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 here
You may also want to read – Handwritten mss of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s play