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.