Ahead of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai’s 150th birth anniversary, recalling the play on the freedom fighter’s life that was the inspiration for the classic film, Kappalottiya Tamizhan
The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu recently announced that the 150th birth anniversary of legendary freedom fighter V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, popularly known as ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan’, would be celebrated in a grand manner. Born on September 5, 1872, Pillai is best remembered for the venture he ran against tremendous odds, the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, to challenge the monopoly of the British in sea trade.
Chidambaram Pillai’s life and struggles were immortalised by thespian Sivaji Ganesan, who essayed the title role in the movie Kappalottiya Tamizhan, released in 1961. It was, however, not the first time that the freedom fighter’s life had been made the subject of a tribute. There was an earlier stage play performed by the theatre doyen, T.K. Shanmugam.
An account of the making of the play, written by Shanmugam in an article published in 1964 in Sudar, the souvenir of the Delhi Tamil Sangam, makes for interesting reading. According to the piece, the idea for the play came about in 1952, when he staged ‘Desabhaktanum Angileyanum’, an imaginary conversation between V.O.C. and the Collector of Tirunelveli, L.M. Wynch, written by Subramania Bharathi, during the Bharathi Vizha that year.
It was performed on a small stage set up outside the Kachaleeswarar Temple in George Town. Kalki Krishnamurthy presided over the function, in which several contemporaries of Chidambaram Pillai also participated. Shanmugam says the play’s grand success spurred him to work on a full-length script on the freedom fighter. Translating the idea into action, however, proved difficult. Shanmugam says a few writers were hesitant to write the script since several of Chidambaram Pillai’s contemporaries were still alive, which meant the scope for introducing dramatic elements by way of imaginary sequences was very less.
Rewriting the script
The search for a script ended in 1955, when Shanmugam came across a play titled Thalapathy Chidambaranar by writer M. Sitharasu, based on the book Kappalottiya Thamizhan by Ma.Po. Sivagnanam. An excited Shanmugam immediately wrote to Sitharasu expressing his interest and requesting him to rewrite a few portions.
Statue of V.O. Chidambaram.
Nothing further happened, until 1958, when on April 14, Shanmugam and his troupe performed a skit for All India Radio, Madras, based on the above script. It was a grand success, appreciated by the listeners, one among whom was Shanmugam’s friend, V.O.C. Subramaniam, V.O. Chidambaram’s son.
With encouragement from Subramaniam, Shanmugam renewed his efforts for a full-length play. He played host to Sitharasu for over a month, as the writer rewrote the script, ably assisted by Shanmugam’s brother T.K. Bhagavathy and poet Puthaneri Subramaniam.
Several of Subramania Bharathi’s poems were used in verse form in the play, as were Chidambaram Pillai’s ideas from his works such as Meyyarivu, Agame Puram and Manam Pola Vaazhu.
The songs, which were composed by Puthaneri Subramaniam (who incidentally hailed from Tirunelveli district, where a significant portion of Chidambaram Pillai’s life unfolded), added an authentic flavour. A verse from the Thiruppavai was used as well. Shanmugam says that Ma.Po. Sivagnanam’s suggestions on reading the script also added great value.
The play, titled Desabhaktar Chidambaranar, was inaugurated on July 1, 1960, at Tirunelveli Municipal Exhibition Hall and was a grand success. T.K. Bhagavathy played Chidambaram Pillai and Shanmugam, his close friend and confidante, Subramania Siva. When it was performed three weeks later at R.R. Sabha in Mylapore, a review in this newspaper commended the performance of the brothers and called it a welcome production, ‘at a time when the public appears to have forgotten many architects of our independence’.
The play was remade into the movie the next year by director B.R. Panthulu with Sivaji Ganesan in the lead and T.K. Shanmugam reprising his role as Subramania Siva. The dialogues for the movie were penned by the Sangeet Nataka Akademi award-winning playwright, S.D. Sundaram, whose birth centenary incidentally falls this year. Although the film won the National Award for best Tamil feature film that year, it was a commercial failure.
The writer is a heritage buff and amateur Tamil theatre artiste.