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Dramatic silences

G.V. Malatamma would have been an important name in the theatre history of Karnataka but for the fact that she always lived in the shadow of her legendary father, Gubbi Veeranna. A documentary on the veteran actress tries to articulate suppressed voices, writes DEEPA GANESH.

Malatamma: a pioneer not given her due — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

HISTORY HAS always allowed an unfair reading of itself. It has endorsed and projected only the man's experience as "legitimate". So, even when one talks of something as grand, as historically important as the Gubbi Shree Chenna Basaveshwara Nataka Company, one only comes up with sketchy details about what life was like for the women in it, though it was the first theatre company in Karnataka to employ women to play women characters. Probe a little more and this very general statement begins to take on various female forms — Sundaramma, Swarnamma, Malatamma, Bhadramma, and so on. Until recent times, there was no attempt to document the experiences, feelings, and achievements of these women who are more than mere names. The women themselves, of course, had no clue that they were making history.

An important part of the feminist agenda has been an attempt to deconstruct male-centred models. Many feminist experiments have tried to open up the world of woman's experience and break the silence. Nemichandra, a Kannada writer of repute, in her book Mahila Adhyayana, says: "The chasms created by men are so deep that they have perpetually thrown women into confusion, so much so that they act as deterrents in identifying their own selves."

To return to the history of the Gubbi Company and the women in it, consider the case of G.V. Malatamma. She is the talented daughter of the illustrious Gubbi Veeranna — without this introduction, not many would know who she is, though she was an actress and singer to reckon with. Though Gubbi Veeranna is hailed as a milestone in the history of Kannada theatre, not much is said either about his talented wives or daughters, though they were important pillars of the company.

So, when Vinod Mathur, a film-maker from the Pune Institute, sets out to make a film ("video notes", as he calls it) on Malatamma, produced by SPARROW (Sound and picture Archives for Research on Women), it turns out to be more outpourings of a daughter overwhelmed by her father's larger-than-life image.

One notices throughout the film that Malatamma has great difficulty in making herself central to her own story. An overwhelming father and her husband, who refused to give her her due as an independent emotional being, make up her story.

The film opens with the song "Toreda nanna patiyu, nirdayadee... " (sung and enacted by Malatamma's daughter B. Jayashree in the film. Incidentally, Jayashree also plays sutradhara in the film) from the play Lava-Kusha, and is repeated several times at various points in the film. Apparently, the song was a favourite with Gubbi Veeranna and whenever Malatamma sang this song on stage, he would be so touched by it that he would stand in the side wings and weep. Sadly, that turned out to be the song of her life too. The story of the early part of her life has such striking parallels with Puttanna Kanagal's Ranganayaki that one begins to wonder if Malatamma's life was in some way the inspiration of the Kanagal film.

Vinod Mathur's film is interesting in the way it unfolds for us the life in a drama company, the rigour, its grandeur, the politics within it, and so on from a woman's point of view. The 79-year-old Malatamma, confined to a wheelchair today, relives her theatre days with remarkable ease. One is struck by her graphic memory.

The story narrated by her reveals that Gubbi Veeranna had four wives. Swarnamma, Malatamma, and Shivananda were born to his second wife, Sundaramma, who was an extremely talented actress with the Gubbi Company. Malatamma talks of her mother with a lot of warmth. "Even before we could talk, we were playing parts. It is not surprising from children born to such parents," she says, with great pride. Theatre was their home, and she and her sister Swarnamma grew up learning music from stalwarts such as Mysore Vasudevachar, Veene Doreswamy Iyengar, and the like.

Before long, a set of well-wishers suggested to Gubbi Veeranna that he should marry again, because Sundaramma was an actress and, therefore, not a "proper wife". Even though Sundaramma was deeply hurt by this accusation, she is said to have looked for a bride and got him married to Bhadramma. The fourth marriage followed soon after. Malatamma, who appears to be rather amused by these marriages, describes them as "strategies" that helped a company that had a constant dearth of women artistes. The fourth wife was B. Jayamma, who went on to become a big name in the Kannada film industry as well. Surprisingly, there is not even a tone of disapproval when Malatamma talks of her father's many marriages. In fact, throughout the narration, there is not a single instance where Malatamma is disapproving of her father. One notices a similar tone in an essay by her, Anubhavagalella Satyavo? Kanaso?, in a collection of essays on Gubbi Veeranna, titled Vrutti Rangadarshana. Admiration for her father, one feels, has overtaken the ability to be critical.

Malatamma grew up believing that she would dedicate her life to theatre, but decided to marry because her father "had given his word" to someone. The tormentor she had for a husband ordered that she should have nothing to do with theatre after marraige. Malatamma accepted it uncomplainingly. However, there came a dramatic moment when Malatamma was forced to make a choice between her husband and her father, and predictably, she chose to return to theatre to preserve her father's honour and that was the last she heard from the husband. "I was pregnant with Jayashree then," she recalls in the film.

But Malatamma was luckier than most. She found a partner in Basavaraj, who loved her dearly and nourished her back to good health, when she stepped over a live wire and lost the use of her leg. But soon after, Basavaraj died in a road accident. Malatamma sobs uncontrollably when she talks about it.

Unfortunately, the lives of most women in art have been tragic, perhaps owing to the heartless patriarchal order in which they are inscribed. Malatamma tells many heart-rending tales. Sundaramma, her mother, was running high fever and on that very day, a female artiste did not turn up. Sundaramma, naturally, filled in. By sheer will power, she rendered a three-page dialogue. By the time the play was half-way through, she died. The show, however, went on. Gubbi Veeranna and Sundaramma's children, who were also in the play, got to see her body only after the play was over. All this, Malatamma sees as Gubbi Veeranna's commitment to theatre. But in the same breath, she also says, with her eyes welling up with tears: "Antha taayi makkalu naavu... " (We are the children of such a mother.)

When one listens to the likes of Malatamma, one realises that mammoth-scale achievements of men don't happen by miracle. They happen when women carry a large part of the burden as solid pillars and when they allow their lives to be shaped according to the whims of men who decide what is good for them.

The film adopts a method that is in the least intrusive and imposing. It, nevertheless, does not allow one to be a passive viewer. It is also engaging in how art is to be taken into account as a predominant factor in the daily lives of people like Malatamma, and how they sustained it, and how it influenced their vital decisions in life. One only wished the film could act as an agency to raise a few questions and elicit answers from Malatamma in a more probing manner.

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