Drama companies operating in the Madras Presidency was dominated as the popular entertainment before the advent of the cinema in South India. It introduces a comparatively new cultural phenomenon in South India. Prior to the emergence of the“company drama” a form of popular theater existed. But it was in a disorganized and impoverished state as the result of a lack of support.
The formation of travelling theater companies began after a few Parsi and Marathitheatre groups had toured the Presidency. These companies borrowed the convention of the proscenium stage, the drop curtain, painted backdrops, and other technical and ornamental accessories that went with the modern stage, from the British theater tradition. Newcomers to the field of theatre in Maharashtrabrought with them elements from the local folk theatre, such as a back-stage singer and comical interludes. These elements, too, were incorporated into the performances by the newly formed Marathi and Parsi theatre troupes. These troupes performed in a style which historians of the stage have referred to as “company drama.
The harmonium, an instrument of European origin, was introduced into South India through the Parsi theatre. It became an important component of the stage music, and the symbol of the “company drama”. In addition to introducing the proscenium stage and the backdrops, the new drama companies demonstrated for the first time that the performance of drama shows could be a sound commercial proposition and could be run as a business. The admission tickets provided this form of entertainment with a reasonably sound commercial base.
T.R. Govindasamy Rao, a clerk in a police station in Thanjavur, founded one of the earliest drama companies in Tamil Nadu. He had watched the Maharashtra Sangili Company stageplays in the Thanjavur palace. This inspired him to form his own troupe modelled on a pattern similar to that of the Marathi troupe. He founded the Original Manamohana Nataka Company and resigned his job when the company’s plays became a commercial success. Rao travelled with his troupe toother towns, such as Tiruchi and Tirunelveli, and started a new theatre movement. After afew years, several artists trained in this company left to form their own companies.
Soon a number of companies was operating in the Madras Presidency, the “vathiyar” the actors, and the musicians lived together and travelled from town to town. A troupe stayed in a place for one month or longer to perform. Watching “company dramas”became a popular pastime for the public. Permanent drama halls were built in many towns .
‘In 1910, Sankara Das Swamigal, a playwright and a“vathiyar”, formed one of the earliest boys companies, the Samarasa Sanmarga Sabha. Boys companies’ or drama troupes composed of young boys were formed. Boys below the age of twelve, whose voices had not yet broken, were recruited by these companies. The printing press facilitated the spread of the “company drama. Songs were brought out in book form. Bills bearing details of a play were printed and distributed.
From 1873to 1900, at least two hundred and eighty-six plays were published. In the 1910s, there waseven a Tamil magazine, “Nadagabimani”, which was exclusively devoted to the subject of drama. The arrival of the gramophone was yet another major factor in the strengthening of the vibrant tradition of popular theatre. Many well-known actors from the drama companies,including Rukmini Bala, S.G. Kittappa, T.M. Kadar Badsha, and S.V. Subbaiya Bhagavathar,recorded songs on discs. The same songs recorded for gramophone were also printed and published as songbooks.
The advent of electricity by the turn of the century provided the growth of the company drama culture. Though most of the companies used only gas lights, some well-run troupes had access to electricity.
Plays staged by the Original Parsi VictorianTheatrical Troupe of Bombay, inspired G.C.V Srinivasachari, a schoolteacher, to found The Madras Oriental Dramatic Company in 1875. This company performed plays translated from the Sanskrit literature. In 1880 Srinivasachari produced Shakuntala in a Tamil translation, in which he himself played a role.
Pammal Sambanda Mudaliyar, a member of the judicial service, formed an amateur dramatic club in Madras, the Suguna Vilasa Sabha, in 1891. C.P. Ramasamy Ayyer, the mayor of Madras and later the Diwan of Travancore, and R.K. Shanmugam Chettiar, who was to become the first finance minister of independent India, were part of this group. The Emmanuel Drama Club founded in Madras was modelled on the Suguna Vilas Sabha(Sambanda Mudaliyar 1932, 23). Involvement in the theatre came to be considered by the elite to be a fit engagement for persons with a Western education.
Drama troupes, such as the Suguna Vilas Sabha, catered to this need. Soon similar companies appeared in smaller towns, too, among them the Sudharsana Sabha of Thanjavur and the Rasiga Ranjani Sabha of Tiruchi. These clubs or sabhas were amateur out fits whose members joined them for the love of theatre, not for making a living.
Incontrast to the commercial companies, the performances by these clubs were much fewer and were restricted to a fewtowns. The plays staged by these elite associations were mostly Tamil versions of the worksof Kalidasa and Shakespeare. The British Government awarded Sambanda Mudaliyar the title Rao Bahadur, a gesture considered a reward for loyalty. At a later point in time, when the company drama became politicized and lent support to the nationalist cause, the sabhas remained apolitical and confined themselves to non-controversial plays. With the appearance of these elite theatregroups, two distinct performance styles evolved.