated Rs.108 towards the cause would be inscribed on the steps as a mark of commemoration. This idea was a massive hit and soon funds started pouring in for the task which was successfully completed. Sambanda Mudaliar resigned from the trusteeship of the temple when he was appointed Judge of the Small Causes court as he feared the arising of possible conflicts of interests in cases where temple matters were involved.

Sambanda Mudaliar was also a prominent Freemason. He was a member of the Carnatic Lodge, the first Masonic Lodge formed exclusively for the Indian community. He served on the committee of the School Books Literature Society, besides being appointed as a committee member for the Tamil language on board the Senates of the Madras University and the Annamalai University. He was part of the Reception Committee during the 1894 Congress Session at Madras. He also served as a member of the Censor Board.

The Suguna Vilasa Sabha too went from strength to strength. The Victoria Public Hall became a sort of a permanent home to it. Starting with the renting of a small room on the Western side of the hall in 1902, the Sabha gradually expanded its occupation of the hall. With time, the Sabha no longer restricted its activities to dramatics and expanded to becoming a social club, providing cards and reading room facilities. The library, inaugurated in 1908 had a fine collection of books dedicated to Tamil theatre. A portrait of Queen Victoria was commissioned at a cost of Rs.200 and was put up on top of the stage.

With many legal luminaries such as V.Krishnaswami Iyer, T.V.Seshagiri Iyer, Sir M.Venkatasubba Rao, S.Satyamurthy and Sir Vepa Ramesam becoming members, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha became one of the most sought after institutions in the city. It organised entertainments and felicitation functions on various occasions and contributed towards raising funds for the war effort. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar wrote a play titled “Rajaputra Veeran” for the war cause and set it in the backdrop of war. It is interesting to note that the famous Telugu stage actor Bellary Raghavachary donned the role of Bahadur Shah in this play and spoke in Hindi the Tamil dialogues written by Sambanda Mudaliar.

The Suguna Vilasa Sabha also commemorated the memory of the legendary playwrights and poets, Kalidasa and Shakespeare by staging a few scenes from their works on their anniversaries. The Shakespeare Day celebrations, which were first held in 1905 were particularly popular with the huge crowds and had to be gradually expanded into a Shakespeare Week!

February 20th 1920 was a landmark day in the annals of the institution. Its 500th show was celebrated on that day with great pomp and fervour. Governor Lord Willingdon and Lady Willingdon presided over this happy occasion, when a few scenes from Manoharan were enacted. A short play titled “The Surgeon General’s Prescription” written by Srinivasachari was also performed on the occasion.

The memberships expanded rapidly and consequently, the Victoria Public Hall became too small to accommodate the huge turnout for the Sabha’s programs. On the lookout for a space to construct a new hall that would accommodate the large numbers, the Sabha approached the Government which agreed to lease out the Napier Park for the purpose. A foundation stone for the new building was laid on 31st January 1925 by T.V.Seshagiri Iyer. However, things moved only that far as the park was found unsuitable for the purpose, and the Sabha was back at the Victoria Public Hall. In 1935, the current premises on Mount Road was negotiated for and purchased from the Justice Party for a sum of Rs.95000.

Sambanda Mudaliar’s prolific writing skills manifested in the form of more than 100 publications consisting of plays, works on drama literature, collections of short stories and books on religious topics. His memoirs “Nataka Medai Ninaivugal” which was a collection of a series of articles written by him in the Swadeshamitran between 1930 and 1936 is an amazing documentation of the origins and growth of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, while the slim volume publication “Naan Kanda Naadaga Kalaignargal” is an interesting documentation of some leading stage artistes of those times.

Sambanda Mudaliar was awarded the title of “Rao Sahib” by the Government in 1916 and the Padma Bhushan in 1959 for his contribution to theatre. Besides these, he also won awards from many private organisations.

Commemorating his 80th birthday, grand celebrations were held across the city in 1953. Led by Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan, many politicians, leading stage and film artistes participated and hailed his immense contribution towards the growth of Tamil theatre.

Sambanda Mudaliar passed away on 24th of September 1964 at the ripe old age of 91.

Today the Suguna Vilasa Sabha functions exclusively as a social club. However, commemorating the times when Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar and his friends bestrode the stage, a few posts in its Management Committee still bear titles such as Art Director, Green Room Director etc.

This article, the concluding part of the three part series was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to Madras.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Along with Pushpavalli, Sambanda Mudaliar also wrote another play titled “Sundari” with an intention to inaugurate the plays on the same occasion. Intense rehearsal sessions followed. Sambanda Mudaliar says that according to his count, no less than 52 rehearsals were held for Sundari with each rehearsal running for five to six hours.

The Suguna Vilasa Sabha faced immense difficulties before the two plays could be staged. Sambanda Mudaliar had decided that the Sabha would make its own curtains for the plays, which meant that a lot of money had to be spent. It was decided by the Sabha that the support of the Rajah of Ramnad be enlisted and he be appointed its patron, which would ease the financial constraints. Meeting the Rajah, they received a generous donation of Rs.300 from him. This amount was utilised by the Sabha for making the curtains. To indicate that the group was made up of graduates and students, the front drop curtain sported a picture of the Senate House. Financial help for the costumes came from Batcharam Sahib, a constituent of the royal family of Thanjavur, who donated Rs.200 to the Sabha.

With preparations going on in full swing for the inauguration of the two plays, the group decided to meet several prominent citizens of the city and enlist their support. It met Rajah Sir Savalai Ramasamy Mudaliar, the famous philanthropist and requested him to be the President of the Sabha. He readily agreed to the same. Rao Bahadur Ranganatha Mudaliar was made the Vice President of the Sabha. A man who initially refused to be a supporter of the Sabha but later became a staunch pillar of support was Dewan Bahadur P.Rajaratna Mudaliar.

Next was the task of booking the Victoria Public Hall for the performances. The Sabha was yet again short of funds and it was left to the President, Rajah Sir Savalai Ramasamy Mudaliar to meet the entire rent of the hall for the first performance, amounting to Rs.50 per day. The rent for the second day was met by a philanthropist from Pondicherry. Huge posters advertising the plays were printed in colour and pasted on the pavement walls of all the prominent streets in the city. Around 25000 hand bills were also printed to be distributed to the public. A retired Sepoy was given the task of distributing them. The sepoy went around blowing a bugle seated on a horse rented for the occasion and distributed the bills who had gathered around him on hearing the sound of the bugle.

On the day of the inauguration of Sundari, the Victoria Public Hall was decorated with arches and flags. A band was hired to perform between 4 PM and 9 PM, when the performance would start. All the publicity paid off, with a vast crowd turning up for the play and staying for the entire duration, which lasted about 5 and a half hours. The next Saturday saw a huge crowd turning up for Pushpavalli as well. The two plays were subsequently staged for a few times in Bangalore as well.

The success of these plays spurred Sambanda Mudaliar to come out with his third play, Leelavathi-Sulochana. This was staged more than 50 times by the Suguna Vilasa Sabha and was its first major hit. It was also financially successful, earning more than Rs.25000. Sambanda Mudaliar says that amongst all his plays only Manoharan was a bigger hit. Leelavathi Sulochana was also the first play of Sambanda Mudaliar that was staged by another troupe. After obtaining the permission of Sambanda Mudaliar, it was staged by Govindaswamy Rao’s Manmohana Nataka Sabha.

Sambanda Mudaliar shares some interesting insights into the method he adopted for writing a new script in his memoirs, Nataka Medai Ninaivugal. He says that on deciding to write a new script, he would run the idea over and over in his head for a few days and decide how the script would start, the path it would follow and the way it would end. He would then assign alphabets to the various characters and jot down scene by scene the interaction between them. Any new character that occurred to him during this process would also be included. The characters would then be named, usually according to the qualities their role depicted. Only then would the actual writing of the script start. At certain points, he would read out the script to his close friends and get their feedback and make changes if necessary, before proceeding further.

Sambanda Mudaliar’s fame as a playwright scaled great heights with his 6th play, Manoharan. In his memoirs, he says that the play had been staged by various troupes across the Madras Presidency a record 859 times (up to the year 1932) with his permission and probably saw an equal number of performances without his permission. The idea for the story was born when he attended a religious discourse on the life of Dhruva. Struck by the part where Dhruva is grief stricken by the suffering of his mother thanks to the actions of the king’s second wife, Suruchi, Sambanda Mudaliar decided to write a play having this as the storyline, replacing the character of the second wife with that of a mistress. The play was inaugurated on the 14th of September 1895 at the Victoria Public Hall. Sambanda Mudaliar says that though the collections on the occasion amounted to only Rs.200, the play was however well appreciated by those present. The songs for the play were composed by the legendary Sankaradas Swamigal. The climax of the play was the famous “Sangili Scene” (as it came to be popularly known amongst the public), where the hero broke free from the chains with which he was tied to the pillars.

So successful was the play that it was made into a movie twice. The first one, which was made in Bombay in 1936 and had Sambanda Mudaliar playing the role of the king Purushothaman sank without a trace. The second one however, made in 1954 is much remembered even today, thanks to the brilliant performance of Sivaji Ganesan. The dialogues of the original play were virtually rewritten by Mu.Karunanidhi.

With the initial plays being warmly received, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha started experimenting with different forms of theatre. It staged Julius Caesar in English at the Victoria Public Hall in 1896 and from 1897 onwards, also started staging Telugu plays. Sambanda Mudaliar also later translated and reworked many of Shakespeare’s works to suit a local setting. The names of the plays too bore a semantic resemblance to the original titles. For eg. Romeo and Juliet was named Jwalita Ramanan, Hamlet was named Amaladityan, Cymbeline was named Sarasangi and Macbeth was named Magapathi. Another novel attempt by Sambanda Mudaliar was Chandrahari, a parody on Harischandra. In this play, the protagonist was a King who spoke nothing but lies!! The names of the characters in the play were inverted too. For instance, Lohidasan was Dasalohi while Chandramathi was Madichandra!! The Suguna Vilasa Sabha never staged this play and it was staged by several other troupes with the permission of Sambanda Mudaliar. One such troupe was that of the late V.K.Ramasamy. Writing in his memoirs, Enadhu Kalai Payanam he says that though very well written, this play was not a great success as it trivialised one of the great stories from our mythology.

This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly.

Part 1 of the article can be accessed here


Hi Friends,

Following the post on the life of Sankaradas Swamigal, this post is Part 1 of a 3 part series on the life of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar and his contribution to Tamil theatre.

The contribution of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar towards the renaissance of Tamil theatre can be considered no less significant than that of Sankaradas Swamigal.

Born on 1st February 1873 to Pammal Vijayaranga Mudaliar and Manickavelu Ammal, Sambanda Mudaliar was the youngest of four sons of the couple, who also had four daughters. Vijayaranga Mudaliar hailed from a family of modest means and rose up in life with a lot of struggle. He joined the Government service as Deputy Inspector of Schools in Madurai and later retired as Assistant Inspector of Schools. He was a member of the University Senate, a member of the Board of Examiners in Tamil and also a trustee on board the Pachaiyappa’s Charities, besides being member of various other social organisations.

Sambanda Mudaliar had his early education in three pyol schools in Acharappan Street, George Town. As a boy of 7 years of age, he was then admitted to the Hindu Proprietary School in Broadway. The school was however soon shut down due to some reasons and Sambanda Mudaliar was shifted to the Govindappa Naicker Primary school in Kilpauk, which was a branch school of the Pachaiyappa’s College. It was here that Sambanda Mudaliar developed a flair for the literary gems of the English and Tamil languages and started learning them in earnest. He won a number of prizes every year for recitations from various works of Shakespeare and other authors. It was also here that he formed a long lasting friendship with V.V.Srinivasa Iyengar, who had joined the school at the same time and would later became a distinguished member of the Madras Bar and a judge of the Madras High Court.

After a stint then for a couple of years at the P.T.Chengalvaraya Naicker School (where he was transferred to from Govindappa Naicker School), Sambanda Mudaliar joined the Pachaiyappa’s College for his Matriculation, which he completed with a First Class. He stood first in the English and Tamil languages. He then joined the Presidency College, wherefrom he completed his F.A. and B.A. degrees. While in the B.A. degree, he won the Thompson’s Scholarship for standing first in the first year English exams. This scholarship carried a stipend of Rs.10 per month. It was to be one of many more prizes and awards for proficiency that he won. He also won the Northwick Prize for standing first in History in the Presidency.

It was around this time that he had his first exposure to stage plays. In 1891, he saw a performance at the Victoria Public Hall by the Sarasa Vinoda Sabha run by Bellary Krishnamacharlu, the noted stage actor of the times. Writing about it in his memoirs “Nataka Medai Ninaivugal”, Sambanda Mudaliar says that the hall was bursting at its seams and it was only the fact that he and his father had reserved seats that had got them entry. He was transfixed by the stage and its presentation right from the time the screen went up to the time the curtains fell down, a good five hours later. The play, with its neat production values sans vulgarity, struck a chord with Sambanda Mudaliar, who upto that point in time had a very low opinion of vernacular theatre, especially in the Tamil language whose plays then predominantly involved bawdy costumes and make up and contained vulgar songs and sequences.

Equally inspired by Bellary Krishnamacharlu’s plays were many other prominent citizens of Madras. A meeting was held in a school in Mannady to discuss the possibility of starting a Sabha to stage plays in Tamil, on the lines of Krishnamacharlu’s Sabha. At the end of the meeting, interested people were asked to sign on the paper expressing their interest in the venture. Amongst the earliest signatories were Sambanda Mudaliar and Jayarama Naicker, a man who would later go on to play an important role in the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.
On the 1st of July 1891, Suguna Vilasa Sabha came into being with the five other founders in addition to Sambanda Mudaliar and Jayarama Naicker. It is interesting to note that all of them were either still studying school or college or had just passed their degree examinations, making it an organisation run by a band of youngsters eager to make a mark in the field of drama. Advertisements in the newspapers and in the form of notices were then sent out explaining the purpose of the Sabha and soliciting memberships. However, these did not bring about a huge response with the exception of a handful of people expressing their willingness to join.

Undeterred by the poor response, Sambanda Mudailar and his friends set about the task of deciding the first play to be staged by the Sabha. Dominating the drama scene at the time were plays based on mythology and life of kings. One day, Sambandha Mudaliar happened to watch a performance of “Sthree Sahasam” by the Manmohana Nataka Sabha run by Govindasamy Rao, the famous theatre artiste from Thanjavur. The performances by the lead artistes captured his imagination and he decided that the first play by the Suguna Vilasa Sabha would be based on this story. He started writing the story, named the lead character Pushpavalli, and gave the same name to the play.

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Hi Friends,

This is a brief profile of Sankaradas Swamigal, the man who can be considered the father of Tamil theatre as we know it today.

Sankardas Swamigal was born in 1867 in the port town of Tuticorin to Damodaran Pillai and Kanthimathi Ammal. Damodaran Pillai was a man renowned for his proficiency in the Tamil language. Well versed in the Ramayana, his mastery over the epic earned him the name of “Ramayana Pulavar”. Sankardas Swamigal had his early education in Tamil from his father. He later came under the tutelage of the famous Tamil scholar of the times, Palani Dandapani Swamigal. Learning along with him under Dandapani Swamigal was Udumalai Sarabam Muthuswami Kavirayar, a man who would go on to become another legendary Tamil scholar.

Sankardas Swamigal then worked for a while as an accountant in a salt factory. Having already started composing venpas and songs even as a young boy of sixteen, he found that the job was an impediment in his quest for excellence in the Tamil language and this led him to quit his job when he was twenty four years of age. Thus, the seeds were sown for the entry of a man on the Tamil Stage scene who would be regarded as its first Guru par excellence, a man to whom many leading stage artistes of the next generation owed their craft.

The first people to recognise the literary prowess of Swamigal were Ramudu Iyer and Kalyanarama Iyer, who were running a popular drama company during that time. Swamigal joined their troupe as an actor and later also became an author. As an actor, he was renowned for his variety of roles such as Iranian, Ravana, Lord Yama and Lord Saneeswara. He then joined the drama company of Samy Naidu where he donned the role of the suthradhar in several of their plays. His unique presentation methods as a sutradhar attracted many a crowd. It was during his time with Samy Naidu that he felt a sense of dissatisfaction with his life, the cause of which was probably a major disagreement with Samy Naidu. Sankaradas donned the ochre robe and left on a pilgrimage to various shrines of Lord Muruga and thenceforth came to be known as Sankaradas Swamigal.

The next significant event in his life was his association with the famous Kanjira exponent, Manpoondia Pillai, with whom he came to stay for a few years on completion of his pilgrimage. Manpoondia Pillai considered Sankaradas Swamigal as his adopted son. Struck by his wizardry and excellence in the various grammatical aspects of the Tamil language, Manpoondia Pillai enjoyed Swamigal’s company and many a time the duo had sessions where Manpoondia Pillai played the Kanjira to Swamigal’s songs. The famous Mridanga Vidwans of the times, Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Pazhani Muthiah Pillai were students of Manpoondia Pillai at that time.

Sankaradas Swamigal made a comeback to Tamil stage as a writer at the insistence of Manpoondia Pillai. He was soon associated with a number of drama companies as an author, notable amongst them being the drama company run by Valli Vaidyanatha Iyer and Alli Parameswara Iyer and P.S.Velu Nair’s Shanmukananda Sabha. It was during his time with P.S.Velu Nair’s company that he wrote the songs for Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s immortal classic, Manoharan. It was also at Shanmukananda Sabha that T.S.Kannuswamy Pillai, the father of the legendary TKS brothers first came to be associated with Sankaradas Swamigal.

Having worked with various troupes across the state and trained numerous artistes such as C.Cunniah, C.S.Samanna Iyer, Balambal and Kumbakonam Balamani at various times, Swamigal started his own drama troupe called the Samarasa Sanmarga Nataka Sabha in 1910. It was here that the legendary actor S.G.Kittappa learnt his trade. Around this time, the concept of “Boys Company” was slowly gaining popularity. A Boys Company typically followed the Gurukula system, where boys stayed together and learnt under the resident teachers. Besides various aspects of Tamil theatre, they were also taught aspects of administration such as book keeping, stores maintenance etc.

The first Boys Company Swamigal was involved with was Jagannatha Iyer’s Bala Meena Ranjani Sangeetha Sabha. The Company had on its rolls several boys who would go on to become big names in the world of theatre and cinema, such as Nawab T.S.Rajamanickam, M.R.Radha, S.V.Venkatraman and K.Sarangapani. Swamigal thus had the distinction of having trained several stalwarts in his stint here. However, this association lasted only for a few years, as Swamigal quit the troupe on account of differences with Jagannatha Iyer.

In 1918, Swamigal with the help of a few friends started his own Boys Company, the Tattva Meenalochani Vidwat Bala Sabha. It was here that T.S.Kannuswamy Pillai, who had first met Swamigal at P.S.Velu Nair’s Company, brought his three elder sons, T.K.Sankaran, T.K.Muthuswamy and T.K.Shanmugam to put them under the tutelage of Swamigal. In his memoirs “Enadhu Nataka Vazhkai”, Shanmugam gives an interesting account of his time at the Tattva Meenalochani Vidwat Bala Sabha and his experiences with Swamigal. Of the three siblings, he seems to have been the dearest to Swamigal who wrote a play, “Abhimanyu Sundari” keeping him in mind for the role of the protagonist. What was remarkable about this play that ran to nearly 4 hours was that it was written entirely in one night. Shanmugam also says that Swamigal was a stickler for discipline and was against artistes consuming betel, tobacco, beedis and the like. Anyone found violating the code was subjected to punishment by Swamigal.

In 1921, Swamigal fell ill just as the Company was leaving to Madras on a performance tour. The tour however went on as per schedule. One day, when the Company was performing at The Grand Theatre in George Town (where today the Murugan Talkies stands), a telegram arrived announcing that Swamigal had been seized by fits which had caused paralysis in his right hand and left leg. The Company was shaken by the news. Pazhania Pillai, one of the proprietors of the Sabha rushed to Tuticorin and brought him to Madras in the hope that the advanced medical facilities here could cure him. The efforts however did not bear fruit and Swamigal was confined to bed. Despite his ailment, Swamigal still attended performances and watched them from behind the side screens sitting on a cane chair. Though he could not speak, his brain was still alert and memory intact and he could often be seen admonishing actors who had forgotten their lines using gestures.

By 1922, Swamigal’s health had deteriorated considerably. On the night of 13th of November 1922, he passed away in Pondicherry, where he had shifted to during the last few years of his life. Many years later, thanks to the efforts of T.K.Shanmugam, a memorial was constructed for Swamigal in Pondicherry, where every year stage actors and members of the South Indian Artistes Association pay tribute to him on his death anniversary. The auditorium in the South Indian Artistes Association is called the Sankardas Swamigal Auditorium in memory of a man who had trained the earliest legends of the industry.

The article was written for the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly.