Chennai and Tamil Nadu
Strength in solitude
Photo (left): T. L. PRABHAKAR
Prema Karanth became synonymous with the landmark film Phaniyamma. She lived a quiet life, doing things that she liked most
THINKING MIND Prema Karanth kept to herself and was very serious about her work;
Prema Karanth, I always felt, should have been named Durga or Chamundeshwari. It suited her better. She was courageous and fearless, and lived a life of principles. Prema sought justice, and refused to be shackled by the conventional society of her t
imes. She went about her tasks alone, no stooping, no compromising.
Prema lost her mother as a baby of eight months. She was brought up by her grandparents in the small town of Shidlaghatta near Kolar, where she did her schooling. Not having any siblings or friends of her age to share her thoughts, she was a loner who often escaped to a world of her own. After school she came to Bangalore to do her Teacher’s Training Course and stayed with the former editor of Prajavani and Kannada Prabha, Y.N.K., who was her first cousin. Prema would often say, “I am grateful to my aunt, Y.N.K.’s mother. She was so good to me. While other relatives forced me to get married to some wealthy man, she stood by me. I refused this and was determined to make a life of my own.” Prema began to live on her own. The people living around her house in Basavanagudi, recall her walking out of the house in a spotless, white sari. The local boys would mischievously yell out “Tinopal” as soon as she stepped out. It was a few years after this that she met B.V. Karanth, and the rest is history. I remember meeting Karanth in a get together in 1971, when I was shooting for “Vamshavruksha”. Karanth spoke about the difficult life in Delhi, and how it was tough on him and his wife Prema, both being theatre persons. In the very same breath, he spoke about the enriching life at the National School of Drama. And as we conversed, he happened to tell me a rather cute story of how he met Prema. “I met her in Lalbagh, we talked and decided to get married.”
As someone who did only art cinema, I was unemployed most of the time. I used to often drop in on Karanth and Prema. Once I saw her sweeping the floor and asked, “Why don’t you keep a maid?” She sharply retorted, “I don’t keep servants to do my work, I do everything myself.”
I got to know Prema on the sets of G.V. Iyer’s film “Kudure Motte”. Prema did the costumes and also acted in the film. I found her quietly going about her job. I never saw her indulging in small talk or wasting her time on the sets. In the evenings, she would discuss the day’s work or plan for the next day. Prema had become known as a hard task master. She was extremely serious about her work and expected the same from everyone. Once, after a late night shoot I came to my room to see that it was spick and span and my bed had been cleanly made by Prema. I was both ashamed and touched. Later, when Prema came to me with the role of Phaniyamma, I begged her to give me something different. “I am sick of playing suffering women. I feel like doing a cabaret number,” I had told her. Of course, she didn’t take me seriously. During the films’ shooting, which started after many bureaucratic hurdles, Prema was kind and understanding. When it came to direction, she would arrange the shots, gave me the dialogue and left the rest to me. She was extremely patient at handling all the actors, be it a child or a veteran. She even made equal payment!All the hard work had paid off. “Phaniyamma” was a big success. Prema’s handling of such a non-saleable, non-commercial subject was praised by the people and the critics. I went with her to Delhi to participate in the International Film Festival in which “Phaniyamma” was an official entry. I had my share of the limelight, except that many a times people did not recognise me as the actor playing “Phaniyamma”.
L.V. Sharada as Phaniyamma
The film went abroad to several countries; she would invite me and I would tell her I was scared of flying.
For the Trivandrum Festival Prema bought an air ticket for me and ordered: “You are flying with me”. I froze in the plane in between Madhu, the cameraman and Prema. I had no reason to panic, I realised, knowing Prema’s grit. We were once to travel back to Bangalore and arrived late at the station. The train started moving, and Prema who was on the platform, called out to me and started running along the train. And she did manage to stop it!
With “Phaniyamma” basking in recognition, life became hectic for Prema, making documentaries, acting, conducting workshops for children and making costumes for Karanth’s projects.
Prema had yet another fascination; she loved collecting objects related to theatre, music and cinema, from around the world. House proud that she was, she kept them really well and the house looked like a little museum.
Karanth and Prema loved their dog Ramu. Later it was Ninja who was very attached to them. He was a wonder dog and sang with Karanth.
The writer with Prema
It was for Ninja that Prema walked out of the hospital in her last days, ignoring the doctors’ warning. If only she had stayed in the hospital, and undergone surgery, she would have been alive.
That fateful Monday I had called up to ask her how she was. She spoke about the humungous bill (Rs. 1,50,000) she would have to foot if she underwent treatment and was sad that the fate of B.V. Karanth Memorial Trust hung in mid air. That was my last conversation with her and she went into coma the same night.I admired the couple for the space they gave each other. They never intruded into each other’s spaces, and did not even compete with each other, despite being in the same field.
Prema, was the ultimate symbol of strength and self will, not in the belligerent way, but in a quiet, resolute way.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu