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Mesmerising the masses


Solomon Pappiah tells T. Saravanan on how he took patti mandram to the masses

Photos: S. James

A MAN OF MANY WORDS Professor Solomon Pappiah

He needs no introduction. His voice is a craze among modern day mimicry artistes. His command over Tamil enables him to get complex literary issues across to the common man. Few can find fault with his ‘down to earth' speaking style. He has taken ‘patti mandram' based on social themes to the masses.

The accomplished orator and a public figure, Solomon Pappiah has moderated more than 5,000 debate programmes across the globe. “My familiarity stems from the Tamil debate programmes. The reach and fame depends on the topics selected by my team. Social themes are the ones that attract the largest crowds,” he says.

Born as the ninth child in a family of 12, young Solomon Pappiah had his job cut out. His father was a mill worker and did not have the wherewithal to support his education. But, that did not deter him. Financial help from his friends helped him through. And, there were a couple of his teachers who were his inspiration. One, was Arasu, his drawing master at the American College Higher Secondary School, and the other, Professor Jothi Muthu of the American College who nurtured his love of Tamil.

Pappiah subsequently joined the Thiagarajar College to pursue his Post-Graduation in Tamil and became part of the first batch of M.A Tamil students. “We were fortunate to have scholarly speakers like Professor Gana Sirsabesan. From them, I learnt that to become a good teacher, one should also be a good speaker,” he points out.

Public life

He entered the public stage in 1960, when he became a teacher at The American College. With the knowledge accrued over the years, he became a man to reckon with in the already established literary circle. Those were the days when literary topics ruled the roost. However, such subjects were beyond the reach of the masses as not many were conversant with literature. Programmes were usually confined to big temples where religious topics were discussed.

“Tamil enthusiasts like Sa. Ganesan took efforts to organise debates outside temples, but they too were literature-based. Kudos to Kundrakudi Adigalar for changing that. He understood that while people enjoyed debates, they were not able to completely appreciate the complex word play of literary discussions. So, he organised programmes based on the Tirukkural. I grew up on the stage set by him. It was he who popularised it among the masses. He brought about a social awakening,” says Pappiah as he tracks the evolution of patti mandram.

In the meantime, he too pondered on topics based on social themes to entertain people. “There was no dearth of good scholarly Tamil speakers. But when it came to debates, not many patrons were found. Even those parties which supported the cause of Tamils and Tamil language did not take note. Lack of space also forced people like Kundrakudi Adigalar to take the topic to public forum outside the temple,” he says.

Speaking style

Pappiah followed the style of ‘Thanthai' Periyar (Dravidian social activist) and it clicked. “Even today I follow the same style,” he says. But, it took him nearly a decade to establish himself. “When I decided to change my style and shift to social topics, I got the opportunity to organise a debate on ‘Whose contribution is more in making a good home: Husband or Wife?'. It was an instant hit. Initially, my team was reluctant about the subject matter . But later, when the programme was well received they supported in my journey,” he recalls. The huge success encouraged many other organisers go for the same topic and in Madurai alone, more than 500 shows were organised. “The battle of words attracted huge crowds. The audience would identify with the topic and choose sides to support. Of course, I too added some spice with my interventions,” he smiles. Easy as the debate programmes may look, there is a lot of hard work that goes into it. Even today, his team works and prepares diligently for each programme, right from the topic to important points to be discussed, and so on. “Only when every speaker gets an applause from the audience, can you conclude that the programme has clicked. Sometimes, a speaker's spontaneity also matters,” he explains.

Literary interest

Pappiah's interest in Tamil literature, especially Tirukkural, is immense. He has streamlined the couplets order to read it like a story. “I had this dream even when I was a teacher. I wanted to make it simple. For a programme on Tirukkural on the All India Radio, Tiruchi, my interpretations quoting real life incidents were well received. When Sun Network approached me for ‘Amudha Mozhigal', I streamlined the order of the couplets. It was well acknowledged and I also got it published as a book,” he says.

“ A Literary background is a must for an aspiring debater. He or she should be voracious reader of all topics. But not many come forward. They are trapped in the ‘net' (read internet) and are more bothered about their marks to get into lucrative job positions,” rues Pappiah.

Film venture

Though he has made a few appearances in films, he says that acting is not his cup of tea. When one points out the rib-tickling performance he has given in the movie ‘Sivaji: The boss', he says, “It clicked because I was portrayed as what I am in real life. But, filmdom is a different world, where your talent alone does not help. You also need a good director, cameraman and a strong script. The success of ‘Sivaji', got me more than 20 film offers, but I rejected them,” he says.

Pappiah preferred to perform on stage as it helped him get closer to the people. He chuckles over a recollection of how a poultry vendor mesmerised by his debate sat glued to his seat, but later accused Pappiah of spoiling the day's business!

Of all the things in the world, he values friendship the most. “But for them, I would not have been in this position. I've not seen God but friends mean everything to me. Whenever I have been in trouble, they have always bailed me out, ,” he concludes.

Pappiah is a good singer and actor.

Has written and directed plays when he was in college.

He has been keeping a diary right since he was in the fourth standard He started the Madurai Kamban Kazhaga Arakkattalai along with like minded individuals in 2003 aimed towards development of Tamil language in the Temple City.

He has penned four books: “Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram: Or Paarvai”, which was released in Madurai Central Prison where he was lodged along with his teacher colleagues for agitating on behalf of the association; “Urai Malargal”, Collection of literary-based prose pieces, prescribed textbook in Madurai Kamaraj and Kerala universities till recently; “Urai kothu' – Collection of speeches on general topics and “Tirukkural Uraiyudan” – an interpretation of Tirukkural.

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