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Vol. XXIX No. 11, September 16-30, 2019

Behind the Scenes at Tamil Nadu’s First Drama Conference

by Karthik Bhatt

‘Avvai’ T.K. Shanmugam was one of Tamil theatre’s biggest benefactors. Born in 1912, his initiation into stage started at the age of four, when he and his brothers came under the tutelage of the legendary Sankaradas Swamigal. The siblings would go on to rule the stage over the course of the next four to five decades with their own troupes, the Sri Balashanmukhananda Sabha and later the T.K.S. Nataka Sabha. Shanmugam’s passion for stage went beyond performing and he was involved in several activities aimed at the development of Tamil theatre and its actors. These included running a magazine known as Arivucchudar exclusively for theatre artistes and the founding of the Arivu Abhivrutthi Sangam, a club based in Madurai where actors could gather to learn languages, read magazines and listen to great leaders. One of his biggest initiatives was the organising of the first ever Tamil theatre conference in 1944.

In his memoirs Enathu Nataka Vaazhkkai, T.K. Shanmugam says that the idea for a conference to discuss the problems plaguing Tamil theatre and ways to address them stemmed in 1941 during a discussion with his friend and freedom-fighter Madurai M. Karuppaiah. Though the idea was good in spirit, T.K. Shanmugam writes that finding the time and energy to implement the same amidst his busy theatre commitments was impossible and thus it was shelved. It was revived soon after, when T.N. Sivathanu, the famous ‘Buffoon’ Part actor from his troupe, volunteered to take up the task along with M. Karuppaiah. The two were appointed Secretaries of the Conference, which was scheduled to be held on February 11, 1944 in Erode.

An Organising Committee comprising several dignitaries from Erode was constituted within a short span of time, including Muslim League Assembly member and former Municipal Chairman Khan Sahib Sheik Dawood, famous yarn merchant V.V.C.R. Murugesa Mudaliar, and N.C. Rajagopal, auditor and founder of N.C. Rajagopal and Co. (a CA firm established in 1925 and headquartered in Chennai). R.K. Venkataswamy Naicker, the Municipal Chairman of Erode was appointed its chief. The venue chosen was the famous Central Theatre in Erode.

It was decided that the Conference would feature lectures on various aspects of Tamil theatre, spread over morning and evening sessions. Speakers were identified and their participation confirmed. These included the likes of Nawab T.S. Rajamanickam (on the purpose of theatre), P.S. Sivabagyam (on women in theatre), ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan (on the relationship between theatre and cinema), K.A.P. Viswanatham and A.K. Ramalingam (representing the Ceylon Nataka Sabha) as well as the man whose oratory and writing prowess would play an important role in shaping the political discourse of Tamil Nadu, C.N. Annadurai. The flag for the conference was to be hoisted by the legendary Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, with M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar presiding over the Opening Ceremony. R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, who would go on to become Independent India’s first Finance Minister, was slated to deliver the opening address. It was also decided that T.K. Shanmugam’s play Avvaiyar would be staged after the conference and that entry to the entire event would be regulated through ticket sales. As a mark of honouring the two most prominent vaadhyaars of Tamil theatre, the portraits of Sankaradas Swamigal and M. Kandaswamy Mudaliar were also to be unveiled on the occasion.

Various drama companies confirmed participation in the event and preparations began in right earnest, when the first signs of trouble appeared. An organisation called the Muthamizh Nugarvor Sangam came into existence as soon as advertisements were released about the conference. It had the backing of the town’s most famous son and the State’s most influential political leader, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, whose magazines Viduthalai and Kudiarasu supported the new organisation with prominent coverage. Periyar, whose distaste for the arts ran deep (he considered cinema, plays, devotional concerts and music records to be far worse than “toddy shops, harlot, prostitute and courtesan homes and the loots of Marwaris and Chettys”) wrote several editorials in Kudiarasu criticising the conference and casting aspersions on its intentions – he insinuated that this was being organised by T.K. Shanmugam for promoting his own drama troupe and called for black flag demonstrations to greet R.K. Shanmukham Chetty when he arrived to deliver his address.

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T.K. Shanmugam was taken aback by the turn of events. He had met Periyar for the first time in the early 1930s and had shared a cordial relationship with him. Periyar had watched the troupe’s reformist plays and had in fact even hosted a lunch in its honour. With a week to go for the conference, Periyar left for Salem. Unable to meet him and explain the intentions behind the event, a worried T.K. Shanmugam met Annadurai, who assured him of smooth conduct of the proceedings. The duo shared a great friendship which was strengthened by their shared passion for theatre. Quite coincidentally, in 1943, the inaugural show of Chandrodayam, Annadurai’s first work as a playwright, was at the same venue where T.K. Shanmugam had performed Sampoorna Ramayanam a day earlier. In a remarkable gesture, T.K. Shanmugam and his troupe members had involved themselves in makeup and other preparations for Chandrodadayam.

The Organising Committee met the evening prior to the conference to debate on the various resolutions to be passed during the event. T.K. Shanmugam writes that hundreds of resolutions were proposed. Keeping in tune with its ideology, the Muthamizh Nugarvor Sangam had proposed some harsh ones against mythological plays. It was decided after detailed debate that no resolutions would be passed at the conference, given the prevailing situation and that they would be taken up in the next conference after detailed discussion. Lost in this melee were the resolutions proposed by T.K. Shanmugam and his brothers in the genuine interests of Tamil theatre. These included the formation of a separate body for the promotion of Tamil theatre which would take steps such as developing new writers, instituting awards for the best plays and artistes, organising theatre conferences and working with various municipalities to create dedicated performance spaces across the State.

The day of the conference dawned amidst great anticipation. Keeping in mind the volatile situation, the welcome rally proposed to be held for R.K. Shanmukham Chetty was called off. The proposed black-flag demonstration too was called off by the perpetrators and it would later transpire that a word from Annadurai was instrumental for it. There were however reports of a few members of the Muthamizh Nugarvor Sangam having bought tickets and gaining entry with an intention to disrupt the proceedings during the election of R.K. Shanmukham Chetty as the President of the Conference. On coming to know of this, he insisted that this be dispensed with, as a mere formality. This threw a spanner in the works of the group, who had sought to use it as a tool to gain attention. When the Conference began and this item on the agenda was not brought up, a handful of them who had assembled, protested against this contravention of convention, only to be shouted down by the large gathering of theatre audience. The efforts to disrupt the Conference thus turned out to be a damp squib.

The evening session which hosted the lectures was well received by the audience. In his talk titled Kalaiyin Nilamai, Annadurai made several suggestions for the development of Tamil theatre. He spoke of the need for dedicated theatre auditoriums in all municipalities (following the example of Trichy) and stressed on the importance of keeping artistes well remunerated, suggesting the constitution of a limited company in this regard where the shareholders would receive a share of the profits. He also advocated the use of Tamil stage as an effective means of bringing about social reform.

The performance of Avvaiyar that followed the conference was a momentous one. T.K. Shanmugam was conferred the honorific Avvai by R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, the title that would serve as his primary identity thereafter.

The following week saw two contrasting editorials in the magazines run by the master and his chela. While Kudiarasu termed the Conference a total failure, Dravida Nadu spoke of it as a resounding success. For the record, the Conference yielded a net surplus of Rs. 607 against total receipts of Rs. 2,973 and its proceedings were later brought out in the form of a book.

Annadurai’s friendship with T.K. Shanmugam came to the fore once more a couple of months later, when he was instrumental in foiling attempts by Periyar’s followers to hold demonstrations against T.K. Shanmugam’s Sampoorna Ramayanam before the troupe left Erode.

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