Kulanthai Shanmugalingam; a life spent in drama

12 Nov


Don’t let the dramatic title mislead you; Kulanthai Shanmugalingam is indeed a stalwart of the Sri Lankan Tamil theater world. Yet he is a personification of paradoxes.  For one, Kulanthai (baby) as he is popularly known is currently a veteran of 83 years. For another, he is one of the most unassuming, undramatic people one can hope to come across.

His gentle demeanor however belies many years of experience in Sri Lankan Tamil theater; indeed his name is almost synonymous with it. One cannot talk about Tamil theater over the past several decades without mentioning Kulanthai Shanmugalingam.

Though shunning publicity and accolades generally, he agreed to be interviewed for this publication:

Tell us how you come to be known by your distinctive nickname?

I was the youngest of five children; also the youngest of several cousins in my extended family. Thus I came to be known as kulanthai to my family – and the name stuck. I was a very shy, retiring child, forever tailing behind my mother hanging on to her sari.

How did you enter the drama world?

Purely by accident. Actually purely by force. As I said, I was a mama’s boy who wouldn’t go out and interact with others. When I turned 18, my mother decided enough was enough and forced me to join our village’s youth club – the Thirunelvely YMHA (Young Men’s Hindu Association). She wanted me to become more out-going.

At the YMHA too, I hung around diffidently until the secretary there ‘invited’ me to act in one of their plays. You couldn’t say ‘No’ to your elders back then, so I was most unwillingly conscripted to act.
What got me into this was my unfortunate tendency to mimic an elderly man who came to milk the cows in our neighbourhood. I used to lampoon his quavering voice asking for a vessel to collect the milk in – and the secretary heard it. From that alone he decided I could act, even though I had no such inclination or ambition myself.
So in a way, you could say that it was my boyish mimicry of our poor milk-man Suppiah-amman, which roped me into a lifetime of theater.

 But once you got in, you got more involved and interested?

Not really. I just went where life took me, and it took me through a lifetime of theater.  I have never been ambitious. I went along with the flow of life’s twists and turns. All that happened in my life, just happened to happen. I never planned for any of it.

Weren’t there any specific efforts you ever made of an ambitious nature?

There is only one that I can recall. I didn’t do my A’Ls adequately, and after a few years at the YMHA, my mother packed me off to do my B.A in India – again, against my will. While there, the Indian theater cum movie actor Cho Ramaswamy was my batch-mate. He was one of the live-wires at Madras University in organizing and directing plays, but I was still uninterested and did not get involved there.

On getting back to Sri Lanka in 1957 I became a teacher at Senkundha Hindu College. I also rejoined the YMHA. Soon after, a famous baratha-natyam danseuse of that time staged a dance show at the YMHA and some of us were roped in to set up the stage for her. The ‘stage’ was made up of library desks tied together. Those desks were not evenly sized; some were sloped, some were lower than others, some hobbled; she was a hefty lady to boot. We, the stage-makers had our hearts palpitating throughout her performance in case she came tumbling down with those desks. Fortunately the event completed without mishap. Only after that could we breathe a sigh of relief.

Meanwhile, at this performance, I had noticed Kalai-Arasu Sornalingam, then one of the stalwarts of Tamil theater, in the audience. For the one and only time in my life, I felt the strong need to make an impression.

When we were dismantling the make-shift stage after the performance, he stood by waiting for his car. I pretended not to see him standing nearby and acted as if I was engrossed in learning some lines for a play. The lines I chose for this impromptu demo were some rather dramatic ones from Raja Raja Cholan, a popular Indian play depicting olden day royalty.

He however paid absolutely no attention to me and went off. I was left feeling foolish.

Six months later, in 1958, someone came to Thirunelvely looking for me. “Who is Shanmugalingam? Kalai-Arasu Sornalingam would like to meet you.” That was when I realized, “Ah, it paid off, after all.”

A scene from one of his recently staged children's plays

A scene from one of his recently staged children’s plays


So you got a chance to become a professional theater actor with that break?

We all were and still are amateurs. None of us could be called professionals. Theater for a long time (at it still is) was a passion and a hobby, not a profession. We all had day jobs to support ourselves and carried out performances for which we only put in money; not earned from it.

But yes, getting to work with him was a big break. He wanted me to play Arjuna in a play he was directing called Theroti Mahan (the charioteer’s son) in which Karna was the hero. That play became so hugely popular that we had to reproduce it nearly 10 times over the next few years.

Sornalingam was a brilliant dramatist whose chief brilliance lay in portraying negative characters empathetically. From Shakespeare’s Shylock to the Mahabharatha’s Shakuni – his portrayal of the characters were peerless. I learned a lot from him. 

You are more famous in the theater world as a playwright than as an actor; how did you break into writing scripts?

Through necessity. We tried several times to get a famous writer of that time, ‘Sitpi’ Saravanapavan to write for us – but he was always busy. After some time, he saw a children’s play I had written, being staged. He thereafter encouraged me to write on my own as he said I had what it took. You could therefore say I became a playwright by ‘accident’ too; it was due to forced necessity.

Yet you must have realized at some point that these ‘accidents’ had made you tap into a heretofore unidentified passion or talent within yourself? Your plays are some of the most acclaimed in Jaffna today.

Again, no! I started writing because I had to and kept doing it because that was what life was leading me to do. People tell me they enjoyed my plays and that is good enough – but I don’t think I am a genius who wrote classics. Yes, my plays made it into school textbooks but most of my plays are topical. They were inspired by current events of the time and so are not going to live on in history, as timeless. That’s not what I aimed for anyway.

Which of your plays are you most known for?

Children’s plays mostly. As a teacher, my main work was with children until retirement, so many of my plays were also scripted for their sake.  As such I am credited with innovating a modern form of theater to appeal to children.

Many of your plays have also been staged in Colombo as well as abroad. Have you had to travel much for this?

I rarely travel; I prefer to let the different directors who want to stage my plays manage it themselves. Attentions and felicitations irritate me and I avoid them wherever possible. I detest the Tamil habit of lauding people by conferring the glittery shawl (pon-adai) with pomp and ceremony. It’s an absurd waste of money.

The reason I have been able to write these plays which resonate with the people is because I am heavily introverted – and thus a quiet observer of people and society, which I then bring out in my plays. Given a choice, I would prefer to sit at a corner in a back row observing people than in the front row, being the center of attention myself.

Among your plays staged abroad, which was the most popular?

Hmm, that might be ‘Enthayum Thayum’  – a play about parents who sent their children abroad and then were left alone in their last years, back here.

I wrote it in 1991, at the request of my son, who lives in Canada. He wanted something topical that applied to the Canadian Tamils; I don’t know if this play was what he had in mind but it was what he got. It was staged in several countries with Tamil diaspora presence, as well as in Batticaloa and Colombo.

 What was the feedback of the diaspora on it?

It definitely struck a chord with them, even if not necessarily a pleasant one. My friend Tarcisius, a veteran thespian himself was the director of the play in the UK. He called to tell me that people watched the play immobile, with tears in their eyes.  There was an instance of a joke in the middle of one emotional scene – and only one audience member had laughed at it, for which he immediately drew dagger looks from the others apparently. I would say it was a success.

 Final question: As someone who has seen much and recorded much in the form of your plays, what advice have you for Tamil youths? Many of us are caught between a fast globalizing modern world and a traditional culture of our own. We face the uncomfortable challenge of having to adapt to the fast-changing world as well as retain our distinctive culture. Where does one draw the line?

Culture is what is practiced by the people organically, not what the traditionalists tell us we should be like, based on what they imagine our ancestors were once like.

If there is one thing I have realized as a thespian over several decades, it is that reformative writers, playwrights, poets et al spring up only when there is something terribly wrong with society. As such, some terrible societies produce brilliant literature edifying ethics and values to be upheld. In a later time, clueless descendants of those people would look back and say, “Oh our ancestors were such wonderful people with advanced morals.”

For an example within our culture, people look on the admittedly brilliant rhyming couplets of our ancient poet Thirvalluvar or poetess Auviar, and say that Tamils once had a glorious culture. Most of the advice Thiruvalluvar or Auviar gave however were basic common-sense ethics. If they felt the need to tell people not to steal and not to harm, I imagine they lived in terribly lawless times.

I don’t recommend letting go of who you are to ape someone else’s culture – but I don’t recommend hanging on to the coat-tails of a ‘glorious past ‘either.

Culture is like a clock; it keeps moving with the times – inexorably. What the rigid traditionalists are doing, is trying frantically to stop the clock-hand marking seconds from moving – because that is what they can see. In the meantime, the clock-hand marking hours, which they can’t see and are not trying to control, is moving too. Change is inevitable. Just go with the flow.

With his wife

The playwright with his wife


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