MEMORIES OF COCHIN
Of a time when music flowed
Pappukutty Bhagavathar popularly known as ‘Kerala Saigal’ relives the glory of the heydays of drama
ONE FROM THE ALBUM Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, left, and Pappukutty Bhagavathar during the production of ‘Maya’
The stage has been my life. The first time I got on stage was when I was studying in the second standard. I was just seven years old. Some people in my native place of Thekke Malippuram (Vypeen) got together to stage a musical play ‘Vedamani.’ I did a role in this. At the end of the performance a lot of people came up, told me that I had done well, said that I had a bright future and asked me to learn music. I could never get this off my mind.
My father, Michael, was a well-known Chavittu Natakam artiste. He was tall, had a loud, heavy voice, could sing well and was stunning on the stage. I must have inherited this flair for singing from him. When I was 12 years I began formal training in Carnatic music. My gurus Krishnankutty Bhagavathar, with whom I studied for three years, and Chandradasa Kamath, stayed at Mattancherry. I used to walk from my house to Vypeen to take the small boat and then walk again to their houses. There were no buses in Vypeen those days. I’m talking of life nearly 84 years back.
When I was 16, I got a role in Artist P. J. Cherian’s famous drama troupe. I joined along with my intimate friend Augustine Joseph. The play was ‘Mishiha Charitram’ and I played Mary Magdalene. Those days all female roles were handled by males. This play was a huge hit, a landmark in the history of Malayalam theatre. We must have staged this play right across the State. It was so popular that some of the Tamil drama troupes, like Madurai Rajaratinam Pillai’s group that had set up camp in Alappuzha had to pack up when we arrived there.
I was with this troupe for two years. I then joined Changanassery Madhavan Nair’s group. Here in the play ‘Suhurthu’ I played the lead role. The noted Tamil singer-actor S. V. Subbiah Bhagavathar played the role of my friend in this play. There was this opening scene in the play where both of us had to sing. Subbiah Bhagavathar was a great singer and I was really scared to sing with him. He finished his part with a thunderous applause from the packed theatre. It was my turn. I prayed to all the gods and gurus and sang. It was a composition by Thumpaman Padmanbhankutty set to Kaapi raga. I knew I had to match him and sang with all conviction. When I ended there was a prolonged applause and people shouted that a Kerala singer had upstaged one from Tamil Nadu. This marked the beginning of my career.
Those were days of hardship. Travelling was a big bother. Most of our travel was buy boat mostly from Ernakulam boat jetty. There were a few buses too. After a play we used to spend long hours waiting for an occasional bus. Sometimes, especially when a play was staged for a couple of days on a stretch, we were put up in lodges or hotels. For ‘Mishiha Charitram’ I was paid five rupees for a performance. It was good money.
More than the play the audience came to listen to us sing. Even before the play began they used to demand that I sing Tyagaraja’s ‘Pakkala…’ and a K. L. Saigal song. Very often it used to be Saigal’s ‘Soja rajakumari…’ and many a time I was asked to sing this over and over again. And remember there were no microphones then. One had to sing loud and clear to reach the last row of audience. This earned me the title ‘Kerala Saigal.’ The posters and other propaganda material for the plays had this title before my name.
I acted in numerous plays like ‘Prema Ganam,’ ‘Mahati,’ Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair’s ‘Maya’ and ‘Sthree,’ ‘Paradesi’ etc. It was my acting in ‘Paradesi’ that fetched me my first film role. The film was ‘Prasanna’ (1950). In this film I also sang a song. I acted in around 20 films like ‘Muthalali,’ ‘Vilakuranja Manushyar,’ ‘Viruthan Shanku,’ ‘Aalmaram,’ ‘Bharyamaar Sookshikkuka.’
I even tried my hand at kathaprasangam. I narrated the Muttathu Varkey story ‘Paadatha Painkili’ in over 297 stages. In fact, Merryland made this into a film after the popularity of my kathaprsangam.
Along with all this I used to conduct Carnatic concerts. I have had the privilege to have some of the greatest musicians accompany me like Kottaram Sankunny Nair and Malabar Gopalan Nair on the ‘Chavittu Harmonium’ for the plays. And musicians like Mavelikkara Krishnankutty Nair, Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair, S. R. Raju, Nedumangad Sivanandan and others for the concerts. Even today I take the bus and ferry to Njarakkal to teach music to a few students. This keeps me in touch, game for a concert any day.
But there is nothing like the stage. I have simply enjoyed those years I spent with different troupes. There was camaraderie between the members that extended to our families too. I think I did the right thing in taking up music and stage for a career. It has given me name and fame. Being recognised by the government for my services to these fields, honoured by the Chief Minister, is ample reward for all these years of toil.
Pappukutty Bhagavathar, born 1913, is an actor-singer popularly called ‘Kerala Saigal.’ He was a leading star of the early musical operas. He made his film debut in the Malayalam movie ‘Prasanna.’ He went on act in more than 20 films. Honoured by the State Government for his services in the field of art, Pappukutty is also a recipient of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Fellowship and numerous other awards. He continues to teach music and conduct concerts even today.
Once I got a chance to sing at the Puzhavathu Temple at Changanassery. This was through the efforts of V.V.M. Vasudevan Namboodiri, a mridangist and father of music director L.P.R. Varma. Their family was in charge of the temple. This was long before the Temple Entry Proclamation. Those days music was supreme not caste or religion.
As told to K. PRADEEP
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