Between Reviews: Musical Memories

Posted on July 31, 2010



A recent biography and an even more recent debate prove that the life and times of singer-superstar MKT continue to enthrall readers, viewers and listeners.

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AUG 1, 2010 – IF INDIA HAD A STUDIO CULTURE that, perhaps through a specialty wing, fostered biopics, the life of M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar would, by now, have made it to a theatre near you. What a story! What a voice! What a rise! What a fall! Imagine the possibilities for historical recreation of a time when films routinely had 25 songs, patterned in pristine Carnatic ragas by the illustrious likes of Papanasam Sivan and G Ramanathan. Imagine the potential for gentle comedy – not just from the shenanigans of NS Krishnan, TA Madhuram or Kali N Ratnam, but also from the staging of sequences in a film language so quaint, so distanced from ours today. Then, in this midst, imagine the uproar unleashed by the Lakshmikanthan murder trial, leading to the incarceration of MKT and Krishnan. The entire thing, in short, is a screenwriter’s dream – from deification to disgrace, embellished with laughs, tears, murder and the music of the heavens.

A cinematic adaptation being a pipe dream, Suresh Balakrishnan steps in with the next best option, committing to words the story of one of Tamil cinema’s earliest and most glorious stars. Bagavather: His Life and Times takes the reader through MKT’s life, with chapters titled Childhood and the Formative Years, Cinema and Stardom, The Lakshmikanthan Murder Case, After April 1947, and Last Days and the Memory. If, at places, it appears that a tough editor might have dealt with the rough edges and made this a book for the ages, befitting its release during MKT’s birth centenary, the staggering research that illuminates this volume makes it indispensable to anyone even the least interested in MKT lore. Balakrishnan notes as much in his preface, that the writing this book consisted, primarily, of putting together “fragments of information that I managed to gather from multifarious sources in the course of my research.” His achievement is the consolidation of the bits and pieces of information lying hither and thither.

Where else, in the confines of two bound covers, are we to light on such nuggets as the contents of a letter from an MKT fan, written after seeing his idol on stage in Pavalakkodi? “The anticipation of his appearance caused a sudden silence in the theatre. [Devudu Iyer] adjusted both the harmonium and his shirt and tuned himself to a four and a half kattai sruti [F Sharp]. That’s it. Bhagavathar appeared majestically on stage singing a Kharaharapriya kriti of Saint Tyagaraja. [I] forgot myself when I saw his looks. His Raja Part dress, the crown on his head – wow! I felt as if I wanted to look at him forever.” Once MKT forsook stage for screen, the reviewer at Talk-a-Tone was decidedly less enthusiastic. “Sivakavi proves to be an Utter disappointment… Action poor! Technical Work poorer!! Direction Poorest!!!” Though, after this evisceration with exclamation points, even he conceded, “Bhagavathar’s singing and Elangovan’s dialogues save the picture.”

Balakrishnan is especially interested in MKT’s reputation as a Carnatic singer (as the songs, those days, were tuned in ragas and adorned with signature elements like gamakas, brigas and niraval), and within his discussion of each film, he reserves special space for a discussion of the music. In the context of Thiruneelakantar, for instance, Balakrishnan observes that the Sivan-MKT pairing proved immensely successful, with Chidambaranatha in [the raga] Hemavathi, Oru naal in Kamas, Eesan kanmino in Ragamalika and Maraivai puthaitha in Darbar. And he draws on Subbudu’s comments from a Kungumam article dated 18th January, 1990, where the notoriously persnickety critic raved, “The purpose of music is to touch the heart, melt the heart, give delight and encouragement… All these characteristics were there in MKT’s music in full measure… Deena karunakarane is full of kaarvais, improvisations, embellishments… The slightest slip means death. Try to sing it and you will get the message.”

And then came dissonance, with MKT’s implication in the murder of “yellow journalist” Lakshmikanthan. Let us take leave of Balakrishnan’s book, at this juncture, and follow his fascination with his subject through the pages of Sruti magazine, where, commemorating MKT’s centenary, Vamanan wrote an eminently worthwhile two-part feature in April and May 2010. In the next issue, Balakrishnan raged that Vamanan’s profile was disappointing. “At the outset, may I congratulate Sruti for paying homage to the great musician… However, as the biographer of MK Tyagaraja Bhagavathar, I am constrained to record my disappointment at Vamanan’s ill-informed and ill-researched writing…” In response, Vamanan termed Balakrishnan’s contentions as an “intemperate outburst,” adding with considerable snark, “The correspondent obviously feels that he is the one and only worthwhile source on Bhagavathar… Did he receive his tablet of commandments on Bhagavathar somewhere on Mount Sinai?”

By the July 2010 issue, the debate was (or is) still raging. MKT’s son-in-law took issue with Vamanan’s statement, “Bhagavathar once remarked that he had not been punished enough.” Balakrishnan added, “There is every possibility that an unsuspecting reader might have assumed that Bhagavathar felt he was guilty.” Another correspondent, BM Sundaram, aligned himself on Vamanan’s side, stating that the article was an homage to a great singer-actor of Tamil cinema. Vamanan concluded that he stood by “my article, its facts, its thrust, its spirit and my integrity.” Finally, Sruti regretted that the clarification provided for MKT’s I-was-not-punished-enough statement had not appeared in time to mollify the sentiments of anguished family and fans. A hundred years after MKT’s birth, it’s astounding to note the passion with which he is still being discussed. Balakrishnan’s book and Vamanan’s profile are highly recommended, but first, if you can (and in case you haven’t), do listen to the man’s music, most of it miraculously still available. It’s why ears were invented.

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