T. K. Shanmugam
(1912 – 1973) – (Tamilnadu)
T. K. Shanmugam (Aged 61) was born on 26 April 1912 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. He was a Tamil theatre and film artist also known as “Avvai” T. K. Shanmugam, who acquired the prefix “Avvai” after his portrayal of saint-poet Karaikal Ammaiyar in a play.
The T.K. Shanmugam and Brothers group had a close association with both the Communist and Dravidian movements. They contributed to the freedom fight by singing patriotic songs. Many of the plays performed by the group featured songs composed by the late communist leader P. Jeevanandham. T.K. Shanmugam himself wrote a foreword for Annadurai’s first novel, Kumasthavin Magal. As early as 1943, T.K. Shanmugam had predicted that Annadurai would become a future leader of the Tamils. In his autobiography, he wondered how he had foreseen this.
Shanmugam’s family had a background in theatre and acting. At the age of six, he joined the troupe of the legendary Sankaradas Swamigal, considered the father of Tamil theatre. Women did not typically participate in acting during that time, so to overcome this, Swamigal’s troupe made males play female roles. Thus, T.K. Shanmugam acted in both male and female roles.
In later years, he played the title role in the play ‘Karaikal Ammaiyar,’ portraying the famous Tamil woman poet. Shanmugam’s dedication was such that he reportedly removed two front teeth for a more realistic portrayal of Karaikal Ammaiyar, the old female poet. In his later years, he was more popularly referred to as ‘Ammai Shanmugam.’
“He curved his lower lip inwardly to give a realistic image of an old woman without teeth. He even removed two of his teeth for the role,” says T.K.S. Kalaivanan, his son. “He had pain in his jaws for the rest of his life, and the curved posture, holding a walking stick, gave him constant back pain.”
His self-effacing autobiography, ‘Yenathu Nataka Vaazhkai,’ offers a panoramic view of theatre from the beginning of the 20th century, the personalities involved in it, the plight of boys who were inducted into these troupes by their parents out of poverty, the social status of actors, and importantly, the uncertain financial conditions. He passed away on 15 February 1973 in Chennai.