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