D.K. Pattammal

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Tamil theatre: A lost legacy

By V Ramnarayan

Na Muthuswami’s pathbreaking work, with his Koottu-p-pattarai a fertile training ground for Tamil actors, is an oasis in the desert of Chennai’s serious theatre scene. In the mainstream, not even a handful of amateur theatre groups offer more than fluffy comedies. And unlike the vibrant atmosphere in the English theatre world of Chennai, albeit often of dubious quality, its Tamil counterpart does not enjoy much audience support.

Things were much better for the stage industry in the last century. While entertainment (other than films) in the Chennai of the 1950s and sixties consisted mainly of Carnatic music, the city also offered a monthly dose of amateur theatre. If your earliest ideas of classical music were fashioned by the voices and instruments of the stalwarts of the day—Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, Madurai Mani, Maharajapuram, GNB, MS, MLV, Pattammal, Palghat Mani, Lalgudi, Krishnan and many more—Tamil drama offered considerable variety too.

Such dramatisations of the novels and novellas of Devan as Mister Vedantam, Tuppariyum Sambu or Kalyaniyin Kanavan were popular hits. A Tamil version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which the lead roles were played by the towering CG Seshadri, was so frightening that the walk home afterwards could be a nightmare. If I Get It by YGP was a thriller all the way with never a dull moment, at least to an impressionable pre-teen fan. Unforgettable was Koothapiran or NV Natarajan, who is still going strong, with some six decades of experience on radio and stage behind him.

The great dramas of the period were staged by the TKS Brothers, with TK Shanmugham and TK Bhagavathi playing major roles in all their lavish spectacles. Shanmugham was so convincing as Avvaiyar that when the wonderful K B Sundarambal played the sage-poetess on the screen, it was initially disappointing to note the role taken away from TKS.

The eponymous Kappalottiya Tamizhan  and Veerapandia Kattabomman were both runaway successes and both eventually had Sivaji Ganesan essay the star roles in his inimitable style on screen.

Another veteran theatre personality was SV Sahasranamam whose Seva Stage was a highly respected troupe. Nalu Veli Nilam, Policekaran Magal and Nawab Narkali were among their evergreen hits, some of which were filmed successfully. RS Manohar was known for special effects and gigantic sets as much as unconventional perspectives on well known myths and epics. His plays had Manohar in roles such as Ravana in Lankeswaran, Sukracharya and Naganandi.

The stage décor was predictably theatrical in most of these productions, with palaces, streets and temples painted on scene-specific drop-down-roll-up backdrops. Comic relief was mandatory and actors like Sarangapani, Sivathanu and Sambandam drew the most laughs.

The 1960s also brought to the fore such larger than life theatre personalities as United Amateur Artistes’ YGP, whose son Mahendra is still going strong on stage and in films, and K Balachander. In Balachander’s Ragini Recreations flourished such future stars of the screen as Sundarrajan and Nagesh. Sundarrajan’s stirring performance as Major Chandrakanth prefixed the title of the army officer permanently to his screen name and the brilliant comedian Nagesh’s Server Sundaram, adapted for cinema, became an all-time classic.

Viveka Fine Arts’ ‘Cho’ Ramaswamy’s plays, a complete departure from the prevailing genre of ‘social’ drama, lampooned the political classes and their corrupt way of life that was increasingly pervading Indian society.

A later development was the growth of light drawing room comedies of the strictly Madras variety, the handiwork of natural humorists not distinguished by hidden depths or subtlety. ‘Kathadi’ Ramamurthi, SV Shekher, and Crazy Mohan belong to this category.
When Poornam Viswanathan, originally famous for his work on radio and the play, ‘Under Secretary’, moved from Delhi to Madras, he found a superb outlet for his acting ability in the productions of Kala Nilayam, in which along with committed amateur artistes of the calibre of Chandrasekhar (of the musically talented Sikkil family) and others, he was able to take part in such super hits as Savi’s Washingtonil Tirumanam and Marina’s Tanikkudittanam and Oor Vambu. Kala Nilayam is still going strong despite the odds stacked against it.

Viswanathan later formed his own group to stage some excellent works of serious content, mainly plays by Sujatha, such as Kadavul Vandar. Indira Parthasarathi’s Nandan Kathai, Aurangzeband Ramanujar are again serious works, which like Poornam’s earlier efforts, lack support from sponsors and audiences alike, a sad commentary on the prevalent theatre culture of Tamil Nadu. Parthasarathi’s plays have met with far greater stage success in their Hindi translations than in the Tamil originals.

Theatre of the old Nawab Rajamanickam or Boys Club kind is still reputedly alive and kicking all over the state, besides therukoothu and other forms of folk theatre, but urban Tamil Nadu has the reputation of not supporting or enjoying serious Tamil theatre any more.  In fact, a worthy recent attempt to revive Sujatha’s Kadavul Vandar, by Bharati Mani—a character actor who has relocated here from Delhi post-retirement—had to be funded entirely by him. For all the favourable reviews and audience response the play has received, Mani will still not find it easy to obtain sponsorship for further productions of serious plays.

The lure of cinema and television is blamed for the lack of an informed, interested audience for plays other than the joke-a-second or slapstick variety. The huge crowds that Magic Lantern’s Ponniyin Selvan drew a few years ago at the YMCA Open Air theatre, however, suggested that the blame for the situation did not lie with the audiences alone.

The last few years have seen a surge in the number of theatre festivals (more about these will follow soon) in Chennai, usually staged at venues like the Dakshnamoorthy Hall of Mylapore and Narada Gana Sabha. Some of the plays, including a few by troupes from Delhi and Mumbai, even the USA, have attempted serious themes, or relatively sophisticated comedy, in a departure from the Mylapore formula of yore, but the productions often suffer from lack of infrastructure as well as training. The sets are a throwback to the era of Manohar and TKS Brothers, or even worse, imitations of TV plays with their strange furniture and stranger interiors. The actors often stand in front of microphones and declaim their lines to the audience, and the acting belongs strictly to realm of melodramatic excess. Yet no one seems to mind. It is time both our theatrepersons and our theatregoers were exposed to quality fare from other parts of India.


  1. Would be nice to have an article on the live (of) theatre outside the city... why is it that Chennai does not really support Tamil folk arts (other than of the cinema variety) or serious Tamil theatre such as that produced by Na. Muthuswamy and others.

    Kattaikkuttu Sangam
    Punjarsantankal Village

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