An once-upon-a-time middle class pastime

Today we have visual and aural assaults from a variety of media. Mega serials have become the national pastime of the middle-classes and daily chores are arranged around them. Undoubtedly TV is the opiate of the masses and health concerns are already being raised about a generation that has never known what life without the idiot box is. Television of course dishes out a multitude of programs including music, dance, soaps, movies, sports, news and so on, thus having an overwhelmingly dominant share of the consumer’s mindspace. The sheer choice in channels is mind-boggling. Speaking for this wonderful city, the average Chennaivaasi never had it so good.

But rewind a quarter century back and a totally different picture of this metropolis emerges. Back then, when DD (for the MTV generation out there, DD is DoorDarshan or “nationalized choice-of-one TV channel” :-)) was just slowly making inroads into people’s lives, the real action was happening outside the home. While films were the main crowd-pullers (as they are even today), the next level of entertainment were the dramas which were patronized by the members of the various “sabhas” that were a hallmark of Madras.

It was a time when the likes of R.S.Manohar (the doyen of historical drama and the pioneer of trick-shots in stage dramas), the irrepressible Cho (S. Ramaswamy of the political satire genre), ARS (A.R.Srinivasan) as well as Y.G. Parthasarathy and son Y.G. Mahendra (who made social plays with serious themes) and the Crazy Mohan-S.V.Shekher combo initially and later with their own troupes (who drew tremendous audience response with their brand of the irreverent, rip-roaring comedy format) were attracting the middle-classes by the hordes. I remember as a kid the many evenings that my parents took me and my brother to these shows.

We were members of a sabha called Viswapriya and they were one of the prestigious ones in those days. They used to stage plays mainly inside the SIET college auditorium. I had also watched a couple of S.V.Shekher dramas in the Mylapore Fine Arts Club on Oliver Road and Manohar’s mythological plays like “Shukracharya” at R.R.Sabha (Rasika Ranjani Sabha) at Mylapore. There were other sabhas like Karthik Fine Arts Club and Parthasarathy Swami Sabha as well as music sabhas like Narada Gana Sabha and the Music Academy which also staged plays. Now that part of the social fabric of Chennai has faded. While English theatre existed all the time in Madras, it wasn’t talked about much outside of literary circles then but in the new millennium, I feel that there are winds of change with the advent of entertainment groups like Evam who are giving it a refreshing look and feel.

Sometimes I am washed over by a wave of nostalgia when I think of so many things associated with the dramas of an erstwhile era – the peculiar acoustics of the open-door (due to the overflowing crowd) theaters where these were held, the five minute break after an hour and the fifteen minute “drinks” interval after two hours, announced by someone with a characteristic Madras accent, the guffaws the jokes would elicit from the crowds and the way everyone would want to leave in a hurry after the drama was over jostling to get to their two and four wheelers and the disdain with which they would look at others who had to take public transport to get back home. The Madras Sabhas and the dramas that their members patronized will forever find a place in the annals of this great city.

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