Wednesday, June 12, 2013


In the meanwhile, Sambanda Mudaliar made rapid strides in his professional life too. Qualifying in his law exams in 1897, he joined as an apprentice under Sundaram Shastri, the son of the legal luminary Ranganatha Shastri and in 1898, enrolled as an advocate of the Madras High Court.

Practicing predominantly in the Small Causes Court, though he appeared in cases before the City Civil Court and the Police Courts too, Sambanda Mudaliar developed a strict work routine according to which clients could approach him only between 9.30 AM and 5.00 PM, after which he focussed on his Sabha activities. He took up cases according to their merits and avoided taking those that he felt were against the law or were unreasonable. He developed a reputation for being an expert on cross examination and rose to the position of Judge of the Small Causes Court. He also served for a brief while as the Chief Presidency Magistrate. Retiring from service on 1st February 1928, he went against the then prevailing practice of retired judges donning the lawyer robes again, instead choosing to devote more time to the study of Tamil language and the functioning of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.

He was involved in several other social activities too. Serving as the dharmakartha of the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore for nearly a quarter century, between 1900 and 1924, he was instrumental in bringing about changes to ensure that the conduct of the annual festival in the months of March-April was streamlined. His biggest contribution was however overseeing the construction of the temple Gopuram and constructing proper steps for the tank.

A sum of Rs.5000 which had been collected by a Sadhu for the work on the steps was nowhere sufficient to undertake such a mammoth task. With the temple Hundis yielding only another Rs.8000, there was a need to undertake a massive drive for collection of funds to complete the work. Sambanda Mudaliar hit upon an idea according to which names of people who donated Rs.108 towards the cause would be inscribed on the steps as a mark of commemoration. This idea was a massive hit and soon funds started pouring in for the task which was successfully completed. Sambanda Mudaliar resigned from the trusteeship of the temple when he was appointed Judge of the Small Causes court as he feared the arising of possible conflicts of interests in cases where temple matters were involved.

Sambanda Mudaliar was also a prominent Freemason. He was a member of the Carnatic Lodge, the first Masonic Lodge formed exclusively for the Indian community. He served on the committee of the School Books Literature Society, besides being appointed as a committee member for the Tamil language on board the Senates of the Madras University and the Annamalai University. He was part of the Reception Committee during the 1894 Congress Session at Madras. He also served as a member of the Censor Board.

The Suguna Vilasa Sabha too went from strength to strength. The Victoria Public Hall became a sort of a permanent home to it. Starting with the renting of a small room on the Western side of the hall in 1902, the Sabha gradually expanded its occupation of the hall. With time, the Sabha no longer restricted its activities to dramatics and expanded to becoming a social club, providing cards and reading room facilities. The library, inaugurated in 1908 had a fine collection of books dedicated to Tamil theatre. A portrait of Queen Victoria was commissioned at a cost of Rs.200 and was put up on top of the stage.

With many legal luminaries such as V.Krishnaswami Iyer, T.V.Seshagiri Iyer, Sir M.Venkatasubba Rao, S.Satyamurthy and Sir Vepa Ramesam becoming members, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha became one of the most sought after institutions in the city. It organised entertainments and felicitation functions on various occasions and contributed towards raising funds for the war effort. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar wrote a play titled “Rajaputra Veeran” for the war cause and set it in the backdrop of war. It is interesting to note that the famous Telugu stage actor Bellary Raghavachary donned the role of Bahadur Shah in this play and spoke in Hindi the Tamil dialogues written by Sambanda Mudaliar.

The Suguna Vilasa Sabha also commemorated the memory of the legendary playwrights and poets, Kalidasa and Shakespeare by staging a few scenes from their works on their anniversaries. The Shakespeare Day celebrations, which were first held in 1905 were particularly popular with the huge crowds and had to be gradually expanded into a Shakespeare Week!

February 20th 1920 was a landmark day in the annals of the institution. Its 500th show was celebrated on that day with great pomp and fervour. Governor Lord Willingdon and Lady Willingdon presided over this happy occasion, when a few scenes from Manoharan were enacted. A short play titled “The Surgeon General’s Prescription” written by Srinivasachari was also performed on the occasion.

The memberships expanded rapidly and consequently, the Victoria Public Hall became too small to accommodate the huge turnout for the Sabha’s programs. On the lookout for a space to construct a new hall that would accommodate the large numbers, the Sabha approached the Government which agreed to lease out the Napier Park for the purpose. A foundation stone for the new building was laid on 31st January 1925 by T.V.Seshagiri Iyer. However, things moved only that far as the park was found unsuitable for the purpose, and the Sabha was back at the Victoria Public Hall. In 1935, the current premises on Mount Road was negotiated for and purchased from the Justice Party for a sum of Rs.95000.

Sambanda Mudaliar’s prolific writing skills manifested in the form of more than 100 publications consisting of plays, works on drama literature, collections of short stories and books on religious topics. His memoirs “Nataka Medai Ninaivugal” which was a collection of a series of articles written by him in the Swadeshamitran between 1930 and 1936 is an amazing documentation of the origins and growth of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, while the slim volume publication “Naan Kanda Naadaga Kalaignargal” is an interesting documentation of some leading stage artistes of those times.

Sambanda Mudaliar was awarded the title of “Rao Sahib” by the Government in 1916 and the Padma Bhushan in 1959 for his contribution to theatre. Besides these, he also won awards from many private organisations.

Commemorating his 80th birthday, grand celebrations were held across the city in 1953. Led by Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan, many politicians, leading stage and film artistes participated and hailed his immense contribution towards the growth of Tamil theatre.

Sambanda Mudaliar passed away on 24th of September 1964 at the ripe old age of 91.

Today the Suguna Vilasa Sabha functions exclusively as a social club. However, commemorating the times when Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar and his friends bestrode the stage, a few posts in its Management Committee still bear titles such as Art Director, Green Room Director etc.

This article, the concluding part of the three part series was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to Madras.

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