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.