The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of great growth in Tamil theatre. It can safely be said that the volume of creative output and audience patronage has not been surpassed since. The line-up of personalities associated with theatre at this time is impressive and many have left behind accounts of their experiences, off stage and on it.
To get a flavour of the creative energies in play during this time, we need to just browse through the pages of the voluminous Madhurakavi Bhaskaradasin Natkurippugal – compiled painstakingly by S Murugabhoopathy and published in 2009 by Bharathi Puthakalayam. Bhaskaradas, whose real name was Vellaichami, lived between 1892 and 1952. Much of Tamil theatre depended on him for his musical composing abilities and this later spilled over into the freedom movement and cinema as well. He was a meticulous diarist and kept detailed accounts between 1917 and 1951. Through his entries we see the comings and goings of men acting as women, women acting as men, Carnatic musicians who were crazy about theatre and the crushing demand placed on his abilities to compose. He is writing a new song almost every day and teaching it to someone or the other. Bhaskaradas was also a great traveller and so from his diary we get an idea about the spread of Tamil theatre – from the Telugu-speaking regions to Madurai, which was and continues to remain the heartland for Tamil drama.
To see the struggles and heartbreak that went on behind the scenes in Tamil theatre and especially the Boys Companies, you need to read ‘Avvai’ TK Shanmugam’s Enadu Nataka Vazhkai (1972, Vanathi Pathippagam). Though he and his brothers would later become celebrities in theatre, their initial years were extremely difficult. We read of the itinerant theatre troupes moving between towns and villages, the fickle nature of popularity, unscrupulous managers and temperamental stars. There are also descriptions of how theatre was performed. In most places this was at an empty site outside the town, with hardly any amenities. Illumination was by gaslight; the smaller the village, the less of these in number. In TKS’ view, residents of some of those places must have possessed an uncanny ability to see in the dark, such being the lighting. Amplification was based purely on lungpower. The props and costumes were the wealth of the troupe and anybody who wanted to ruin an aspiring drama company had to just make away with all of it. Illness was rampant and on one occasion, when the boys were particularly lethargic, they were all given a medicine that perked them up in no time. It was much later that TKS came to know what it was – brandy!
It is through this book that we get a close glimpse of Sankaradas Swamigal, the father of the Boys Company concept. He was of the view that a troupe of young males was what was needed to reform Tamil stage, such being its earlier reputation. Swamigal was a prolific composer and could on occasion write an entire play complete with songs and dialogue, all in chaste Tamil, within a day. He was also a puritan, frowning on alcohol, drugs or tobacco, all of which the theatre world was full of in his time. The book also lists several other playwrights and several stars of Tamil theatre, giving intimate pen portraits of some.
The world of TKS and several others of his ilk has much to do with mofussil theatre. If you need to see the staging of plays in Madras, with all its trappings of colonial society, Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar is your best bet. His Suguna Vilasa Sabha, inspired by the professional theatre troupes of Bellary, was founded in 1891, its members being entirely male and all of them University graduates. The plays were all staged at the Victoria Public Hall and in its time, the SVS was where society, including Governors, Judges and others went of an evening, the Sabha focusing more on matinee rather than night shows. The stories were initially inspired by Shakespeare but Sambanda Mudaliar soon blossomed into a playwright himself. Between 1930 and 1936, Sambanda Mudaliar wrote his reminiscences of theatre and these were serialised in the Swadesamitran.
Women had their own troupes. Some of the famous names include Kumbhakonam Balamani, KB Sundarambal, who was running a company when not yet 20, and ‘Golden’ Saradambal. The music of Tamil drama too had its own market, being recorded and sold as gramophone plates. SG Kittappa was perhaps the best known name. Over a period, stars, both men and women, became independent of the troupes and contracted themselves to various companies. From the 1930s, they became the first film stars as well, taking their songs, dialogues, stories, and acting style, onto celluloid.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 23, 2018, for a supplement on World Theatre Day, which falls on March 27.