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His classical odyssey

Actor Kamal Haasan at his residence in Alwarpet, Chennai. Photo: R. Ragu  


Forget the actor. That was the brief. After 50 years of acting, that’s the only facet of Kamal Haasan people think about. Sometimes, maybe, they think of Kamal Haasan the writer or Kamal Haasan the director. But it’s almost always the actor. So one evening this April, in Bangalore, I asked him about the other things: the singing, the poetry, the photography, and the dancing, especially the dancing. He was in the city filming ‘Uthama Villain’, but it was the day of the elections, so there was no shooting across the State. Dressed in a white linen ensemble and looking extremely relaxed, he told me, “This kind of exposure to the arts you can get only in two places – either a Brahmin household or a community dedicated to art. I didn’t have a choice. I was born into this Brahmin atmosphere.”

He spoke about a house in Paramakudi filled with music. His mother Rajalakshmi played the violin. Elder brothers Charuhasan and Chandrahasan were singers. “So it was an environment of music,” he said. “Like others hum cinema songs, classical music would be running through my mind.” But as far as the others in the family were concerned, he was about as talented as his father Srinivasan, who couldn’t sing at all and, therefore, had decided to become a patron of the arts. The house was on a two-acre tract of land, and half of it became a sort of open-air auditorium where artists would be invited to perform. MLV. Madurai Somu. A young Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan.

Kamal Haasan spoke about his sister, the family’s only daughter, who was sent off to Thanjavur to train in classical dance in a gurukulam, when she was five. “When she was eight, she returned to find a surprise, a very late-born brother. That was me. I was not planned. Everything else in the family was planned. The eldest son would be a lawyer. The second son would also be a lawyer. The daughter was going to be a classical dancer.” They even named her Mrinalini, because his father was a great fan of Mrinalini Sarabhai.

Listening to Kamal Haasan speak is like sitting down for a screenplay narration. The tone is steady. The tale is dramatic. Then, when you least expect it, there’s a splash of comic relief.

Listening to Kamal Haasan speak is like sitting down for a screenplay narration. The tone is steady. The tale is dramatic. Then, when you least expect it, there’s a splash of comic relief. He narrated the stretch where he – we should probably name this character in the flashback; let’s call him by the diminutive Kamal – was cut off from art for a while when his mother was diagnosed as a chronic diabetic and had to be sent to Chennai, where her elder brother lived. Kamal accompanied her. “I was about three. They enrolled me in Holy Angels. I had this uncanny knack of running away. I’d pick up a taxi and come back home.”

Kamal turned five. He became an actor. And music and dance returned to his life when his sister came to Chennai. He used to escort her on the bus for veena classes, and there, to keep him out of mischief, he’d be given a small veena to play. “In a way,” Kamal Haasan said, “I could say that music is my sister’s strong influence.”

He said that he was not a keen learner of the arts. He just picked things up by ear, karna parampara, rather than actual practice. But he used to talk like he was going to perform at The Music Academy the next day. “All that was leaning towards acting, not playing the veena,” he laughed.

What you cannot do, you tend to dislike. It was too much hard work.

The story Kamal Haasan told that evening kept going back and forth in time, a jumble of memories – like this one from when Kamal was seven or eight. He was friends with Palghat Mani Iyer’s son, an accomplished violinist, who thought Kamal was a budding veena genius. “He took me around saying that this guy is a genius, he knows everything. But I couldn’t play. I could only talk about it. I didn’t know how to get out of it.” So Kamal had this fear. There was disdain too. “What you cannot do, you tend to dislike. It was too much hard work.”

Then, this one from when Kamal was 10 or 12. He joined T.K. Shanmugam’s theatre troupe – Kamal Haasan respectfully called him Annachi – where he was trained in swordfight and stunts and even dance. “That’s where I suddenly thought: Maybe I can shake a leg.” That is possibly the understatement of the century.

This was the scene on stage: the mother is dying, and she wants her son (played by Kamal) to sing one last song for her. Shanmugam Annachi, never one to let the show not go on, urged Kamal from the wings: “Go on! You know the words. Sing!”

“I think I discovered myself as a singer in the TKS Nataka Sabha,” Kamal Haasan said. But it was an arduous, and somewhat accidental, discovery. The troupe was staging a play named ‘Appavin Aasai’. There were songs in it, but because no one knew if Kamal could sing; they played these songs on a Grundig spool-type tape recorder and asked him to lip-sync them on stage. Then, one evening, the tape snapped. This was the scene on stage: the mother is dying, and she wants her son (played by Kamal) to sing one last song for her. Shanmugam Annachi, never one to let the show not go on, urged Kamal from the wings: “Go on! You know the words. Sing!” And Kamal sang ‘ Uzhaithu pizhaikka vendum’, which seems a rather odd song to sing in this situation. Anyway, as scripted, the mother died. The unscripted coda to the scene: a singer was born.

“That’s when I realised I could boldly sing before an audience,” Kamal Haasan said. “And it’s not like playback singing, where the mike is in front of you. The mike is at a distance.”

In a play named ‘Avvaiyaar’, Kamal played the young Murugan, singing folk songs while perched on a tree.

A number of names, famous and otherwise, popped up as supporting characters in Kamal Haasan’s flashback. S.G. Kasi Iyer, S.G. Kittappa’s brother, who composed the music for a dance drama on Lord Muruga’s Arupadai Veedu; he would compose perfect swaras for sound effects, to mimic, say, the opening of a door. Madurai Venkatesan, who taught Kamal the basics of Carnatic music. K.B. Sundarambal, who lived in the house behind Kamal’s and would make aappams and sing songs for him when he jumped over the wall to visit his classmate Ganapathy Subramaniam, her adopted son. (“In my naiveté, I used to sing ‘Pazham Nee Appa’ to her. And she tolerated my singing.”)

And Mylapore Gowri Ammal. “I had the great honour of lying on her lap, in the Ranganatha pose, as I watched my sister learn dance. She would sometimes play the taalam on my shoulder or cheek.”

The Guru and his sishya: Classical singer Balamuralikrishna with actor Kamal Haasan.

Another famous name played a bigger part in Kamal’s musical education, and for that story, we must cut to the early 1980s. Kamal is a very busy actor. It’s been some 10 years since he sat in Madurai Venkatesan’s class. It’s been 10 years since he learnt any new music. He’s shooting in Bombay for ‘Karishma’, the Hindi remake of ‘Tik Tik Tik’. He has an accident. He breaks a leg. He has to buy two tickets to fly to Chennai, the extra one for the seat in front that has to be folded down so he can stretch the broken leg. The man in the adjacent seat observes his plight and asks him: “What are you going to do in the months it’s going to take for this to heal?”

That was M. Balamuralikrishna. Kamal said he didn’t know. Balamuralikrishna asked Kamal if he liked music. Kamal nodded. Balamuralikrishna said, “Instead of wasting time, why don’t you learn something from me?” Kamal thought he was joking – until Balamuralikrishna landed up at Kamal’s house the next day. Classes began with the sishya’s foot in the air. “My guru found me,” Kamal Haasan said.

Balamuralikrishna asked Kamal what he’d learnt. Kamal said he knew some 30-odd keerthanas. Balamuralikrishna asked him to sing. Kamal sang. Balamuralikrishna said, gently, “Let’s start at the beginning, with a geetham.” Kamal Haasan laughed at the memory. “So I knew what he thought of me. He wanted me to be good enough to give a public performance, but I wasn’t there yet. He still keeps asking me when I am going to sing on stage.”

When Kamal’s leg got better, Balamuralikrishna said, “We can shift the classes to my house.” Kamal began to hobble over to his guru’s house, where he’d sit on a sofa and learn music. Eventually, Balamuralikrishna asked him, “Is your leg okay? Can you walk?” Kamal said yes. Balamuralikrishna said, “Then you can sit on the floor and continue.”

Classes went on for about one-and-a-half years. I asked Kamal Haasan to name something he learnt. He thought for a minute and then launched into the Karnataka Kapi kriti, ‘Sri Raghurama Samara Bheema’. I thought he’d stop there, with this opening line of the pallavi, but he continued... ‘Sasi Mouli Vinuta Seeta Ramana... Mukendu Lalitha Hasa Pariyathi...' And then he sang the swaras... ‘Pa dha ni pa ma ri ri ga ma ri sa / pa dha pa sa ni pa dha ni pa ma ri ga ma...’ He stopped dramatically, after negotiating the sharp, colourful turn at ‘Ramana... ri ga ma.’

Kamal Haasan said he still remembered the song because he learnt it when he was going to New Delhi to receive the National Award for Best Actor for ‘Moondram Pirai’. “My guru asked me to learn a new geetham for the occasion.” When the leg healed and Kamal resumed shooting, he continued with classes whenever he found the time. He’d call Balamuralikrishna and go over.

Then, during a shooting, Kamal misplaced a notebook filled with song notations. “I think he was a little upset about this. Then I got busy, and we gradually lost touch – otherwise, I would have been his student for 22 years now.” I asked him about his guru’s dream that Kamal Haasan should sing on stage. He laughed. “Balamuralikrishna saying that I can do this is like Sivaji Ganesan saying, “Nadippu romba easy pa.”’ You shouldn’t take it seriously.”

This is the first of a series of articles on Kamal Haasan’s tryst with the classical arts.

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Printable version | Mar 17, 2018 4:12:53 AM |