Kalaimamani S.R. Kasturi
Vice-President, Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha,
President & Director, Matunga Drama Society, Bombay
When my friend Sri Yagnaraman, General Secretary, Sri Krishna
Gana Sabha, desired that I should write my impressions about the place of
music in drama, I readily agreed because this is a subject to which I have
given considerable thought and my own experience with the two devotional
musical plays "Saint Thyagaraja" and "Purandaradasa", has confirmed my views
on this matter.
After the successful staging of our musical drama
"Thyagaraja" at Madras, in which I had sung as many as thirty Kritis, I was
astonished at first when people asked me how I was able to sing and act at
the same time without undue strain. That such a question should be asked in
Madras, of all places, which had been the cradle of music and where the
greatest of actors of yore who had dominated the stage had been mainly
singers was astounding. But on second thought I realised that, considering
the sorry state of affairs presently prevailing in the field of musical
dramas on the Tamil Stage such a question was not at all surprising. There
are very few musical dramas being currently staged and most of them. have
"play-back" music, with the result that most of the younger generation of
play-goers have hardly experienced the thrill of "live" music on the stage.
For an understanding of the present state of affairs, we must view the
matter in its historical perspective. Till about the middle fifties, the
Tamil stage as well as the Telugu and Kannada stage was dominated by
musician-actors and thus music was the main attraction to the play-goers.
The names of those actors were house - hold words, further popularised by
their gramophone records. Many of us still recall the memory of the greatest
ever S. G. Kittappa who was the main attraction in the famous plays of
Kanniah Co. Among a host of famous actor-singers who have left their impress
are S V. Subbiah Bhagavathar, Devudu Iyer, Kader Baksha, K. B. Sundarambal,
Ratnabai, P. S. Velu Nair, Ananthanarayanan, Chellappa, Bhaskara Das of the
Tamil stage, Sthanam Narasimha Rao, Kapilavai Ramanatha Sastry of the Telugu
stage, Subbiah Naidu & Nageswar Rao of Gubbi Veeranna troupe of the Kannada
stage. Even among the non-professionals, to mention a few, the late Rao
Bahadur C. Ramanujachariar, Dr. Natesan, Krishnaswamy Ayya, Dr.
Srinivasaraghavan, Sunderarajan, S. J. Acharya, P.S. Krishnaswamy lyengar,
Dr. Ramamurthi and M. D. Parthasarathy had attained greatness on the Tamil
stage by their music first and fore-most. The above list is not exhaustive
but I have given some of the names which are fresh even now in the minds of
many of our Tamilian friends.
With the advent of "Talkies" in which
music (whether relevant or not) played a significant role, the stage
suffered a set-back. But even in films, in the earlier days, musicians were
called upon to play leading roles. That is how we saw Maharajapuram
Viswanatha Iyer as Vediyar in Nandanar, Musiri Subramania lyer as Tukaram,
G. N. Balasubramaniam as Dushyanthan, M. S. Subbulaxmi as Sakunthala and
Meerabai, and N. C. Vasanthakokilam, M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar,
Chinnappa, Honnappa Bhagavathar, Kothamangalam Seenu and others playing
various roles. With the introduction ' of "play-back" music in films, the
demand for actor singers ceased. This is no occasion to dilate on the merits
or demerits of play-back music in films, but I am deeply concerned with its
baneful effects on the Tamil stage.
After independence the Tamil stage,
as well as the stage in all parts of the country, had a grand revival. But
unfortunately, especially on the Tamil stage, they could not get good actors
who were also musicians to act in the plays, although musical dramas had
their own special appeal. As a result play-back singing which has invaded
the films was utilised on the stage as well. In order to justify their stand
the drama producers have advanced the specious argument that "live" music
deprives the actor of proper expression while singing and acting at the same
time and sometimes it results in contortions of the face which leaves a bad
impression on the audience.
This is far from the truth as those of us who had occasion to see
Kittappa and others still retain a vivid picture in our mind of the
composure with which they used to sing and act. They had no mike to amplify
the voice and they had to sing in 4 to 4-1/2 sruthi in theatres like the
great Waltax Theatre. The actors sang in such a vibrant tone that even the
noise of the trains frequently passing by did not distract the audience.
Such thrills have only to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Even till
recently we had Avvai Shanmugam presenting live music on the stage with
great eclat. Compared with this none can deny that the play-back music
introduced on the Tamil stage sounds drab and artificial. Let us face the
facts. We are not able to present live music on the stage, because there is
a dearth of good actor-singers. If we have to stage musical dramas, we
cannot dispense with live music and must find the actor-musician who can
take part in them. Other-wise let us confine ourselves to staging only " •
social " dramas without music or with only background music. The experience
of the Marathi stage is quite relevant in this matter.
a temporary setback owing to the advent of films, during the last fifteen
years or so, they have produced a galaxy of brilliant stage musicians, both
men and women, comparable with the best of the maestros of a bygone era.
They have even written special music dramas to suit the genius of the actors
and actresses. We can certainly profit from their experience.
Bombay itself when the Matunga Dramatic Society was started in 1941 the very
first play was a mythological " Subadra Arjuna " where as Arjuna I had to
sing nearly 30 songs without the aid of a mike. For nearly ten years
thereafter most of our dramas were musicals such as Kabirdas, Tulasidas,
Bhookailas, Paduka and Vasanthasena which the people welcomed with
enthusiasm. For the next few years we engaged ourselves in presenting social
dramas with no music except orchestral background music. Even our friends
had forgotton that we staged musical dramas in the past.
When we took up
the play "Thyagaraja" on the occasion of our Silver Jubilee in 1965, many
people had come to the auditorium with the thought uppermost in their minds
as to how the kritis were going to be sung. When I sang the first kriti "
Lavanyarama" from the depth of the stage, some persons thought it was tape
recorded. It was only when I came forward just in front of the footlights
and sang the second kriti Thulane jesina " that the people realised that it
was " live " music, and the favourable audience reaction was immediately
I have been always holding the view that an actor singing
his songs will create a far deeper impression and Impact on the audience,
which would remain permanently in their hearts than any amount of
taperecorded or playback music. This has been amply proved by the dramas
"Thyagaraja " and " Purandaradasa " staged by us recently. After our staging
of " Thyagaraja " in Bombay as well as in most of the Tamil Nadu districts,
I received a large number of letters from various people commending our
effort stating that our dramas had done a. great service to the younger
generation in Tamil Nadu (who were crazy after film music). The same has
been our experience after staging "Purandaradasa ".
Drama is the only
medium through which all the three performing arts, namely music, dance and
acting can be produced live on the stage. I firmly believe that musical
dramas have a great future. Let us hope that the day is not far off when
more and more eminent musicians will come forward to take part in dramas and
help to restore the musicals to their honoured and rightful place as of