Tribute to Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in his centenary year. His mass following made him a living legend. Between 1934 and 1944 he acted and sang in nine films, all of which became classics.
(This article is the first of a three-part series on Thyagaraja Bhagavathar)
He was the first superstar of South Indian Cinema with an incredible fan following. He was perhaps the first actor of the region to achieve such popularity with a fistful of films. M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar was the most sought after personality between 1934 and 1944. His films usually ran for months and ‘Haridas' (1944), set a stunning record by running uninterrupted for 114 weeks at Broadway Cinema, Madras. It even witnessed three Deepavali festivals of 1944, 1945 and 1946. This matinee idol was no great actor, but was an excellent singer with a rich and melodious voice.
The films of this handsome and charismatic man such as ‘Chintamani' (1937), ‘Ambikapathi' (1937), ‘Thiruneelakantar' (1940), ‘Ashok Kumar' (1941), ‘Sivakavi' (1943) and ‘Haridas' (1944) are unforgettable. He sang several of the songs, most of which have become immortal. Before he came to cinema, he was a leading stage star.
Mayavaram Krishnamurthy Thyagarajan was born on March 1, 1910, into a family of struggling goldsmiths in Trichinopoly. His father, Krishnamurthy Achari, did not earn enough to make both ends meet. In spite of his poverty he sent his son Thyagarajan to school, but the boy showed little interest in studies. He was more involved in music, especially singing, in which he showed astonishing talent. Krishnamurthy pulled his son out of school and got him to work in his workshop. The father was surprised to see crowds flocking to the workshop and discovered that they had come to listen to young Thyagarajan sing. He then decided to make his son a stage actor and took him to the noted talent-scout and theatre personality of Tiruchi, F.G. Natesa Iyer, a senior railway official who had his own amateur troupe. It was a time when Tamil Theatre was under the influence of the ‘Boys' Company Movement.' Thyagarajan made his debut in ‘Harichandra' as Lohidasa and at once created an impact with his vibrant voice. The audience even threw coins on the stage when Thyagarajan sang his sad songs.
Krishnamurthy Achari recognised his son's talent and so arranged for him to get training in Carnatic music. Thyagaraja received training from leading musicians such as Namakkal Raghava Ayyangar. One of his gurus felt that his precocious pupil was now a master of music and bestowed on him the honorific ‘Bhagavathar.' And that is how he came to be known as M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.
Thyagaraja emerged as a box-office draw. Most stage artists of that period belonged to one of the many Boys' Companies. But Thyagaraja did not. He was so popular and sought after that he did freelancing, getting a fancy fee each time he acted in 'special dramas'.
(A ‘special drama' was not staged by any particular troupe, but organised by a 'drama contractor' who brought various artists together and staged a play for profit. Most top stage artistes of those days who could command a fan following of their own preferred to appear in such 'special dramas' for the high remuneration they received and the freedom from the rigid discipline and all-male atmosphere of Boys' Companies.)
Most stage actresses playing the heroine opposite Thyagaraja paled into insignificance as he was a great scene-stealer who delighted in one-upmanship. The only actress who stood up to him was S.D. Subbulakshmi. Their onstage battle of wits and repartee - not found in the script - paved the way for their success. In places such as Jaffna (Sri Lanka) many fans placed heavy bets among themselves on who would win the game of repartee that night!
Their most successful play ‘Pavalakkodi' (a mega hit in Ceylon and Burma), a romance, was made into a film in 1934 by Al. Rm. Alagappa Chettiar. Thyagaraja and Subbulakshmi made their cinematic debut with it along with the director, K. Subramanyam.
‘Pavalakkodi' had as many as 50 songs. The composer was Papanasam Sivan, who played a major role in the rise of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar as a singing star.
After the success of ‘Pavalakkodi', Thyagaraja starred in ‘Naveena Sarangadhara' (1936) once again with Subbulakshmi and under director K. Subramanyam. It fared well and a song by Thyagaraja, composed by Papanasam Sivan, ‘Sivaperuman Kirupai Vendum…' became a super hit. The next year saw Thyagaraja Bhagavathar's fame soar and turned him into a living legend.
(To be continued)