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Those were the days: FGN, the man who spotted superstars as Tamil cinema took baby steps

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

Those were the days: FGN, the man who spotted superstars as Tamil cinema took baby steps
A painting of FGN as Hiranyakashipu


IN the early 1900s, the cinema had not yet spoken. Though dramatic groups performed well in the theatre, they were geographically limited in influence. And yet within a decade of the talkies being introduced, superstars emerged.

MS Subbulakshmi, MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar and KB Sundarambal to name a few did not rise from the shadows. They had been intelligently identified, carefully groomed and hence would reach great heights. The talent scout, perhaps, was the most important cog in the wheel of arts. It’s unbelievable that one person spotted and helped in the initial days these three titans in the field of arts. The Tamil arts field should be thankful to FG Natesa Iyer for that inkling he had when he saw giants hidden in children who were mere saplings.

FG gave the first superstar of Tamil cinema, MKT, the child role of Lohidasan in the ‘Harichandra’ play he acted in. MKT had the audience weeping when the character he played was bitten by a snake and never looked back thereafter.

Natesa Iyer projected MS Subbulakshmi as a child prodigy when she was 11 and arranged concerts for her in premium locations in Tiruchy with top musicians T Chowdiah and Dakshinamoorthy as her accompanists. While employed in the Railways, he also discovered KB Sundaramabal, who was then begging on trains by singing songs. These three are just the most successful examples of the artists who benefitted from his munificence.

For most of his life, Natesa Iyer had made Tiruchy a sort of cultural capital and welcomed talent with open hands. He wasn’t just a talent scout. He was one of the architects of modern drama in the Madras presidency. The drama bug bit Natesan very early. As a boy, he had been asked to play the role of Saraswathi in a drama and his own words froze on stage literally when the curtains went up.

While the attention the actors got fascinated him, the thrashing his father gave for going on stage hurt more at that time.

His was a learned family and his father a legal adviser to the State of Pudukottai. His brother even rose to be the Dewan of the State. Ten-year-old Natesan, for his share (with the thrashing as the impetus), ran away from home.

Brought up by an Englishman and converted, he was christened Francis George. Soon he spoke impeccable English and knew by heart most of Shakespeare’s plays. He would return to the Hindu fold later but the initials FG would stick on and puzzle most for a long time.

Natesan soon organised an amateur drama troupe. He grew to be a tall and muscular man with a thundering voice to match it. No doubt he was offered the lead roles in most of the plays because otherwise, he would have towered over those who were chosen as heroes. His role as a Manohara, where he sauntered up and down the stage amidst the clanging of the chains that bound him, orating all the while the wrongs of the king, had the audience in raptures. When later he built a palatial house in Tiruchy he would call it Manohara Vilas, the doors of which were wide open for artists who sought his help and sponsorship.

Much of his free time and most of his savings went in training and networking drama artists and musicians. It was not only Tamil dramas that he played, but English ones too — some of them before a full British audience in the sub-collector’s bungalow. His impeccable English while playing Shakespeare’s characters caught the fancy of the European audiences as well. He lived the characters and would later joke his wife was terrified of him for days after seeing him play Othello.

Natesan brought some organisation into the performance of plays. Always an amateur, he did not attempt to cut corners and save money in the production. His plays with petromax lights still had special effects and drew huge audiences. The settings and props he used led to the improvement of the Tamil dramas.

FG had a keen eye to spot talent. His banner of Rasika Ranjana Sabha, which recently celebrated its centenary, was the passport to fame for many talented youngsters. But he was never a full-time actor. Joining the South Indian Railway as a clerk, FGN retired as District Traffic Superintendent.

Using his stage charisma in politics as well, he was elected a councillor in Trichinopoly Municipal Corporation for several years and was for two terms its chairman. Though considered autocratic in wielding the chairman’s power, he would leave his mark on Tiruchy. Better water supply, a cleaner environment, and rapid action during flood and disease were his achievements. He even used his magnetism to establish reconciliation between communal rioters. Socially conscious FG staged special plays and collected funds for building temples, war and disaster relief.

FG would even do one cinema role, playing the aged husband of MS Subbulakshmi in her debut Seva Sadhan, her first hero in a short cinematic career.

Though he joined the Congress in 1915, he would agree to be presented to the Prince of Wales who was being boycotted by the nation, as the District Commissioner for the Boy Scouts.

FG would live long to see his proteges making their meteoric mark and was a familiar sight with his Rajasthani turban, riding his cycle on the roads of Tiruchy.

With inputs from the FGN family

— The author is a historian

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