CHENNAI: Online publishing and marketing has taken away the winds of Chennai’s old world charm of pavement book sellers where one used to hit upon rare bibliographic treasures which are anytime good reads.
The warmth with which such books- old melodies so to say- open up a world gone by is amazing. Last week one felt the same when among a pile of old books stacked by a pavement seller in Ashok Nagar, two such in that category gently fell into visibility: One was ‘I shall Not Hear the Nightingale’, a once much talked about novel by Kushwant Singh and the other was, ‘Mrs. YGP, A Class Apart’, a biography of the well-known educationist, by Lakshmi Devnath. They are markers of sheer contrast, one set in the North and the other in old Madras State, yet brought back memories of an era where love and hope were like two lamps.
A fine collection of rear black and white pictures since the 1950s’ and even earlier - of persons and events related to the story of Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy (Mrs. YGP as she is widely known), who founded the ‘Bala Bhavan’ school and went on to head what evolved into the PSBB Group of Schools in Chennai, were strung through like flowers of a garland to make a narrative in crisp, engaging style by Lakshmi Devnath, a well-known writer of music and religion herself. A quick flip and the book on Mrs. YGP is unputdownable, as she has been in real life too, a passion for learning, tempered by a broader vision of faith in humanity.
Weaved around the life and times of Mrs. YGP, which was first published to mark her 80th birth anniversary (She was born “Friday, the November 8, 1925, Veda Vilas, a sprawling house at Egmore, Madras, was teeming with people as a performance was on” is how the author begins her story) what struck one about the biography of this great teacher is the way she catalysed the development of varied groups of students from diverse societal backgrounds to serve a larger societal goal. These students were not necessarily the ones who passed through the portals of PSBB later but one whom she has travelled with in the long corridor of life.
It is these short narratives around the persona of Mrs. YGP which struck one as being equally sociologically significant, unfolding a bigger picture than her life itself; right from being the granddaughter of Diwan Bahadur T Rangachari, “a formidable name in South Indian circles,” in the early years of the 20th century as the author puts it, the early influences of her strong-willed mother Alamelu R Parthasarathy, the vicissitudes of the pre-Independence days that was part of the milieu in which the young girl Rajamma grew, the first girl in their family to enter the portals of higher education - Holy Cross College in Tiruchy - her acts of defiance during the 1942 Quit India Movement, Rajamma “impulsively” shooting off a letter to Mahatma Gandhi asking whether she could join the Sabarmati Ashram and Gandhiji’s prompt postcard reply, “if you can cook your food and clean the toilet, nothing can stop you from joining the Ashram,” all these and more speak as much about the individual as about the society of her times.
It is not given to every person that the individual and the social dimensions of an era co-mingle to show us the big picture on hindsight. While Rajamma’s meeting and growing friendship with YG Parthasarathy (the YGs were ‘Mandayam Iyengars’ hailing from the Mandya district in Karnataka, as the author explains), that blossomed into marriage is itself a story of love within a canvas of fortitude, there are several interesting anecdotes in Mrs. YGP’s life in the 1950s-1960s’.
As the biographer tells us, in the early 1950s’, YGP and several artistes had joined together and were staging plays at the ‘Suguna Vilas Sabha’ on Mount Road. An intense theatre person, YGP had “struck up a friendship” with Padmanabhan, popularly known as Pattu, a playwright and actor. It was then that Rajamma suggested to them, “why don’t you start your own troupe?” Thus United Amateur Artists (UAA) was born in 1952.
“Their very first play, ‘It happened at Midnight’, announced the dawn of new trends in theatre culture. For the first time, English words were incorporated into Tamil dialogues, colloquial Tamil was spoken on stage and women actors took part. They were also the first to use cut dialogues, when one character interjects when another is talking. Traditionalists raised their eyebrows, but audience loved it. Breezy, social comedy was UAA’s forte,” writes Lakshmi Devnath, adding, their inspiration was the legends, Laurel and Hardy.
“During her stay in Delhi, in 1946, Rajamma had got an opportunity to act in one of playwright Poornam Viswanathan’s radio plays……….Now having married a talented actor, theatre would become a significant part of her life,” writes her biographer, adding, “Rajamma took an active part in every aspect of UAA’s plays.”
When UAA went through a crisis period in 1962 as Pattu fell out with YGP, the author chronicles that it was Rajamma, in 1964, who chanced upon a script titled ‘Under Secretary’ published in Swadesamitran. Rajamma saw in that script a revival moment for UAA and after getting the playwright Poornam Viswanathan’s nod, the play, ‘Under Secretary’ was staged in 1964. “It went on to do 50 shows. The heroine of the play was J Jayalalithaa,” writes the author.
“Rajamma spotted a promising actress in Jayalalithaa after she saw her performance in a play staged by the Madras Natya Sangh. The Sangh had been inaugurated on the initiative of Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, as the Madras chapter of the Bharatiya Natya Sangh. Its first President was Rukmini Devi Arundale…….Rajamma, as the secretary of the Sangh, was an active member of the organisation. From various schools and colleges, students with acting potential were identified and given opportunities to act in their dramas,” the author says.
And Jayalalithaa as a fourth form student had acted in their play, ‘The Whole Truth’, in which she played the role of a maid. When she saw the play, Rajamma realised, “that she had found in Jayalalithaa the perfect heroine for their new play ‘Under Secretary’. Jayalalithaa’s mother Sandhya and aunt Vidyavati were already actors in UAA.”
The author goes on to add: “‘Under Secretary’ (1964) introduced Jayalalithaa to the world as an actress of merit.” A new star had arrived. Later, in 1966, she acted in just one more play, UAA’s ‘Malati Oru Thollai’. “Thereafter, she moved on to the silver screen where she shone for many years as a star. The only stage troupe that Jayalalithaa acted was the UAA.” In fact, in those years, UAA was the ‘launch pad’ for many leading South Indian film and stage artistes of today, writes the author. “Cho, Mouli, ARS, Y.G. Mahendra…..Actors like Nagesh and Lakshmi, made their debut elsewhere but were regulars here (UAA). Post ‘Under Secretary’, many playwrights also entered also entered the portals of UAA - Mouli, Venkat, Visu, Vietnam Veedu Sundaram…. and a host of others.”
The author further notes that “Rajamma was particularly keen that the troupe’s student-actors, that included her son Mahendra, actors Lakshmi, Jayalalithaa and others did not compromise on their studies.” …..”This phase of their lives had revealed to Rajamma two important things- the positive role of co-curricular activities in moulding a child’s personality and that, with proper time management, these could be successfully combined with a grueling course in academics. In later years, Rajamma included cultural activities as a significant part of her school’s curriculum.” This cryptically short biography of Mrs. YGP comes alive with greater relevance, not just for educationists but for all, even today.