Vidwan Mathirimangalam Natesa Iyer, Kamala, Seetha, T.P.K. Sastry, C.P.S. Mani Iyer. S.K. Sundaram, ‘Gavai’ Kalyanam, A. Dhanapal Chettiar, V.B. Srinivasan, ‘Baby’ Kokila, ‘Master’ Pranatharthiharan, Padmanabhachar and Rajagopala Iyer.
During the early decades of Tamil cinema, ‘Bhakthi’ movies revolving around gods and saints were popular. It is interesting to note that in 1936-37, there was a spate of such films. The list was quite formidable — Mahatma Kabirdas, Pattinathar, Meerabai, Arunagirinathar, Sundaramurthy Nayanar, Bhaktha Arunagiri, Bhaktha Thulasidas, Bhaktha Purandharadasa, Bhaktha Jayadeva and Bhaktha Sri Thyagaraja… and most of them well received at the box office.
Bhaktha Sri Thyagaraja, also known as Sri Thyagaraja Saritham, was produced by the Bombay-based popular movie unit of the day, Sagar Movietone, and directed by successful filmmaker Virendra Desai (married to Hindi film star Nalini Jayawant). T.P. Kalyanarama Sastry, a lawyer involved in Tamil cinema, was the associate director who helped Desai because of the latter’s lack of familiarity with Tamil.
The film was written by a popular attorney of Madras, M.P. Sundararajan, who was involved in cinema and horse-racing. It was thanks to him that the Indian movie mogul S.S. Vasan came into racing and later into films, which created history in many ways. (The noted Tamil writer and humorist ‘Nadodi’ was MPS’s son-in-law.)
Sundararajan’s son, M.P.S. Pranatharthiharan, played a kid’s role in the movie. (Later he joined the editing department of Gemini Studios, and then moved to Bombay where he worked for the Indian Films Division as senior executive in charge of editing.)
The tale of the iconic music composer of Saint Thyagaraja is well known. The film brilliantly captured a couple of famous incidents in the saint’s life such as the parting of the curtain at the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord Venkateswara temple at Tirupathi after he sang the famous ‘Thera theeyaga raadha’ (raga Gowlipanthu); and the legendary episode of Rama and Lakshmana appearing as bodyguards to save the saint from thieves when he was travelling in a palanquin in the middle of the woods. (The song, ‘Mundhu Venuka,’ composed by Thyagaraja in praise of Rama and Lakshmana, in raga ‘Durbar’, is a composition popular at concerts to this day. Well-known Carnatic musician S.V. Parthasarathy popularly sang this song on gramophone.)
Intriguingly, a directory of Indian musicians was published in Poona during the late 19th century in which the composer’s name is mentioned in a cryptic line as ‘Thyagaiah, Musician, Thiruvarur’. There is no mention of Swamigal or Saint. The mythification of the musician seems to have taken place later.
This film has as many as 32 songs, almost all compositions of Saint Thyagaraja sung in Telugu by Mathirimangalam Natesa Iyer, who played the title role. A trained Carnatic musician, he had played singing roles in some movies but this was his best.
The compositions were in ragas Thodi, Naata, Bowli, Kapi, Kalyani, Atana, Kaanada, Bilahari, Neelambari, Nalinakanthi and others. There were only two Tamil songs, one a chorus sung by the gang of thieves out to rob the musician. The other was ‘Shivano…’, a Tamil translation of the saint’s composition in Telugu, ‘Evarani nirnayinchedhiraa…’ in raga Devaamruthavarshini made famous by the gramophone record cut by iconic singer S.G. Kittappa.
Kamala, now forgotten, played the saint’s wife. Seetha, who played important roles in many movies of S.M. Sriramulu Naidu and Pakshiraja Films, played the envious, quarrelsome sister-in-law, Thyagaraja’s brother Japesan’s wife.
Desai shot the film on several actual locations such as the Tirupathi temple with the noted lensman of the day, Rajanikantha Pandya. T.P.K. Sastry worked as associate director besides playing two roles in the movie as the king of Thanjavur and a musician. According to old-timers, this film did well at the box office mainly because of the music.
In 1946, the iconic Chittoor V. Nagaiah produced, directed and played the lead role in Thyagaiah, which was not only a box office hit but also a critical success. (A few years ago, when this film was screened at Vintage Heritage, a film club, there was only standing room, and the film was greeted with repeated applause.)
Another version came later in colour in 1981 by ace cartoonist and filmmaker Bapu in which the star of Sankarabharanam J.V. Somayajulu played Thyagaiah, along with K. R. Vijaya and Rao Gopal Rao. In spite of colour, glamour, brilliant direction and on-screen narration by Bapu, the film did not do well.
Remembered For: The classic compositions of Saint Thyagaraja rendered by Natesa Iyer and the on-screen narration by Virendra Desai.