One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century
- Nadigar Thilakam
1 October 1927 - 21 July 2001
Sivaji Statute in Marina,
unveiled on 21 July 2006
A Lesson in Gratitude from the Movie
Maestro Sivaji Ganesan
Sachi Sri Kantha, 20 December 2005...
It is always enchanting and heart-warming to
read and listen to real life events, which are educational
at any time to individuals of all age ranges.
In this spirit, towards the end of the year,
I provide the following two anecdotes from the life of Tamil
movie legend, Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001). In these two
anecdotes, Sivaji Ganesan had taught to many, what is
gratitude and why it deserves recognition and
The first anecdote was from a memoir book
about the Tamil movie world which I read recently, It was
authored by distinguished Tamil movie script writer
Aroordhas, who had known personally and professionally
Sivaji Ganesan for decades.
The second anecdote was oral history I heard
in Colombo three decades ago from one of my music
mentors,violinist Vannai G.Shanmuganantham.
Both anecdotes have a few inter-linking
threads. The oral story I heard around 1975 neatly gelled
with the written story which I read recently.
Sivaji Ganesan and his tutor
K.D.Santhanam [written story]
Sivaji with Aroordhas
Renowned script writer and director
Aroordhas (born 1931) has a five decade track record in
Tamil movie history. His stage name Aroordhas is a clipped
version of his full village cum personal name of Tiruvaroor
Aarokiyadhas. His memoir book, Naan Muham Paartha Cinema
Kannadigal [The Cinema Mirrors I have Looked At; Kalaignan
Publishers, Chennai, 2002, 224 pages] carries a delightful
collection of anecdotes on the personalities who moved the
movie world of South India. I was rather touched by a
reminiscence provided by Aroordhas on Sivaji Ganesan in
section 18 of the book (pages 109-113). I provide my English
translation of this entire section below.
“The Madurai Mangala Bala Gaana Sabha was a
drama troupe managed by Ethaartham Ponnusami Pillai of
Thiruvathavoor, Madurai. This troupe stationed themselves in
Tiruchi and conducted dramas at the Thevar Hall.
From Sangili Aanda Puram, a boy aged 6 or 7
had joined this drama troupe with his friend, a neighbor’s
son. In this drama troupe, there was a Tamil tutor
(Vaathiaar) who taught drama and Tamil to the young charges.
He was short in stature and was extremely strict. With or
without sense, this tutor punished his young charges by cane
beating, even for smallest errors. Because of this, the
young boys had their bowel leaks, when they saw or even
dreamt about this extreme disciplinarian cum tutor. In their
dreams, he appeared like a charging lion.
But that Tamil tutor had a great gift. He
could compose beautiful, rhyming Tamil songs based on poetic
grammar. One day, at the stage, that boy from Sangili Aanda
Puram was acting in the role of a young widow. And by
carelessness on that day, he was wearing a blouse. This had
been noticed by that disciplinatrian tutor.
In that era, wearing blouse by widows
was rather inappropriate according to societal norms. At the
end of the scene, that Tamil tutor harshly gave a cane
beating to that young boy; ‘Can’t you be so careless and
unrealistic in your profession?’ was the complaint against
that young boy.
Guess who was that young charge, who
received such a beating? Maestro Sivaji Ganesan. Who was
that cane-loving tutor? My most respectful and admired elder
and great poet, K.D.Santhanam (S).
43 years ago, during the shooting of the
movie ‘Pasa Malar’, I met elder K.D.S. at the old Neptune
Studio and paid my respects. In that movie, when Sivaji
Ganesan (the hero) becomes rich, he is met by a character
named ‘Rajaratnam’. KD.Santhanam played that character.
That young charge V.C.Ganesan never forgot
about, in his illustrious career, from whom he received the
cane-beating and from whose beating he learnt the alphabets
of acting and Tamil diction. It was he, after establishing
his fame in the movie world, who recommended his harsh
disciplinarian tutor for that particular character in his
During the shooting days, Sivaji would be
seated outdoors near the shooting floor with crossed legs
and be in conversation with me, while having a cigarette in
his lips. Then, elder K.D.Santhanam would occasionally pass
us from the make-up room towards the shooting floor. At the
instant when Sivaji sees his old tutor, he would dutifully
stand up in respect, and hide the cigarette behind his back.
Though noticing that homage silently, the old tutor K.D.S.
pretend ignoring us and with bowed head pass us quietly.
It would touch my heart, when watching that
simple, elegant and meaningful respect Sivaji paid for his
old tutor. What a class! What a grateful protégé! I mention
this anecdote because the younger generation should be
informed of this humility and gratitude shown by maestro
Once, after K.D.S. had passed us and went
beyond the listening distance, Sivaji sat back and told me:
‘Aarooran! On this Santhanam tutor (Santhana Vaathi) who
passed us. The amount of beating I got from him isn’t a few.
During dance training (when a step is missed for a beat),
during dialogue training (when a word is missed), he beat us
severely! Oh Mother – He’d chase and chase us and beat us!
Even when he went to the toilet, he carried his cane. Now he
is passing us like a young girl with head turned towards the
floor. Even when I thought about him in those days, I’d
I asked him jokingly: ‘Then, why did you
recommend him for this role?’
[Sivaji said] ‘You don’t know. Because of
those beatings I received from his hand, I’m now sitting
comfortably like this as Sivaji Ganesan. When I joined the
drama troupe, I was a zero. From him only, I learnt how to
speak dialogue and how to act. Do you know, what a classy
Tamil poet he is? What a poetic touch he carried in his
hands? The songs he wrote for the Ambikapathi  movie I
acted: Ah! What sweet Tamil, and what lilting rhythm! I
tolerated all those beatings because of his blessed Tamil
knowledge. Otherwise, I’d have quit the troupe and ran back
to my home during any one of those nights.’
Later, when elder K.D.S. was alone at the
shooting floor, I approached him and politely mused;
“Elder Sir, I’ve heard that you gave severe
beating to Sivaji Annan in his young days.’
[K.D.S.] ‘Oh! He has told you about that.
Oh! That was in those days. Now I’m becoming senile. I
cannot remember your script now. Not only that, when Thambi
Ganesan stand in front of me, shouldn’t I look at his face
and deliver my dialogue? When I look at him now, I’m getting
nervous! Because of that, can you prepare me for my dialogue
by repeating your script not once but four times? It may be
a bother. Kindly oblige.’
How Time did change? The same great tutor
who taught dialogue to Sivaji Ganesan in his young days,
with disciplinary cane at his hand, now he feels nervous to
stand in front of his illustrious protégé, and ask me to
prepare him well for a scene in which he faces his protégé.”
When I read these pages from Aroordhas’s book, I was touched
by three inter-twined elements;
(1) a thankful protégé’s devotion to an
extremely strict, but sincere, mentor,
(2) repayment of intellectual debt by an
esteemed protégé, and
(3) the mentor’s heart-felt pride on the
grade made by his protégé.
What Sivaji Ganesan said of the touching
poetic feel of his mentor K.D.Santhanam was no exaggeration.
The 16 lines of that one sweet melody in the Ambikapathi [a
historical love yarn set in the 12th century Chola Kingdom,
along the lines of the more popular Romeo-Juliet story]
movie, beginning with the lines ‘Kannile Iruppathenna Kanni
Ila Maane’ and sung by P.Bhanumathi as well as
T.M.Soundararajan were from the fertile mind of
Sivaji Ganesan and his boyhood pal
E.Subbiah Pillai [oral story]
Around the time [in 1961 or 1962] when his
signature movie Pasa Malar was released, Sivaji Ganesan
visited Colombo. I heard the following story from my mentor
Vannai G.Shanmuganantham, around 1975, who was an
At a cultural function held at the
Saraswathie Hall, Bambalapitiya, Sivaji Ganesan was the
guest of honor. With his roving eye, he had a glance at the
orchestra performing at the side of the stage. During
intermission, he rushed to the orchestra team and stood in
front of the clarinetist E.Subbiah Pillai, who was calm and
composed. With stretched hands, Sivaji greeted him, “Neenga
Subbiah Annan ille” [Aren’t you Subbiah elder?]. The
clarinetist softly responded in the affirmative. Then,
Sivaji immediately hugged his long-lost boyhood pal, and was
overcome with emotion. The words fumbled from his mouth.
“Anne! Suhama irukeengala? Eppavo,
Ceylonukku oodi poonatha sonnanga. Athukappuram, oru
sethiyum kiddaikale.” [Brother, are you keeping fine? Those
days, I heard that you have run to Ceylon. After that, I
didn’t hear any news about you.]
Then only it became known to the fellow
members of that orchestra team that Sivaji Ganesan [a
junior] and Subbiah Pillai [a senior] were boyhood pals in a
boys drama troupe, and one day [partly because of the
disciplinary tactics of their tutors and partly because of
the lure provided by a sea-crossing trip to Ceylon], Subbiah
Pillai had moved to Ceylon without announcing his decision
to his then clique. Thus, the pals became separated.
In the intervening 25 years or so, while
Sivaji Ganesan became a famous movie star in Chennai,
Subbiah Pillai established himself as a clarinetist in the
Radio Ceylon artiste. Subbiah Pillai, as a senior to Sivaji
Ganesan, might have taught a few ‘steps’ in the art world
then, to the talented rookie. Sivaji never forgot the face
of his senior.
I personally knew Subbiah Pillai ‘Master’ in
the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, for my flute debut
performance [Arangetram] held on December 3, 1971, at the
Bambalapitiya Sammangodu Vinayagar Temple, my mentor
T.P.Jesudas honored him by requesting him to ‘keep the Talam
[rhythm keeper]’ in front of me.
Then, after I entered the university, due to
demands on time, I lost much contact with those older
generation of musicians. One day [before I heard this Sivaji
Ganesan anecdote from violinist Shanmuganantham Master] I
received the news with shock that Subbiah Pillai ‘Master’
had died in Jaffna hospital, following a medical
misadventure after an operation. Even now, I get a lump in
my throat when I think about the calm and composed Subbiah
Pillai Master – a senior to Sivaji Ganesean of old drama
troupe days - who was the only clarinetist I knew in Colombo
in those days.
Lanka Tamil Daily 'Thinakaran',
11 November 1972 - on Death of Subbiah Pillai