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periyar anna karunanidhi and mgrThe history of Dravidian intervention in the field of theatre is primarily the history of rebellious voices raised by the movement to create a space for plays which carried messages of social reform on Tamil soil. It also aimed at challenging the predominance of orthodox religious mythological dramas which ruled theatre in Tamil Nadu at the time.

The Dravidian movement recognized that it was crucial for its beliefs to become a part of people’s culture. As one of its organizational tasks, it aimed at translating the practices of speaking, writing, music and drama into a people’s movement. We know about what it did to the fields of writing and oratory. As far as painting and sculpture were concerned, Periyar wrote, "If you critique the temple culture, point out the vulgar portrayal of some of the sculptures in it and ask the people if they would still spend so much money and time on this barbarity, they will say, 'It is necessary' (Kudiarasu magazine, 26.4.1931). He further elaborated that this sentiment was justified by the people by claiming that “the tradition of Indian painting will perish if temple art perished" and that "they do not preserve temples for religious purposes but for knowledge of painting". (Writing and Speaking of Periyar, Volume-12, Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, 2008; p: 257).

Periyar interpreted and confronted the fields of art, literature and culture from the perspective of their inherent Brahminical values and critiqued it for its lack of conformity to modern reason. To him, aesthetics rooted in modern reason and its usefulness in the modern world was what had true value.

As far as music is concerned, Periyar wrote a note in Kudiarasu on 19.02.1928, titled ‘Music and Brahmins’. It read: “However badly they are treated by Brahmin musicians, with a complete disregard of their self-respect, non-Brahmin musicians continue to address the Brahmin musicians as “Swami” (lords), tailing them with bent backs and unquestioning voices. We have repeatedly said and written that there should be a ‘Non-Brahmin Music Society’ in every town. Accordingly, we have formed such a sabha in Coimbatore for the first time. Will this inspire similar sabhas elsewhere?” he hopes and wonders. Periyar was consistently vocal in favour of creating an association of non-Brahmin musicians. (Periyar Kalanchiyam - Kudi Arasu Volume 6 - 19.02.1928, Periyar Self-Respect Campaign Publication, March 30, 2010, p.77)

Following this, in his Kudiarasu magazine dated April 20, 1930, Periyar shared a list of non-Brahmin musicians and their addresses: vocalists - 36, flutists - 10, Mruthangam-36, Kanjira-10, Jalatharangam-4, Jatai-15, Kadam-1, Dolak-1, Nagaswaram -16, Konnakkal-1 and Veena-3 (pp. 9, 12). It is even more paramount to note Periyar’s reason for establishing such a group. “Our aim in the convening of the musical group is not to say that their art of singing or playing is superior or that it is of utmost importance to our society at present. It is our belief that this is one of the many emotional manifestations of people in the world, and that it has no individual significance. I Would like to ascertain categorically that 'our intention to participate in this conference is not to eulogise the supremacy of that art'. We want non-Brahmin musicians to regain their self-respect, and hence we organize this event along with Self-Respect Conference and I desired to attend it ...The poison of caste discrimination between Brahmins and non-Brahmins has infiltrated the art and is an infringement on the self-respect of the latter. Our only way of overthrowing this tyranny is through this”.

During the Second Self-Respect Conference of the Madras Presidency held on 12th May 1930 in Erode, the ‘First Tamil Sangeetha Mahanadu (Musical conference) of the Presidency was held at 2 pm in front of 4000 people’. The musicians included several prominent artists - Mr.Kanachi Naina Pillai, Chidambaram Mr.K. Ponnaya Pillai, Keevalur Mr.Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Chidambaram Mr.Selvarethinam Pillai, Thiruveezhimizhalai Mr.Swaminatha Pillai, Salem Mr.Rangadas, Kumbakonam Mr.Vadivel Pillai, Salem Mr. Palanichamy Chettiar, Chennai Mr. Subramania Pillai, Trichy Mr.Natasa Pillai, Salem Mr. Kaliyappa Pillai, Chennai Nathamuni Pandit, Thiruthuraipoondi Mr.Krishnamurthy, Thiruvallikkeni Mr. Velu Naicker, Palani Mr.Subramania Pillai, Thirukokarnam Mrs. Renganayaki Subbulakshmi. The conference was chaired by Chidambaram A.K. Ponnaya Pillai.

Inaugurating it, Periyar said, "I urge our people in the arts not to lose their self-respect for any reason so that we can establish our movement in the field of music as well." (Kudiarasu, 25.05.1930, p. 8) The ‘our people’ he refers to here is Non-Brahmins. Following this, the 'Kudiarasu’, magazine dated 10.08.1930, advertised the Nagaswara concert held at 'Erode Sangeetha Mahanad’. Following this, an article titled “South Indian Music and Non-Brahmin Musicians” was written by Kudanthai TR Varathan. This was an attempt by the Dravidian movement to make music a symbol of its principles and a part of the identity of its people! But at the time it did not seem that any similar efforts were being taken in the field of theatre.

In Kudiarasu on 16th February 1930 (pp. 9-10), the first proclamation of the Second Self-Respect Conference in the Presidency was published. The piece said “People in Chengalpattu have agreed it is necessary that the Conference be held in March or April this year. The previous Conference cost around Rs. 10,000, which is steep for only two days- many would have been disappointed. That is why it is being considered to hold a week-long conference in Erode. Some are hoping that this way, those who wish to hold other conferences, separate lectures, exhibitions and plays on a daily basis can be accommodated”. However, there is no record of plays being performed as a part of this conference, though other conferences related to the movement, such as the Women's Conference, the Anti-liquor Conference, the Music Conference, and the Youth Conference, were held as a part of the larger Conference of Self-Respecters (Kudiarsu, 03.5.1931, p. 21). Periyar's emphasis on the Music conference and non-Brahmin musical tradition is synonymous with the politics of temple sanctuary entry and against Brahminical caste-fanaticism.

But the sphere of the theatre was different. Theatrical companies were largely in the hands of non-Brahmins that brought together people from many communities. Periyar wanted to rescue the content of these plays from dominant and regressive values of Brahminical orthodoxy. Hence, he proposed a social reform against the values propagated through mythological plays through and for progressive theatre in Tamil soil.

From the late thirties onwards, many of the first-line leaders who spoke in favour of the Dravidian nation, used theatre as a tool for their ideas- a conceptual weapon. 'Dravida Nadigar Kazhagam', ‘Dravida Marumularchi Naadaga Sabai’, ‘Kanchi Dravida Ananda Naadaga Sabai’, ‘Seerthirutha Naadaga Sangam’, ‘Suyamariyathai Naadaga Sabha’, ‘Muthamizh Naadaga Sangam’, ‘Tamizh Naadaga Nilayam’ were all some of the groups that were formed as part of the movement. In addition, the Dravidian Research Institute, the Dravidian Gymnasium, and the Dravidian Oratory Institute were constituted as well. At the Dravidian Movement party conventions, plays inevitably occupied a very important place. As artists, playwrights were respected during their own lifetime. Their plays were staged in different parts of the state by the movement in order to propagate the core principles and ideas of Dravidianism.

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Although the Dravidian movement was condemned by the elites as ‘a bunch of sweet talkers who survived by playacting’, the Dravidian movement continued to work to transform multiple forms of communication, such as speech, writing, journalism, graffiti, poster, music, drama and film. By bringing these forms closer to plebeian culture, they won over the people’s hearts. It is an undeniable fact in the history that the Dravidian movement was rightly aware of this potential and used it to its advantage.

The Nationalist movement used theatre as a way to infuse patriotism among people. Heavily relying on religion and Hindu mythology, songs with nationalist fervour were sung in between such mythological plays. The most important book on theatre in the 1930s when the national movement was on the rise in Tamil Nadu, was the ‘Tamil Nadaga Medai Seerthurutham’ published in April 1933. It was written by Mr. SK. Parthasarathy Iyengar, and was published in Mannargudi by ‘Tamizh Naadaga Medai Seerthirutha Sangam’. According to this, it clearly seems as though Tamil theatre was in dire need of reform. But the reforms in the book were about reforming the rules and grammar of conducting plays, and not about incorporating social reform content like the Self Respect movement was promoting. Since he also worked as a magistrate like Pammal Sampanthan (a doyen of modern Tamil theatre), it is likely that this played a role in Iyengar’s lack of emphasis on reforming content.

The historical play ‘Sri Sankaracharya’ written by him in 1929 was also not a play regarding the national question- it emphasized the path of devotion as a means of connecting to God. In this context, it is necessary to look at the history of ‘Dravidian movement plays’ or ‘social reform plays’ in contrast to those plays that were based on religion and Hindu mythology. The biggest record for this is the ‘Kudiarasu’ magazine, which were established in 1924 and came out on 02.05.1925! This essay is an effort to recover the history of theatre in the Dravidian movement by a reading of this magazine.

The theatrical performance of ‘Chandra-Kamala’ or the ‘Victory of the Self-Respect Movement’ is the earliest record of a Dravidian play mentioned in Kudiarasu magazine:

Kudiarasu magazine, dated 22.12.1929, published an advertisement: “Sub-Editor of the Kudiarasu and Dravidan magazines, Thiruseerapuram’s A. Natarajan’s social reform play will be performed by the Trichy Murugananda congregation on Saturday 28.12.1929 at 9.30 pm at the ‘Narthana Gana Sala’ tent on Melamasi Road in Madurai. Ramanathapuram District Board Chairman Soundra Pandian would be sponsoring the event”. Of course, the play may have been staged in 1928-29 or earlier. ‘Kudiarasu’ magazine with records of events before the mentioned years may have escaped my view. As far as we know, the play ‘Chandra-Kamala was recorded to have taken place on 28.12.1929. We know from the Kudiarasut texts available to us, this is the first theatrical performance recorded which was explicitly based on principles of the Dravidian movement. However, for reasons unknown, no advertisements or announcements about this play in the magazine after this, even in the conferences held in the years of 1930-31. However, similar to the ‘Victory of Kadhi’ (Kadharin Vetri) of the national movement, this was the ‘victory of self-respect’ (Suyamariyathaiyin Vetri)! This is where the first seed for the Dravidian-inspired intervention in reforming Tamil theatre fell.

An advertisement for a published written play titled ‘Pankajam or The Cruelty of Brahmins’ written by IyengarKulam Lakshmananar and available at Kudiarasu Bookstore in Erode was published in the Kudiarasu magazine on 21.09.1930. JS.Kannappar, a Dravidian journalist, wrote the preface to it: “It describes the injustices and atrocities perpetrated on the non-brahmins through the evils of priesthood, rituals, charity, through Brahmins holding official authoritative positions, and tries to teach some socially valuable lessons. The play has 12 acts, and uses linguistic variations accurately”. It was said to have a great sense of humour, and it critiques the beliefs of Hindu mythology and religion. But, there is no detail anywhere as to whether it was performed.

Similarly, in the issue of 'Kudiarasu' magazine dated 21.09.1930, on p.17, a play which advocated for the abolition of untouchability told the story of a Brahmin woman who fell in love with a Dalit youth and ran away with him, despite the danger of being caught. This play was also notable. The details of the play “Vaseegara Manohari or Who are Untouchables?” by M. Thuraikannan, I. Sundaramoorthy, Y.M.Paramanandam were not mentioned in the early thirties. The only details regarding it were in the form of a review. However, on 31.10.1937, on p.13, the anticipatory staging of the play had been advertised. In 1937 in the Kudiarasu magazine the performance of the play ‘Who are Untouchables?’, to be inaugurated by Periyar, was advertised by J.M Sami and L.M Rajan, secretaries of the Kolar Goldfield Social Reform Drama Society that was staging the play. It was to be staged opposite the Ambur Railway station at Star Theatre. It is possible that the written version of the play ‘Vaseesgara Manohari or Who are Untouchables?’ had been dubbed ‘Who are Untouchables?’ when it came to the stage.

By way of confirming this, we can point to a review published on 12.12.1937 the Kudiarasu magazine titled ‘Who are Untouchables? - A critique ':

“The play was performed at the North Arcot District Self-Respect Conference held in Ambur on 22.11.1937, by the Kolar Goldfields Social Reforms Association under the leadership of Comrade E.V. Ramasamy. The male and female actors involved in the Self Respect movement performed this social-reform play very well. The play infuses important ideas such as the cruel attitude of the priestly class, the tendencies of pseudo-reformist nationalists and the dignity of true self-respect. The lovers first face various hardships due to caste oppression, but live with faith in reform. In the end, their faith is rewarded. They did not give up their determination despite the difficulties they faced. The play concluded when their self-respect marriage takes place. The male protagonist in this love story is from a scheduled caste while the female protagonist was a Brahmin! The songs sung intermittently in the play illustrated the principles of the movement. The actors acted naturally and gracefully. Comrade Sivamani, who played the heroine, acted realistically and had a sweet voice. Seeing the interest of the actors in the art of drama, it seems that this society of drama will progress and work to serve the worlds of art and social reform. We would like to express our happiness and heartfelt gratitude to them."

We can surmise that this write up was based on the views expressed by Periyar in his speech. Judging by this review as well as the earlier review of the written play carried in the Kudiarasu magazine on 21.11.37, one can safely conclude that the play was indeed performed.

“Similarly, on Friday 11.03.1938 at 9.30 pm, a play was conducted by Pasumaathoor Adi Dravida Association under the president P.A Lingamuthu. The play titled “The Brahmin and the Shudra” written by Rao Bahadur P Sambandha Mudhaliyar, (B.A, B.L), was written in literary Tamil was staged in theatrical Tamil by the association’s secretary P.V. Ponnusami and was critically acclaimed. The play was witnessed by a large number of men and women.” This was a report carried by the Kudiarasu magazine on 3.4.38, pg.13 under the title, ‘The Brahmin and the Shudra or Inter-Caste marriage’. This was a record of someone’s attempt to convert Pammal Sampanthanar’s writing in literary Tamil into theatrical Tamil! No other follow up writings on repeated performances were found.

After the 'Chandra-Kamala or Victory of Self-Respect' by A. Natarajan, a performance of which was recorded in Madurai on 22.12.1929 (it is not known when the debut took place), on 09.09.1934 at 5.30 pm at the Victoria Public Hall in Chennai, the play 'Iraniyan' (unparalleled warrior), composed by Puthuvai Bharathidasan, was staged which became the most celebrated play to highlight the Aryan-Dravidian ethnic divide by overturning old religious myths and putting forward ideas of the Dravidian movement. It was staged by the Social Reform Drama association and was inaugurated by Periyar. The play which was meant to promote Dravidian ethnicity on Tamil soil and spread the beliefs of the Dravidian movement, charged an entry fee at Rs.10, 2, 1, 50 paise and 25 paise in 1934. A strong believer in the dictum ‘Today’s news is tomorrow’s history’, the Dravidian movement, had recorded in its various magazines the ideas expressed by Comrade E.V.R. in the keynote address that he delivered at the beginning of the play.

(To be continued)

Written by V. Ramasamy

Translated by Pulari


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