Today is the birth centenary of the unforgettable singer, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, who soared to the heights on the performance stage and in Tamil films but plumbed the depths towards the end of his life. He was the ‘Prince of Actors’, not only in South India but also in Burma, Malaya and Ceylon.
Today is the birth centenary of an unforgettable singer who soared to the heights on the performance stage and in Tamil films but plumbed the depths towards the end of his life. I wonder how many remember Thyagaraja Bhagavathar for his successes and not for the sad events that led to his final decline.
Born into a goldsmith’s family in Mayavaram, Thyagarajan demonstrated his singing talent from childhood. In Trichinopoly, to where the family moved, he spent more time at concert venues, listening to singers and learning from them, than on his studies. His father’s efforts to get him to concentrate on the latter as well as on the family business led him to run away from home and become an itinerant singer, till his father found him singing to a large audience in Cuddappah, brought him back home and let him have his way.
When senior railwayman F.G. Natesa Iyer, who ran an amateur theatre group, heard the 10-year-old Thyagarajan, he was convinced he had a star in the making and gave him a role in his ‘Harischandra’. Thyagarajan stole the show. But even while he continued to make an impression on the stage, he began taking lessons in Carnatic music. When, after six years of training, he gave his maiden concert in Trichy, one of the maestros in the audience, overwhelmed by the talent he had listened to, described the teenage singer as a ‘Bhagavathar’. And, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar he was for the rest of his life.
Bhagavathar, however, felt he needed to hone his singing skills further and, even as he continued with his training in Carnatic music, decided to make the stage his profession. His success in ‘Pavalakkodi’ in 1926 had him on his way to becoming a stage star wherever there was a Tamil audience. They called him the ‘Prince of Actors’, not only in South India but also in Burma, Malaya and Ceylon. The best, however, was yet to come.
Two film producers who had watched ‘Pavalakkodi’ on the stage decided to make a film version with the same leads, Bhagavathar and S.D. Subbulakshmi. Released in 1934, it was an immediate box office hit. One successful Bhagavathar film followed another. And, some proved record-breakers. “Chinthamani” and “Ambikapathy” vied with each other in 1937, the former scoring by running for over a year in many a theatre at home and abroad, the first Tamil film to do so. It was a record to be broken by Bhagavathar’s “Haridas” in 1944 when it ran for 114 weeks in the Broadway Theatre in Madras.
Two noteworthy features of Bhagavathar’s career in those heady days were: (1) he refused to take part in any film which had atheistic leanings, and (2) he was totally committed to the Tamil Isai movement. As a consequence of the latter, no stage, other than the Tamil Isai Sangam’s, gave him a concert platform despite his mastery over Carnatic music. Nor was he allowed to sing at the Thyagaraja Aradhana in Tiruvaiyyaru.
By the 1940s, he was the most successful Tamil actor — and the richest, living a life of luxury. But fate has a way of playing sad tricks. In 1944, a muck-raking journalist C.N. Lakshmikantham was murdered and Bhagavathar was brought to trial as one of the accused. He and that great comedian of the time, N.S. Krishnan, were found guilty, but after spending 30 months in prison were released when their appeal to the Privy Council — which was returned to the Madras High Court — proved successful.
Released from prison in 1947, Bhagavathar found himself not exactly in favour with the film community. He began producing his own films, he acted in a few for others, but none of them was a success. It almost seemed as though the public had rejected him. Or did they prefer the MGR-Annadurai-Karunanidhi school of cinema? Whatever the reason, a disillusioned and impoverished Bhagavathar took to spiritualism and became a pilgrim, singing only in the temples he visited. He was out of the public eye when he passed way on November 1, 1959.
Many moons ago, Sailendra Bhaskar got in touch with me and wanted to know whether I could provide any information on a Rev. John Breeden who had built the Egmore Wesley Church and then gone on to found Bhaskar’s old school, St. George’s Homes, Ketti (Ooty). I’m afraid I was of no help, but Bhaskar, with four other old boys based in Australia, the U.K. and the Nilgiris, got down to following the Breeden trail about 18 months ago.
Bhaskar writes, “Between us, we could find huge amounts of information on the Reverend and his work, his movements in and out of India, his speeches from the pulpit and at fund-raising events in India and the U.K., and so much more. Why, one of us even managed to locate and buy two copies of a book written by the good Reverend — one of those copies was actually signed in his own hand! This copy has been handed over to the old school for safe-keeping.
“Over the months, we realised that the Reverend must actually have been a reclusive sort, who shunned publicity and actually stayed out of pictures.”
The focus of the search now became a picture of Rev. Breeden if one was available anywhere. They found 12 pictures in Egmore Wesley Church of former pastors. But the pictures were not captioned. So, was Breeden one of them? They had no idea, till one of the group, John Castellas from Melbourne, holidaying in London, visited the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies’ Archives and came across a photograph of a group of missionaries who had lectured at an exhibition in Britain in 1907. The picture was fortunately captioned — and John Breeden identified, providing the opportunity to match one of the faces in the Egmore Church with it. Bhaskar tells me that now the Church will know what its founder looks like and won’t have to heed the advice of a caretaker who had suggested: “Choose any picture and call it Rev. Breeden and no one will know the difference.”
St. George’s Homes, which opened its doors in May 1914 after planning and fund-raising efforts that John Breeden had started in 1910, is now called the Laidlaw Memorial School and Junior College. But that’s another story. Today’s is a tribute to an example set for all researchers: Persistence pays.