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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XIX No. 20, february 1-15, 2010
The Sabha that made
V.P. Hall its home
(By Sriram V)

The Victoria Public Hall, once better known as the Town Hall, is now being restored and several newspaper articles quote the Government as saying that once this is completed, the Hall “will be put to the use for which it was intended.” In its time, the Hall was venue for several important events, including the meeting of agitated citizens following the collapse of the Arbuthnot Bank, the first ever demonstration of cinema and several dramatic entertainments. But if there was one organisation that was most closely associated with the Hall, it was the Suguna Vilasa Sabha (SVS), founded
in 1891 with its objectives, namely:

Victoria Public Hall, Madras – the home of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha.

The study and cultivation of the histrionic art

The raising of the standard of the present Indian stage

The improvement of Vernacular Dramatic Literature

The helping of charitable institutions.

It hoped to achieve them by “representation of dramas on stage, the formation of a library of dramatic works, and affording encouragement for the production of original dramatic works in the vernacular.” When the SVS was conceived, VP Hall was about five years old, having been declared open by Lord Connemara in 1887. The two organisations were to have an association for over forty years.

Among the leading lights of the SVS was Rao Bahadur Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, one of the original seven signatories to the founding of the SVS. At the invitation of C.R. Srinivasan of the Swadesamitran, Mudaliar in 1930 began writing Nataka Medai Ninaivugal (Memories of the Stage), which was partly an autobiography but more importantly a history of the SVS. The series of articles was published in the Swadesamitran till 1936 and provided a year-by-year account of the SVS from inception. And from a reading of it, VP Hall emerges as a live and vibrant venue where plays invariably ran to full houses. In addition, it also comes across as a social hub of Madras, resounding to music, speeches, fun and laughter.

The birth of SVS was itself partly due to VP Hall. The original founders, including Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, heartily despised ‘native’ theatre, considering it to be cheap and vulgar entertainment. They were to change their minds when, as young college students, they witnessed a drama performance in the summer of 1891 at the VP Hall by the Bellary Sarasavinodhini Sabha. This was the brainchild of D. Krishamacharlu, a lawyer practising in Bellary, who formed an amateur dramatic society comprising his friends. The play that Sambanda Mudaliar watched was the last of a series, all of them in Telugu. Each one was a sell-out and Mudaliar wrote that he was thankful that his father had arranged a reserved ticket for him, for, otherwise it would have been impossible to gain admission into the Hall. It was shortly after seeing the play that Mudaliar and his friends decided to form a similar amateur dramatic society themselves. Thus the SVS was born on July 1, 1891. It had Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar as its first President and Poondi Ranganatha Mudaliar as its first Vice-President. Under its auspices, Sambanda Mudaliar was to emerge as a playwright, better known even today in this capacity than as a lawyer which he was by profession. He wrote 94 plays during his long association with the SVS, besides translating several from other languages.

In 1891, following the successful response to a private staging of Mudaliar’s first play, Pushpavalli, the SVS decided to make bold to hire VP Hall for two nights for public performances. At that time, the VP Hall expected the hirers to bring their own stage curtains and props as the SVS did not have the money for such items. Last minute donations by patrons such as Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar and Koonichampet Lakshmanaswami Chettiar ensured that the gap was bridged. So was the money required for renting VP Hall – Rs.50 for each night. When the curtains were made, the SVS ensured that a picture of Senate House was put on the main stage curtain – to indicate to the audience that the dramatic society comprised university graduates!

In order to publicise the first performance sufficiently, 25,000 handbills were printed and a retired sepoy was hired to go on horseback, street to street, and distribute them. The man carried a bugle which he blew at each street entrance and when a sufficient crowd had collected, he gave away the handbills. On the opening night, the two gates of VP Hall sported decorative arches and were embellished in the traditional way with plantain trees and flags. A band was hired to perform at the gate from 4 to 9 p.m. when the play would begin. All these publicity measures had their effect and a large crowd descended on the Hall and stayed for the full duration of the play, which lasted six hours and ended at around 3.30 a.m. Mudaliar wrote that this was the duration of the average play in those days.

VP Hall, according to Mudaliar, was much in demand those days, despite being completely unsuitable for the staging of plays! He stated that the Hall was built for the public to gather on certain occasions and not for dramatic entertainments. He wrote (in 1930) that in his forty years of acting in plays, he felt that the VP Hall was the most inferior among all venues when it came to acoustics. He also noted that the first dramatic society to ever stage plays in VP Hall, the Madras Dramatic Society, soon packed its bags and moved over to the Museum Theatre. The SVS, however, decided to experiment with various measures to improve the acoustics. The members first tried a net-work of metal wires above the proscenium. Later, they attempted to lower the height of the ceiling by stretching a cloth canopy across it. None of these methods really worked and then, as Mudaliar writes, they came to the conclusion that only those with buffalo-like vocal chords could really survive in VP Hall. The SVS, whatever be the vocal capabilities of its members, certainly did and, encouraged by the response to the first performance of Pushpavalli, made VP Hall the venue for all its plays.

At the VP Hall, the SVS presented many new ideas and innovations, many of them having been attempted at for the first time in Madras. One of these was Kalvar Talaivan, which, according to Mudaliar, was the first tragedy ever to be written in Tamil. The Hall resounded to the sniffs and, at times, open weeping and wailing from members of the audience. Applause was also received but at the end of the play there was complete silence. The assembled throng had never witnessed a play where everyone on stage died, leaving them with heavy hearts as they filed out.

Another pioneering attempt was the staging of the mythological play Rukmangada Charittiram entirely as tableau vivantes, a series of scenes, without any dialogues. This was done as a play within a play – during the staging of Sarangadhara, another great hit from the SVS.

An innovation brought into Tamil plays by the SVS, and displayed for the first time at VP Hall, was the practice of having two intermissions, during which complicated backdrops were moved and successfully positioned for subsequent scenes. This was directly inspired by the way in which the Parsi Company, then touring Madras
and staging its plays at the Esplanade Theatre, managed its backdrops.

In 1896, the joys of English theatre were introduced to native audiences by the SVS, when Julius Caesar was staged at VP Hall. From 1897, Telugu plays were also staged by SVS. In 1902, yet another pioneering entertainment for Indians was offered – fancy dress competitions.

Among the plays to be repeatedly staged was Manohara, a creation of Sambanda Mudaliar which premiered at the VP Hall on September 14, 1895. Though it was to later become a play much in demand and was also made into an enormously successful film, its first staging did not see much of an audience and ticket sales amounted to only Rs. 200. The climactic scene in the play is where Manoharan, the hero, breaks free from the chains that bind him to a pillar. Sambanda Mudaliar, during the first staging, did it with so much of force that the noise woke up Ellis, the Superintendent of the VP Hall, who was sleeping in his private quarters at one end of the building. He immediately rushed in thinking that a riot was in progress and VP Hall was in danger.

The SVS took its responsibilities to society very seriously and often staged charity performances. The first was for the Indian Famine Relief Fund in 1897 and this was by a staging of Mudaliar’s Pittham Piditta Veeran. The performance netted the fund Rs. 214-4-8 and among those who sat in the audience to witness it was Sir George Moore, President of the Madras Corporation. In 1902, the SVS had to bail out the VP Hall itself, for the building was constructed with what was thought to be a monetary gift from the Maharajah of Vizianagaram which later transpired to be a loan.

The SVS staged Virumbiya Vithame, which was inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Presided over by Justice Boddam, the proceeds of Rs. 200 were handed over to the VP Hall Redemption Fund. An interesting aside about the play was that, as in the original, it was largely in a forest setting. The SVS members were keen to have it performed in a garden. The play was ‘staged’ once on the grounds of Government House with Lord Wenlock in attendance and, then in 1904, in the gardens of the Ranade Public Library and Mylapore Club. V. Krishnaswami Aiyer, the noted lawyer, was at first irritated and later curious to know how a hallowed play of Shakespeare’s could be acted out in Tamil. He witnessed the staging at the Ranade Hall and was so impressed that he became the President of the SVS! Another fallout of this play was that the SVS began translating and reworking several of Shakespeare’s plays to suit an oriental setting. Arising out of this came plays such as Jwalita Ramanan (Romeo and Juliet), Vaanipuratthu Vanikan (The Merchant of Venice), Sarasangi (Cymbeline) and Amaladityan (Hamlet). In 1905, the SVS began the practice of celebrating Shakespeare Day at VP Hall. This gradually expanded into a Shakespeare Week, with the increasing crowds necessitating an outdoor staging of the plays. A stage was put up on the tennis courts at the rear of VP Hall and the plays were enacted there.

The practice of holding night-long plays was soon felt to be an impediment as many members and guests were government servants, professionals and businessmen who needed to report for work early the next day. The SVS then pioneered the concept of evening shows – for the first time – on October 21, 1906. The play Kaadalar Kangal was staged at the VP Hall, starting at 6.00 p.m. and finishing within three hours. At that time it was a novelty and the SVS was severely criticised for its new timings, many of its members fearing that it would result in the loss of patronage.
It, however, soon became the norm, and when cinema came to Madras it followed the same timings.

(To be concluded)


In this issue

They’re only transferring the road congestion
Great festivals – but they need greater promotion
The Sabha that made V.P. Hall its home
A landmark that’s gone
A festival to remember
Kuppams oppose expressway
Historic Residences of Chennai - 35
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