It was Karthik Bhatt who first told me about this woman. This was a story that was completely pieced together from sources on the internet.
Archive for February, 2010
Encore this month features Veena Venkataramana Das of Vizianagaram. I really get amazed by the kind of technological innovations people like him thought of in the early years of the 20th century.
There is much activity along the banks of the river Cooum as the State Government finally addresses itself to the task of beautifying the banks of the river. The coming up of the new Assembly along the river has no doubt been the prime-mover behind the action. But in the process, as in many other projects of a similar nature, the core of the issue is being bypassed – namely the quality of the water and the feasibility of making the river navigable.
Early this month, a 1.1km stretch of the land along the river Cooum, behind the new Assembly complex and between the Napier and Periyar Bridges, was handed over by the Public Works Department to the Chennai Corporation for beautification. The government has identified 16000 encroachments along this stretch, mainly by slums and orders have been given for their eviction. The thriving grey market for auto spares at Pudupet will also be shifted as part of this drive. The 460 auto-part merchants who will be affected by this move will be given alternative accommodation on a 22 acre complex titled Auto Nagar within the Marai Malai Nagar industrial area. The government is however silent on how it plans to deal with all those whose livelihood depended on Pudupet. Will they need to move to Auto Nagar as well? What about their accommodation? Will it be organised by the government or is it simply a question of shifting a slum from one place to another? In the meanwhile, Langs Garden Road, which had a teeming slum till recently, has been emptied of all squatters and work on beautification of the river bank is on, at a cost of Rs 1.6 crore. Here too, alternative accommodation has been promised to those displaced, but exact details are still awaited.
The government has however not said much on what it proposes to do with the water in the river. Also, it is a moot point as to what can be achieved by beautifying the river bank when the water by itself remains so polluted. Beyond an announcement to the effect that an MOU will soon be signed with Singapore Cooperation Enterprise (SCE) to work out an integrated solution to the problems of the river, no details have been forthcoming. The SCE, according to its web site, www.sce.gov.sg is an agency formed by the Ministries of Trade and Foreign Affairs of the Government of Singapore to deal with queries from countries that are keen to tap into Singapore’s development experience. The agency lists urban planning and environmental services as its areas of specialization.
To counter the oft-repeated and entirely justified call for a central nodal agency to handle all the issues concerning the river, the Government set up the Chennai River Authority in December 2009. Headed by the Deputy Chief Minister, it has the ministers in charge of the Slum Clearance Board and Environment and also the Chief Secretary and the secretaries of multiple departments on board. The government is working on providing the authority with sufficient financial and statutory powers.
At present the upper reaches of the river are being attended to thanks to funds from the World Bank-funded Irrigated Agriculture Modernisation and Water Bodies Restoration and Management Project. Funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission are being used for closing sewage drains that fall into the river within the city limits. The total cost is said to be around Rs 1200 crores. What the fate of these development works will be in the light of the proposed tie-up with the SCE is not clear.
Another factor that is likely to affect any river clean-up/beautification is the proposed elevated corridor from Maduravoyal to the Port. This will certainly have an impact on river and if the MRTS on Buckingham Canal is anything to go by, care needs to be taken that the river’s course is not in any way impeded. A total of 7400 families are expected to be displaced by the proposed road, all of them along the river bank.
Any agreement with the SCE needs to be finalised only after the Chennai River Authority’s own scope of work is scoped out in detail and its powers are spelt and structured clearly. In the absence of that, we will once again see multiple agencies carrying out work as and when they see fit, with the overall river remaining what it was – a gutter.
Maladies of Mahabalipuram
The Man from Madras Musings recently accompanied a group of foreigners on a tour of Mahabalipuram. It had been two years since MMM had visited the place and while there were many changes for the better, there is much that can be improved in what is arguably one of the biggest tourist attractions close to our city.
First the positives – the upkeep of the monuments has definitely improved and the approach to each of them is a lot better. Secondly, the ubiquitous children that begged have vanished and have been replaced by ubiquitous children that attempt to sell souvenirs. In a way it is good because beggary has gone but the sight of children having to earn a living through peddling wares is not something we can be proud of. Third, there are granite plaques with notes on each of the monuments and you are therefore not at the mercy of the guides who feed you all kinds of fancy stories. MMM moreover had the pleasure of going there with one of the most informative resources possible and so did not have to depend on the slabs or the guides.
Incidentally, those of you who hang on to MMM’s every word, would remember that one of MMM’s earliest tracts was on the quaint language used on the slab in front of the shore temple. The guides there speak in roughly the same way. And rough would be the operative word. MMM could not help overhearing an argument between two guides, say X & Y, the gist of which was that X had stolen the custom of Y. Each traded abuse in the choicest of Madras bhashai (strange that this was not legislated into Chennai chatter) and X in an inspired moment said that Y’s ancestry comprised ****s to which Y went a step further and attributed X’s origin to a @@@@. All this while our group was trying to listen to an almost lyrical account of how the caves were hewn out.
One of the most important requirements in any tourist spot is the “public convenience”. Unfortunately, those in charge of Mahabs as it is called, have taken the word public to be the more important one in that phrase. They expect visitors to make it convenient to defecate anywhere in public. The only toilets that MMM could see were secure behind locked doors and as to where the key would be available was anybody’s guess. It is MMM’s view that the important functionary who inaugurated the two toilets (how do you inaugurate them?) must have also locked them up and made off with the keys. Perhaps he/she was given the keys as mementoes on the momentous occasion.
The staff that man the gates to the two places for which tickets are a must – the shore temple and the five rathas complexes, are most rude. Their attitude largely resembles those of hustlers and bouncers at the seamier kind of bar. Their only job is to tell you that every monument closes down at 6.00 pm. Beyond that they have no information whatsoever.
Now what do you do after 6.00 pm when as were told at every turn, Mahabs closes down and turns in for the night? Well, MMM and troupe went off to gaze at Arjuna’s Penance, which being in the open could be viewed even after curfew. MMM had read somewhere that the place was floodlit at night. It was only on reaching the spot that MMM and co realised that the illumination is done only while the dance festival is in progress. On all other days, Arjuna and the rest on the rock call it a day at sunset. The van driver who took MMM and friends around kindly switched on the headlights and that was how everyone got to see the carvings.
The roads within Mahabalipuram are another story altogether. The kind of traffic jams that are experienced within the town would put even T Nagar to shame. Chaos is the only word to describe the way vans, cars, buses, cycles and other vehicles jostle for space while driving. As for parking, there is sufficient space to accommodate vehicles but regulated entry and exit is beyond any good citizen of our land, we being familiar only with rights but no responsibilities. Consequently, there is much tooting, hooting, bumping, denting, abusing and heckling.
Someone once described India as a functioning anarchy. Mahabalipuram according to MMM would be a good microcosmic representation of that.
Night Life at Mahabs
After having seen Arjuna’s Penance, there was considerable time to kill and the question of what next hung heavy on the mind of the Man from Madras Musings. He need not have worried. For unfolding in all its glory was a political meeting at the busiest intersection of the town. Bunting and festoons were hung all the way from the entrance of the town (and this is a heritage precinct) and every wall had posters proclaiming the great leader’s arrival. MMM is rather doubtful if Narasimha Pallava would have had such a rousing reception when he entered the city. A foreigner asked MMM if a native festival was in progress and MMM had to explain rather shamefacedly that it was not and that a native leader was on his way. The intersection was cordoned off and a massive stage was erected there. Music blared right through the evening and by 7.00 pm rows of party faithfuls had seated themselves on plastic chairs to watch the show. When MMM left the town, the music was still blaring and a couple of men in white shirts and tights were dancing on the stage. The great leader was still on his way. The foreigners with MMM were delighted to see democra(z)y at its best.
The other side of VP Hall
The other day the Man from Madras Musings alighting at Central, made his way to the pre-paid taxi counter only to be advised that he would have to wait for ten minutes before any taxi arrived. The ten minutes stretched to twenty and there was no taxi entering the portals of the pre-paid queue though of taxis soliciting customers outside of the system there were plenty. Apparently in this city of laissez-faire, all taxis entering Central do not HAVE to go through the pre-paid system. Only a few self-declared honest characters have opted to do so and the rest simply crawl along the kerb, soliciting customers. The policeman there declared that he could do nothing about it and that was the way the system worked. MMM by then thoroughly exhausted, made his way back to the counter and asked as to the reasons for the delay only to be told that it was all due to the “blasted red building you see around the corner which the government has taken into its head to renovate”. Apparently the space behind VP Hall was where all the pre-paid taxis used to park and they would make their way from there to Central when needed. Now with the restoration work beginning, the pre-paid taxis have been told to park ‘elsewhere’ though where exactly has not been specified. In the absence of parking space, these taxi operators have decided to give Central a miss. Consequently very few pre-paid taxis make their way to Central and the entire system, never robust to begin with, has begun to totter at its very base. MMM cast his stone too, for weary of waiting at the pre-paid, he made his way to one of those winking enticingly from the kerb and concluded a win-win transaction (the taxi won the fare he wanted and MMM won his way home) under the benign eyes of the policeman.
VP Hall became home to the SVS in 1902 when the latter began renting a small room on the Western side of the Hall. The society had till then managed its activities at various places in North Madras. Space was rented in Chindadripet for storing the props and curtains. By this time the SVS was also blossoming as a social club, providing cards and reading room facilities. A central location like the VP Hall became an asset. Gradually, the SVS expanded its occupation of the VP Hall. In 1910, the Cycles Club and the Mercantile & Marine Club, which were occupying the entire lower floor of the Hall became defunct and the SVS took over the space at a rent of Rs 125 a month. The legal luminary Sir VC Desikachariar expressed worry over the move as in his view no organisation that had rented the VP Hall till then had flourished! A new acquisition by the SVS that year was a billiards table which was housed in the ground floor of VP Hall. In between, in 1908, the SVS also inaugurated its library, which was perhaps the only one in the city dedicated to books on theatre. Begun with a collection of 180 books, it expanded by 1930 into a vast horde of 1680 books which included works in English and the four South Indian languages. The SVS also felt that a Hall named after Queen Victoria ought to have her portrait in it and commissioned one at a cost of Rs 200. Unveiled in 1910 by Sir Arthur Lawley, the Governor of Madras, it was later put up on top of the stage and is probably the one that still survives in the Hall.
By this time the SVS was the preferred agency for organising entertainments whenever any important personage visited Madras. Viceroys and Governors witnessed its plays and on one occasion the Viceroy, Lord Minto, refused to believe that the women on stage were actually men in drag. Sir Arthur Lawley however, was not fortunate to be entertained by the SVS. When approached to organise a suitable entertainment for the Governor’s farewell, the SVS chose to snub him by refusing, a decision that was warmly endorsed by V Krishnaswami Iyer despite his being a sitting High Court judge! When Krishnaswami Iyer passed away within a year, the SVS organised a commemorative meeting at the VP Hall and unveiled a portrait of his. It also contributed Rs 1000 towards the statue that was later put up in front of the Senate House.
By then it was said in a lighter vein that if anybody desired to become a High Court judge, he ought to become a member of the SVS. V Krishnaswami Iyer, PR Sundara Iyer, TV Seshagiri Iyer, Sir CV Kumaraswami Sastri, K Srinivasa Iyengar, C Krishnan, Sir M Venkatasubba Rao, Sir Vepa Ramesam, Masilamani Pillai and VV Srinivasa Iyengar were but a few examples. Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar also became judge of the Small Causes Court. Many women also became members of the SVS, though they did not take to acting. Dasara celebrations were particularly colourful at the SVS thanks to the women. The practice of kolu was initiated thanks to a large Ganapati idol that was gifted to the SVS and which began to be worshipped before each performance. For Dasara, members would bring clay idols and these were duly arranged in steps in the large auditorium on the first floor. There were days during Dasara that were exclusively earmarked for children and women. The Ladies Day allowed only for women to attend and they were entertained by select scenes from plays, all enacted by men of course. On one occasion Sir T Sadasiva Iyer demanded to be allowed and an exception was made for him. He was allowed to sit on stage and witness the performance. For many years, it was the practice of Sir CP and Lady Seethammal Ramaswami Iyer to defray the expenses incurred on Ladies Day. Within a few years, Ladies Day had to be celebrated in a special pandal on the grounds belonging to the South Indian Athletic Association.
By 1915, the SVS had begun to outgrow the VP Hall. In that one year alone 363 new members were enrolled and it was commented that if all members of the SVS were to come in to attend a programme at the VP Hall, it would be impossible to accommodate them. One such instance was the staging of a play for the benefit of the warship HMS Madras. The demand for tickets was so high that the play was eventually enacted in a tent in neighbouring People’s Park. It was also the same year when the SVS perhaps pioneered the concept of a December cultural season. By way of commemorating its silver jubilee, the SVS hired the auditorium of the VP Hall for 45 evenings and staged plays on all days. Despite this there were days when sale of tickets had to be stopped early in the morning.
With all this, the SVS realised that it would have to move out of VP Hall. Funds had been systematically set aside since 1900 for the purchase of a suitable plot of land which in Sambanda Mudaliar’s words, “would accommodate an auditorium at least six times the size of VP Hall”. The Government agreed to lease the Napier Park (present May Day Park) for this purpose and on 31st January 1925, the foundation stone was laid for this by TV Seshagiri Iyer. Within three years, the stone was back in VP Hall, Napier Park being found unsuitable for the purpose. Money continued to accumulate, with performances in the mofussil, Colombo and Bangalore being particularly remunerative. Ten years later, Pitty Tyagaraya Buildings on Mount Road, which had belonged to the Justice Party and which was keen on selling following its decline, were negotiated and purchased for Rs 95000. The SVS finally had a new home but it never fulfilled its promise of being a dramatic society. Today it is a thriving social club though office-bearers still sport titles such as Tamil/Telugu Conductor, these being a throwback to the days when those occupying these posts really conducted plays, one of them being S Satyamurti.
The best days of VP Hall were over with the SVS moving out. It became home to the Chennapuri Andhra Sabha and later the South Indian Athletic Association. Several Sabhas, in particular the Indian Fine Arts Society, hired it for its events, but none could bring to it the colour that was lent by the SVS. But its association with the world of theatre was so strong that most officers associations and similar amateur groups still considered it as the first venue for their performances. The Indian Fine Arts Society for instance, conducted its music performances at Gokhale Hall but when it came to plays, it invariably used VP Hall.
The Hall suffered with the continued degradation of People’s Park and its downward slide ended only last year when the Government came to a settlement with the Trust that governed the Hall and took it over for restoration. When the repairs are over it should be put to good use, for it is in only by continued usage that a heritage precinct can survive.
That about sums it up. Saw it yesterday. It was the most goshawful production I have seen in many years. I think we must thank Bal Thackeray for making it a hit.
I have recently been reading Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s Nataka Medai Ninaivugal and despite the fact that the Tamil is rather old worldly and the author repeats himself at many places, the faithful way in which he had documented the theatre history of Madras with respect to his Suguna Vilasa Sabha is amazing. I found several references to the Victoria Public Hall in the book. Rather serendipitously, I was gifted by my friend and theatre personality PC Ramakrishna, a 1921 souvenir of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha. So putting the two together, here is a brief account of the VP Hall, as it appears in the life of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.
As this article is also being serialised in Madras Musings, I will post it in two parts. The first is given below:
The VP Hall and the SVS Sabha
The Victoria Public Hall or the Town Hall is now being restored and several newspaper articles quote the Government as saying that once this is completed, the Hall “will be put to the use for which it was intended”. In its time, the Hall was venue for several important events including the meeting of agitated citizens following the collapse of the Arbuthnot Bank, the first ever demonstration of cinema and several dramatic entertainments. But if there was an organisation that was most closely associated with the Hall, it was the Suguna Vilasa Sabha (SVS), founded in 1891 with its objectives as
- The study and cultivation of the histrionic art
- The raising of the standard of the present Indian stage
- The improvement of Vernacular Dramatic Literature
- The helping of charitable institutions
It hoped to achieve these by “representation of dramas on stage, the formation of a library of dramatic works and affording encouragement for the production of original dramatic works in the vernacular”. When the SVS was conceived, VP Hall was about five years old, having been declared open by Lord Connemara in 1887. And the two organisations were to have a long association for over forty years.
Among the leading lights of the SVS was Rao Bahadur Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, one of the original seven signatories to the founding of the SVS. At the invitation of CR Srinivasan of the Swadesamitran, Mudaliar in 1930 began writing Nataka Medai Ninaivugal (Memories of the Stage), which is partly an autobiography but more importantly a history of the SVS. The series of articles was published in the Swadesamitran till 1936 and provide a year-by-year account of the SVS from inception. And from a reading of it, VP Hall emerges as a live and vibrant venue where plays invariably ran to full houses. In addition it also comes across as a social hub of Madras, resounding to music, speeches, fun and laughter.
The birth of SVS was itself partly due to VP Hall. The original seven, including Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar heartily despised native theatre, considering it to be cheap and vulgar entertainment. They were to change their minds when, as young college students, they witnessed a dramatic performance in the summer of 1891 at the VP Hall by the Bellary Sarasavinodhini Sabha. This was the brainchild of D Krishamacharlu, a lawyer practising at Bellary and an amateur dramatic society comprising his friends. The play that Sambanda Mudaliar watched was the last of a series, all of them in Telugu. Each one was a sell-out and Mudaliar writes that he was thankful that his father had arranged a reserved ticket for him, for otherwise it would have been impossible to gain admission into the Hall. Following this play, Mudaliar and his friends decided to form a similar amateur dramatic society themselves and thus the SVS was born on 1st July 1891. It had Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar as its first President and Poondi Ranganatha Mudaliar as its first Vice-President. Under its auspices Sambanda Mudaliar was to emerge as a playwright, better known today in this capacity than as a lawyer which he was by profession. He wrote 94 plays during his long association with the SVS besides translating several from other languages.
In 1891, following the successful reception of a private staging of Mudaliar’s first play Pushpavalli, the SVS decided to make bold to hire VP Hall for two nights for public performances. At that time, the VP Hall expected the hirers to bring their own stage curtains and props and the SVS did not have the money for such items. Last minute donations by patrons such as Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar and Koonichampet Lakshmanaswami Chettiar ensured that this gap was bridged. So was the money required for renting VP Hall – Rs 50 for each night. When the curtains were made, the SVS ensured that a picture of Senate House was put on the main stage curtain, this to indicate to the audience that the dramatic society comprised university graduates.
In order to publicise the first performance sufficiently, 25000 handbills were printed and a retired sepoy was hired to go on horseback from street to street and distribute them. The man carried a bugle which he blew at each street entrance and when a sufficient crowd had collected, he gave away the handbills. On the day of the first staging, the two gates of VP Hall sported decorative arches and were embellished in the traditional way with plantain stems and flags. A band was hired to perform at the gate from 4 to 9.00 pm when the play would begin. All these publicity measures had their effect and a vast crowd descended on the Hall and stayed for the full duration of the play, which lasted six hours and ended at around 3.30 am. Mudaliar writes that this was the duration of the average play in those days.
VP Hall, according to Mudaliar, was much in demand those days despite being completely unsuitable for the staging of plays! He states that the Hall was built for the public to gather on certain occasions and not for dramatic entertainments. He writes (in 1930) that in his forty years of acting in plays, he feels that the VP Hall is the most inferior among all venues when it comes to acoustics. He also notes that the first dramatic society to ever stage plays in VP Hall, The Madras Dramatic Society, soon packed its bags and moved over to the Museum Theatre. The SVS however, decided to experiment with various measures to improve the acoustics. The members first tried a network of metal wires above the proscenium. Later they attempted to lower the height of the ceiling by stretching a cloth canopy across it. None of these methods really worked and then, as Mudaliar writes, they came to the conclusion that only those with buffalo-like vocal chords could really survive in VP Hall. The SVS, whatever be the vocal capabilities of its members, certainly did and encouraged by the response to the first performance of Pushpavalli, made VP Hall the venue for all its plays.
At the VP Hall, the SVS presented many new ideas and innovations, many of them being attempted for the first time in Madras. One of these was Kalvar Talaivan, which according to Mudaliar was the first tragedy ever to be written in Tamil. The Hall resounded to the sniffs and at times open weeping and wailing from members of the audience. Applause was also received but at the end of the play there was complete silence. The assembled throng had never witnessed a play where everyone on stage died and left with heavy hearts. Another pioneering attempt was the staging of the mythological Rukmangada Charittiram entirely as tableau vivantes, a series of scenes, without any dialogues. This was done as a play within a play – during the staging of Sarangadhara, another great hit from the SVS. An innovation brought into Tamil plays by the SVS, and displayed for the first time at VP Hall, was the practise of having two intermissions during which complicated backdrops were moved and successfully positioned for subsequent scenes. This was directly inspired by the way in which the Parsi Company, then touring Madras and staging its plays at the Esplanade Theatre, managed its backdrops. In 1896, the joys of English theatre were introduced to native audiences by the SVS, when Julius Caesar was staged at VP Hall. From 1897, Telugu plays were also taken up by SVS. In 1902, yet another pioneering entertainment for Indians was offered – fancy dress competitions.
Among the plays that were to be repeatedly staged was Manohara, a creation of Sambanda Mudaliar which premiered at the VP Hall on 14th September, 1895. Though it was to later become a play much in demand and also be made into an enormously successful film, its first staging did not see much of an audience and ticket sales amounted to only Rs 200. The climactic scene in the play is where Manoharan, the hero, breaks free from the chains that bind him to a pillar. Sambanda Mudaliar, during the first staging did it with so much of force that the noise woke up Ellis, the Superintendent of the VP Hall, who was sleeping in his private quarters at one end of the building. He immediately rushed in thinking that a riot was in progress and VP Hall was in danger.
The SVS took its responsibilities to society very seriously and often staged charity performances. The first was for the Indian Famine Relief Fund in 1897 and this was a staging of Mudaliar’s Pittham Piditta Veeran. The staging netted the fund Rs 214-4-8 and among those who sat in the audience to witness it was Sir George Moore, President of the Madras Corporation. In 1902 the SVS had to bail out the VP Hall itself for the building was constructed with what was thought to be a monetary gift from the Maharajah of Vizianagaram which later transpired to be a loan. The SVS staged Virumbiya Vithame, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Presided over by Justice Boddam, the proceeds of Rs 200 were handed over to the VP Hall Redemption Fund. An interesting aside about the play is that as in the original, it is largely in a forest setting. The SVS members therefore desired to see it being performed in a garden. The play was performed once in the grounds of Government House with Lord Wenlock in attendance and much later in 1904, in the gardens of the Ranade Public Library and Mylapore Club. V Krishnaswami Iyer, the noted lawyer, was at first irritated and later curious to know how a hallowed play of Shakespeare’s could be acted out in Tamil. He witnessed the staging at the Ranade Hall and was so impressed that he became the President of the SVS! Another interesting fallout of this play was that the SVS began translating and reworking on several of Shakespeare’s plays to suit an oriental setting. Arising out of this came plays such as Jwalita Ramanan (Romeo and Juliet), Vaanipuratthu Vanikan (The Merchant of Venice), Sarasangi (Cymbeline) and Amaladityan (Hamlet). In 1905, the SVS began the practice of celebrating Shakespeare Day at VP Hall. This gradually expanded into a Shakespeare Week, with the increasing crowds necessitating an outdoor staging of the plays. A stage was put up at the tennis courts at the rear of VP Hall and the plays were enacted there.
The practice of holding night-long plays was soon felt to be an impediment as many members and guests were government servants, professionals and businessmen who needed to report for work early the next day. The SVS pioneered the concept of evening shows when for the first time on 21st October 1906, the play Kaadalar Kangal was staged at the VP Hall within three hours, beginning at 6.00 pm. At that time it was a novelty and several criticised the SVS for its new timings fearing that it would result in the loss of patronage. It however soon became the norm and when cinema came to Madras, it followed the same timings.
To be continued
SVK the noted critic has reviewed my book Four Score & More. A good review and I have been better treated by SVK’s pen than most musicians
Just got an email which says that the intrepid youth who asked SK Chettur to stop smoking was KC Veeraraghavan. An apt name. He became a CBI Officer and was known for his integrity. He was awarded the President’s Police Medal in later years. Also Rajaji did act. He got Chettur transferred and sent SY Krishnaswami, ICS in his place. SYK ensured that the interrupted Aradhana was resumed.