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.