Theatre in the Madras of yore grew thanks mainly to the Victoria Public Hall (VPH) and the Suguna Vilasa Sabha (SVS). Since the late 1880s, when the hall on Poonamallee High Road was inaugurated, it has witnessed hundreds of theatrical performances.
Pioneers like Sankaradoss Swamigal and Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar staged their plays at the hall, which also played host to the city’s first cinema show. It was a time when men played the roles of female characters.
During the first 30 years of its existence the SVS, which was founded in 1891, remained at the VPH where it introduced the concept of conducting evening drama shows. Plays used to go on for six hours, ending at 3.30 a.m. But the SVS changed that, and for the first time on October 21, 1906, the play Kaadalar Kangal was staged within three hours, beginning at 6 p.m.
With films being made from drama scripts, the theatre scene remained vibrant, and actors who moved on to the silver screen would make it a point to act in at least a few plays. “When artistes M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan were invited to watch shows, they would come in early, watch the entire play and take time to appreciate every single artiste,” recalled actor A.R.S. alias A.R. Srinivasan.
“In the 1969s, there were plenty of sabhas in the city and people would flock to them for entertainment. I debuted in the same play where former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa did,” he said.
Actor-directors, including S.V. Sahasranamam, Cho Ramaswamy, K. Balachander, B.S. Raghavan and N.S. Nataraja Iyer, staged plays. Then, another crop of youngsters joined the band — Visu, Crazy Mohan, Mouli, Y.Gee. Mahendra, S.Ve. Shekhar and Kathadi Ramamurthi. Though theatre in the city may no longer be as vibrant as it once was, the plays still have their own audiences in both sabhas and online.