The first Tamil play

October 2, 2016 § 1 Comment

Recently I came across a note about Prof.Sundaram Pillai, the author of ‘Manonmaniyam’ (1891), a verse play in Tamil, in one of the books  that narrates  the history of Tamil literature for the school students, that ’Prof. Sundaram ‘( as ‘pillai’ referred to his caste affiliation, to be politically correct, it was dropped)  ‘ not only has contributed a song for worshipping our Tamil  Goddess but  has also written a play called ‘Manonmaniyam and it is the first play in Tamil’

What is now sung as the language anthem is an invocation poem and is an intrinsic part of the play ‘Manonmaniyam’ and as such, the poem and the play are not two different works,. Secondly, it is not the first play in Tamil.

Very little is known about the first play , called “ Pratapa Chandra Vilasam’ ( not to be confused with ‘Pratapa Mudaliyar Charithiram’  by Mayuram Vedanayakam pillai)  by Ramaswamy Raju , about whom much less is known. The play was published in 1877. Whether the play was staged or not, one does not know. But the apocryphal story is that it was staged once and a  rich landlord from Chindadripettai filed a defamation case  in the court that the play was about him and the author went absconding.

This cannot be true for the simple reason that the author was himself a barrister with a string of academic qualifications tagged to his name ,such as M.R.H.S., M.R.A.S  etc.He was a polymath, proficient in four languages ( English, Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit) and has published books in  all of them. Only two of them have survived. One of them, is  this play and the other a laudatory treatise on the advantages of the British rule in India, that is dedicated to Her Majesty th Queen Victoria, no less, and written in, hold your breath, Sanskrit, a copy of it is presumably available at the archival section in the British museum, London..

There are lots of interesting things about the play, which needs to be told,

though  its  story line will not ‘exceed the space of a revenue stamp’, to quote Kushwant Singh’s  comment on Amritha Pritham’s autobiography.

A good rich  young man , coming under the  influence of a bad man,, who is the personification of evil ,is led to a life of depravity and desolation. But ultimately, the rich young man gets reformed because of his good karma and he becomes good once again. He gets married  to a good rich  girl in good time and lives happily thereafter..

Though the story is naïve and simplistic and all the characters one-dimensional, there seems to be an underlying sarcasm in the tone in which it is written.  One is not sure, whether there were such plays being staged during his period, which, perhaps, are now lost and  the author was just making fun of these plays  by caricaturing them in a stylized presentation.

Raju follows the rules and regulations laid down by the Natya Sastra for writing a play  that the characters in a play should speak a dialect befitting their social status and their linguistic and caste affiliation. As a result, in this play , literary Tamil, Madras  ‘cockney’ broken English and butchered  Hindustani  are not only spoken but sung. One character continuously speaks in  Telugu .   The sutradhar appears at the beginning of the play and narrates the benefits of seeing the play and he also introduces the characters.

This play also gives an impression of being also a social comment of his times , that is the late nineteenth century. It was a period, when the colonial rulers had introduced English education and the zamindari   system. The  rich young men,  semi-educated in the English schools,  but with no professional obligation whatsoever, led a life of pomp and sensual pursuits imitating the ruling white sahibs.

Tha author says in his preface, ‘ this play is written to reform those young men, who, instead of learning good aspects of the western culture like civility and hygienic way of living and respect for women, only imbibe the bad aspects of their social living like partying and  expensive habits..  In this regard, he brings the  nineteenth century Tamil society in broad focus. (courtesy- Sruti)

The Devadasi system, which was once the cultural face of the temples, got abused  and the poor women dedicated to music and dance, became objects of pleasure for the rich landlords.  The bad man of this play, who has an interesting name as ‘Viswasakathakan” ( ‘one who breaks trust’)  announces himself ,as he enters the scene for the first time as ‘ an evil man with wretched  qualities as he cannot be but like that’  like Richard does in Shakespeare\s Richard III. Interestingly, unlike the villains in our Indian myths and legends, who, finally, before dying regret for their misdeeds. Viswasakathakan , not only does not seek pardon, but goes unpunished!

It looks like the Tamil bards and pundits,  in that period were  tragic-comic characters.  They largely depended upon the rich  patrons for their living, composing  poems  which eulogized them to no end. The retinue of Pratapachandran, the hero of this drama, had  one such  poet, called  ‘Sakkadai Muthu Pulavar’ meaning ‘one who found pearls in the dirty drains’. He got his name because that even the dirty drains located near Pratapachandran’s  house  were rich with sparkling pearls.

The two pimps, who are the cronies of Viswasakathakan,  one vaishnavite and the other, saivite,  appear to have been  modeled after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in ‘Hamlet’. They revel in phony high-sounding  philosophical discussions, with the prostitutes as their moderators!

Vidhyasahar, one of the friends of Pratapachandran, whenhe says, ‘ We are neither here nor there, suspended in the mid-air’, perhaps, sums up  the cultural dilemma, caused by the interaction between the  two cultures, the East and the West and by this interaction, what happens to an English-educated semi-intellectual, who cannot shake off his cultural upbringing from his birth. (courtesy- ‘Sruti’)






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