Silappathikaram, one of the five great epics in Tamil, was probably one of the first books that became famous for the rules of staging a play. Before Silappathikaram, there were books such as Agathiyam and Kootha Nool among others with rules for songs, music, acting and dialogues. From these works, we can gather that the Tamil theatre tradition has more than 1,500 years of rich history.
In the olden days, Therukkoothu, a traditional folk art in most of the villages, entertained people by enacting stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. These performances took place especially on days of festivals or special occasions.
Then, in the final years of the 19th century, there came drama companies that transformed the folk art into an organised drama troupe. It was in the year 1891 that Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar, the everlasting drama doyen, started Suguna Vilasa Sabha at the then George Town. He is considered as the father of Tamil drama tradition. Until then, only people from the socially backward classes enacted the plays.
Sambandha Mudaliar was the first person who brought upper class doctors, lawyers and other professionals to the stage. Suguna Vilasa Sabha could be called as the first amateur drama artist group.
In 1910, drama personality Sankaradas Swamigal came up with ‘Boys Company’ and staged wonderful plays such as Valli Thirumanam and Kovalan among others. Valli Thirumanam had K B Sundarambal and S G Kittappa in the lead, who later got married. K B Sundarambal would go on to enter the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council in 1951 as the first lady MLC and the first actor.
The ‘Boys Company’ nurtured many young boys, some of whom later turned into legends including the TKS Brothers and S G Kittappa. The TKS Brothers later started their own troupe and staged popular plays like Kumaasthavin Penn, Kalvanin Kadhali and Auvvaiyaar among others. This was the drama troupe that fostered many future tinsel town stars including NSK, AP Nagarajan, S V Sahasranamam, S S Rajendran and Kamal Hassan. When SVS later started his own drama venture, which staged Paithiyakaran with NSK playing the lead and MGR in a supporting role, who then searching for opportunities.
The drama company culture
It was in the early 40s and 50s when the sabha culture emerged, with ‘paid membership’ and ‘ready audience’. “In those days, around 150 drama troupes and 125 sabhas were there in the city,” reminisces S Ve Shekar, a renowned theatre artiste.
Those troupes staged the writings of the then great litterateurs like Devan and Kalki, titled Thuppariyum Sambu and Kalvanin Kadhali respectively and were well received by the audience. Since then, many troupes have had their emergence in the pre-independence era and most of them staged plays that had the Freedom Struggle as its theme.
Then came the Dravidian troupes where C N Annadurai proved his mettle through his plays like Velaikkaari and Oor Iravu. It was in Annadurai’s famous play Shivaji Kanda Indu Rajyam that Chinnaiah Pillai Ganesan played the lead and went on to earn the name ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan from Thanthai Periyar. As his contemporary,
M R Radha gained popularity with his play Ratha Kanneer. These plays focused on the themes of social injustice and poverty.
By the end of the 1950s, the ‘drama company’ culture came to an end with yesteryear villain R S Manohar’s National Theatre being the last representative. His famous play Lankeshwaran is still remembered by his fans.
New face of Tamil theatre
Little later, with the arrival of playwrights like K Balachander, Cho and Komal Swaminathan, the Tamil theatre got its new face. Most of KB’s stage plays like Server Sundaram were adapted into film and were well-received in the box office. While KB wrote social dramas centred around human relationships, Cho went on to write political satires like Muhammad Bin Thugluq and Komal Swaminathan, dramas with Leftist thoughts such as Thanneer... Thanneer, which was later made into a film by KB.
Staunch modern theatre artistes like Gnani, Pralayan, Mu Ramasay and A Mangai heralded the arrival of theatres to the streets. It was a major evolution, because, until then, theatre went to the places of people. But it was only after the arrival of Doordarshan, did theatre get recognition and prominence. People who grew up in the 90s would remember the rip-roaring comedies of ‘Crazy’ Mohan and S Ve Shekhar, still ruling the hearts of traditional drama goers.
Tamil theatre enthusiasts have reasons to celebrate still. Presently, in the era of Koothuppattarai, many theatre artistes are now emerging with post-modernist thoughts. Modern-day artistes like Shanmugarajan, Murugaboopathy, Velu Saravanan, Karuna Prasad and Sreejith Sundaram among many others perform plays with their own concepts and adaptations from modern literatures. They redefine and deconstruct ‘attributes’ in today’s world. With the recent revoking of censorship by the Madras High Court, Tamil theatre will burn brighter than ever.