Pioneer of Tamil theatre
Sankaradas Swamigal was one of the two founding fathers of the Renaissance of Tamil Theatre. A mighty creative soul, he lifted Tamil Drama out of the quicksand it had sunk into in the early years of the 20th century. He was not only a playwright. He was much more — stage actor, play producer and director and the guru of many theatre troupes. Many were his disciples who shone brightly in the stage and screen firmament. Above all he was an innovative trend-setter. He introduced a unique system named “Boys” Companies
It was a theatre troupe in which all roles — male and female, young and old, strong and weak were played by boys — mostly in their pre-teens. As a matter of principle no woman of any age was ever allowed.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Tamil Theatre was very active and the troupes had both men and women. Most of them were drawn from the lower strata of society and they led a licentious sort of life. created their own world of licentious living, and loving. Often artistes came of drunk on stage and indulged in behaviour far from the decent. Sankaradas was among those deeply hurt and shocked. Swamigal came up with a brilliant idea. Why not stage plays with only boys under thirteen acting all roles? Thus was born the “Boys’ Company” under the name, “Bala Meena Ranjani Sangeetha Sabha” and it was an instant hit.
It soon snowballed into a cultural movement which dominated the scene until 1931 when cinema began to talk Tamil. Interestingly most stars and actors of early Tamil Cinema came from one of the many Boys’ companies. Swamigal wrote many plays in Tamil of varying genre, Hindu epics, literary classics from Sanskrit and Tamil, folk tales, folk-myths and also adaptations from Western literature. He revealed amazing versatility and built up quickly a lasting reputation as maestro of theatre. The list of the famed plays he wrote includes, “Valli Thirumanam” (folk myth), “Kovalan” (epic classic) “Manimekalai” (folk myth) “Savitri” (mythology), “Alli Arjuna” (mythology) “Mrichhakati” (adaptation from a famed Sanskrit play, “Mrichhakatikam.” (The Clay Cart). (The Sanskrit play has been translated into European languages and staged in Germany), “Romeo and Juliet” (William Shakespeare), “Cymbeline” (a lesser known play of Shakespeare) “Pavalakodi” (folk myth), and several others.
Besides writing them Swamigal also directed and produced these plays with much success with only boys as actors.
The “Boys’ Company” movement had its dark side too. Starkly stated it was a case of exploitation of child labour.
Sankaradas Swamigal was born in 1867 in the port town of Tuticorin (now Thoothukudi) in south India. His father Damodaran was a Tamil scholar and an authority on the Hindu epic, Ramayanam. His father taught him Tamil and later he learnt under the famed scholar, Palani Dhandapani Pillai. His fellow student was Udumalai Sarabham Muthuswami Kavirayar, another legendary name in Tamil Literature.
Swamigal gave up a monotonous job with the government salt factory to dabble in theatre. He was only twenty-four then. He played the demoniac villain in many plays, his voice, body language and emoting making the right impact.
Soon he began to write plays and many noted stage stars sought him as their playwright. Besides writing he also directed plays and taught actors big and small, how to effectively portray characters on stage. That’s how he came to be known as “Vaathiyar” (the Tamil word for teacher or guru).
With his growing reputation he promoted his own troupe named “Samarasa Sanmarga Nataka Sabha” and trained many boys. In later years many of them became stars. One was a legend even in his lifetime — S. G. Kittappa.
One of the “Boys’ Companies” he promoted was “Thathuva Meenalochani Vithuva Bala Sabha.” One morning four boys, sons of a small fry unemployed stage actor, Kannusami Pillai from Trivandrum joined the troupe. The brothers — Sankaran, Muthusami, Shanmugham, and Bhagavathi would soar as stars with their own troupe known as “TKS Brothers.”
A fast writer, Swamigal could complete a play in days. Swamigal was a man of strong will and high moral and ethical values and norms. Qualities so rare in the world of stage and screen! He never cared for riches and rewards. Swamigal and his troupe toured all over south India and also neighbouring lands like Ceylon. He remained a bachelor, wedded only to his chosen Muse. Thanks to his moralistic attitude and philosophy of life he came to be hailed as “Sankaradas Swamigal.” He passed away in 1922 at Pondicherry. He was only fifty-five. An era in Tamil theatre came to an end. An auditorium in his memory and named after him was built in Thyagaraya Nagar, Madras by the South Indian Artistes’ Association, (Nadigar Sangam). It is today a landmark in the city. It is a matter of deep regret that there is no biography of Sankaradas Swamigal written yet in English and he remains virtually unknown outside his home State.