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Documenting the life of a great stage artiste


The police inspector took a close look at the two people sitting in the back seat of the car. The tall, handsome man and the fair, beautiful woman stared back at him. It was past midnight, and there was enough room for suspicion.

But the inspector let the car go - for the man was the great actor on stage, Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar.

A few days later, the inspector met the actor again; this time he was alone in the car. "When you travelled with that pretty woman that night, I let you go only because it was you," the inspector said, smiling. But Bhagavathar's smile was even broader. For, the beautiful woman the inspector referred to was not a woman. It was Ochira Velukkutty (1905-1954), an actor who is said to have enacted female roles better than real women.

That night Velukkutty and Bhagavathar were travelling straight after a performance to another town where they had another show of the same play, `Karuna,' which had made history having been staged more than 7,000 times over seven years. Velukkutty was still in costume, for he did not want to take the trouble of dressing up as the heroine all over again and hence the suspicion in the inspector's mind. It was not just the police inspector who was fooled by Velukkutty's appearance. Those who did not know that he was not a male actor always assumed that he was a woman. He was truly a phenomenon on the Malayalam stage. But very little of his remarkable life has been documented.

Therefore, K. Sreekumar's `Ochira Velukutty,' a biography published by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, assumes significance. For the students and lovers of Malayalam theatre, there is some substantial material to refer to if they want to know more about the great actor.

Dr. Sreekumar has succeeded in telling, in an engaging way, the life story of one of the most amazing artistes Kerala has ever produced, with very little material that was available. Velukutty's childhood, the training he got from his uncle, who was also good at playing female roles, his rise to fame following the stupendous success of Swami Brahmavrathan's `Karuna,' in which he famously portrayed the lead role of the courtesan Vasavadatta, opposite Kunjukunju Bhagavathar's Upaguptan and his tragic end are vividly narrated.

Anecdotes, like the one mentioned, and reminiscences of a few contemporaries like Seethalakshmi, a woman who played the female companion of Velukutty's Vasavadatta on many occasions, indeed make interesting reading.

The book tells us that Kunchacko of Udaya Studio had planned to cast Velukutty in the title role of his film `Nalla Thanka.' The role eventually went to Miss Kumari, apparently because the actresses of the day protested.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Velukutty in the book is paid by Seethalakshmi, who says: "He was the epitome of femininity. Not even real women could match his beauty. No woman at that time could play female roles better than him."

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

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