Compelled to do some fact finding on early Tamil theatre, I stumbled upon a treasury of tidbits. I knew that character actors and matinee idols of Tamil cinema like Sivaji Ganesan, MG Ramachandran started their careers on stage, but I did not know that most actors actually made their debut in stree parts or female roles in the hugely popular Tamil theatre of the early 20th century.
Such female impersonators became so expert that their mannerisms and costumes influenced the real women who watched them! So what’s new, this is like the famous Bal Gandharva of Marathi theatre, you would say. Yes, but I don’t know if there are counterparts in other language theatres to the unique practice of actors fully established in the masculine role ready at need to play a woman’s role at the last minute, if the original “woman” actor fell sick or failed to turn up. How? Well, everybody knew everybody else’s lines back then! These plays were performed by professional actors who formed their own groups, not to be confused with the ill-nourished amateur theatre of today.
Oh no, it was not always male dominated. Women actually played male roles, and with great ease, too, in the all-woman companies so prominent from the 1910s to the 1940s. Director Balamani in the macho raja part with an equally popular Balambal in the stree part was so famous that a Balamani Special train took theatre buffs from Kumbakonam to Tanjavur where her plays were staged! Balamani swaggered like an arrogant playboy in Dambachari, perhaps the first social reformist play in Tamil, which cautioned audiences against succumbing to the temptation of the senses.
Another actress, Tanuvammal, not only acted in male roles but had her own highly successful all-woman drama company. SR Janaki Ammal of the Ponnusami Pillai troupe played the hero with insouciance. She was so good that male actors watched her to learn how to do their roles!
The iconic singer KB Sundarambal played a variety of male characters, as we can see from a photograph of her as a swashbuckling hero in knee length leather boots, brocade coat and dazzling sword! A far cry from the role of Avvaiyar, the wise old woman poet she was to play so convincingly in later years. She commanded astronomical fees to perform in Ceylon, Rangoon and Singapore! Her male partner SG Kittappa was a superstar among singing stars. The duo was devoted to each other in real life, but could not marry as he was already married. After his early death, Sundarambal wore a widow’s garb all her life.
When tickets were sold out, the ticketless simply spread their angavastram and sat down under the starry canopy, to enjoy the dialogues and songs being belted out. The “hearers” often applauded more loudly.
In the 1920s, plays like Desabhakti, Victorious Khadi and Rajendra trounced dowry, caste and gender discrimination. Nandanar dealt with the trials of a Dalit saint. To avoid sedition charges, theatrewalas gave a new twist to old legends. Ravana became the British Viceroy, Hanuman was Jawaharlal Nehru serving Mahatma Rama, to save India-Sita. Mourning the death of Abhimanyu wife Uttara burst into the melodious lament, “We have lost our beloved Motilal Nehru!” Arjuna blamed the hardheartedness of Churchill. Finally the curtain came down to “God save the King!”
With the rise of the Dravida movement, the likes of CN Annadurai and M Karunanidhi created a mesmerizing new theatre of political propaganda, which had a huge impact on cinema. It changed the trajectory of Tamil Nadu politics forever.
By Gowri Ramnarayan,
Publication: 7th March 2016, Mumbai, DNA