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Melody of memories

Vimala Varma has acted and sung in ‘Nirmala’, the Malayalam film in which playback singing was introduced. K. Pradeep joins her in a walk down memory lane

Photo:Vipin Chandran

Unsung Vimala Varma sang and danced in ‘Nirmala’ in the late forties

For Vimala B. Varma some memories simply refuse to die. One that she often plucks out is a rooted sorrow of a childhood dream gone awry: The dream to become a playback singer. Despite a wonderful beginning, fate had other things in store for her.

Vimala was in the sixth standard when she and her elder sister, Girija, were invited by her music teacher Sarojini Menon to sing for the Malayalam film ‘Nirmala’ (1948). It was in this film that playback singing was first introduced in the language. The recordings were to be held at Modern Theatre, Salem. Vimala was excited and remembers getting ready for that trip. Accompanied by their elder brother, they set off.

Off to Salem

There, things took a different turn. Vimala, who was ‘contracted’ to sing the back up vocals for Sarojini Menon’s song ‘Karunakara Peethambara…’ was so impressive that she went on to sing two more songs in the film. To top it, Vimala was asked to act in the film too. The offer was for a double role, the first ever in Malayalam cinema.

“My sister returned home after recording the first song. I stayed on. For the next three months it was terrible. Some of us, the vegetarians in the group, were put up in a house at Sevapet. My brother, many years my senior, had his friends. I was mostly left alone with a servant who served breakfast and lunch on time. I still remember those long, monotonous hours, sitting outside and staring at the narrow street .

I felt so homesick, wanted to be back with my mother. I even went up to the director, cried, and pleaded with him to let me go home. I had to pack my costumes, do the make up, keeping with the continuity of the scenes. Then we had to spend a couple of months in Madras to record the songs for HMV. I lost a whole school year,” recounts Vimala, who now stays with her daughters at Tripunithura.


No print of the film ‘Nirmala’ is available today and so too some of the songs. There are a lot of grey areas in the information about the film and what little we have is incomplete. Like, there is no mention of Vimala or of the other singers like Vasudeva Kurup, and C. K. Raghavan in any material on the history of Malayalam cinema. Vimala now remains the main source for this film. “I play the role of Nirmala’s younger sister, Vimala, who dies of typhoid in the first phase of the film. I also act as Lalitha in the latter half. There is a song-dance sequence where I come in with the song ‘Ettanvarunna diname…’ One of the other singers, Raghavan, I understand, was picked up from the train. He sang one song in the film. I don’t know what happened to him after that. I think, except for P. Leela, none of the other singers went on to sing in films thereafter.”

When the film was released Vimala hogged a lot of popularity. “People used to crowd around and sing my songs. I remember being honoured with a gold medal at a function before the screening at the Menaka Theatre in Ernakulam. I did get a couple of offers after that. I went with my father to Udaya Studio for a voice test, which was okayed. The film was ‘Vellinakshatram,’ but I think my father did not agree on the terms they put forward. And I was overjoyed for I did not want to have anything to do with films after the ‘Nirmala’ experience. Later, Malabar Productions asked me if I could play the heroine in one of their forthcoming films, which I politely turned down. That was the end of my relationship with films.”

Vimala spent most of her childhood in Tripunithura and Thrissur. She studied Carnatic vocal from Sarojini Menon and later from the unfortunate genius, Vathakad Raghava Menon. Old timers remember the very popular concerts by the sisters Girija and Vimala. She began singing for All India Radio, Kozhikode, from 1956 and joined the organisation in 1962. “Before I became a staffer I did a lot of musical features with music directors like K. Raghavan and B. A. Chidambaranath. There were also the occasional concerts. As a staffer I have worked as announcer, junior composer, drama voice, composed and broadcast numerous light music pieces and anchored popular programmes. This job gave me the security after I lost my husband.”

Opting for voluntary retirement from service in 1993, Vimala now spends time with her daughters and grandchildren. She also teaches music at her home. “I try to impart what little I have been able to imbibe,” she says with a satisfied smile.

But somewhere in the bottom of her heart there are scars: Something that tells you that this gifted woman deserved much more.

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