Saturday, February 9, 2013
THE FATHER OF TAMIL THEATRE
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.