“Avvai” TK Shanmugam (1912-1973) was a legend in theatre. He and his three brothers, Sankaran, Muthuswami and Bhagavati were born to Seethai and TS Kannuswami Pillai, the father being a well known stage actor who specialised in women roles. At an early age, the brothers were apprenticed under Sankaradas Swamigal, the founding father of the concept of Boys Companies in which roles were essayed, as the name suggests, entirely by boys and young men. Having worked in his Madurai Tattuva Minalochani Bala Vidwat Sabha they also trained under Krishnaswami Pavalar (Bala Manohara Sabha) and Kandasami Mudaliar. In later years, they formed their own company, The Devi Bala Shanmukhananda Sabha.
The brothers, all fine actors, though Sankaran involved himself more with administration, were multifaceted and while Shanmugam and Bhagavati were better known for their acting and singing skills, Muthuswami also tried his hand at music direction when all four of them acted in one of the early talkies- Menaka (1935). The quartet was also known for its close associations with reformists such as Periyar, Anna and Jeevanandam. Inspired by this, they also added several reformist plays such as Kumastavin Penn, Kadarin Vetri and Desa Bhakti to their repertoire. The motto of their company, significantly was “Workers of the World, Unite!”
Shanmugam, best known for his portrayal of Avvaiyar, the legendary poetess in Tamil, was also the founder of perhaps the only Tamil tabloid exclusively meant for the theatre fraternity. Beginning as a handwritten paper on 9/12/1934, Arivucchudar had stories, articles, politics, snippets, explanations for the Tirukkural and also letters to the editor. Circulated in Athur, Vriddhachalam and Panrutti, ten issues were brought out before it was stopped when Sankaran complained about it causing tensions among the theatre fraternity. It was revived in 1938 as a publication when Shanmugam, distressed at the high levels of ignorance in his fraternity founded Arivu Abhivrutti Sangam, a club based in Madurai where artistes could read magazines, be taught languages and also listen to speeches by several leaders.
Shanmugam became the head of the Actors Guild in 1950 and his services were utilised by organisations such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and by state level associations as well. Having acted in films, he received the best actor award in 1953. He also received the Padma Sri in 1971.
Though they performed in the city in early years, Shanmugam and his brothers permanently settled in Madras in 1948, where they were first tenants of the Harikatha exponent C Saraswathi Bai in Big Street, Triplicane. Later Shanmugam moved to Gopalapuram. In April 1972, he brought out the first part of his biography, titled Enadu Nadaga Vazhkai (Vanati Padippagam). This ends with the shift to Madras in 1948. He clearly intended to finish the work soon, but death intervened. The book is a must read for anyone interested in the Tamil theatre of the early and mid 20th century. Lloyds Road in Royapettah was renamed Avvai Shanmugam Road in his memory.His house still stands on this stretch, close to the Iswari Lending Library and is named Avvai Agam.
In the 1970s a small but exquisite theatre was built in the LLA Compound on Mount Road and named after Shanmugam. Today it is a storeroom for unwanted furniture. This being his birth centenary year, are we likely to see something happening?