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Flight of a nightingale

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DULCET VOICED: N. C. Vasanthakokilam
DULCET VOICED: N. C. Vasanthakokilam

SRIRAM VENKATKRISHNAN

N.C. Vasanthakokilam’s music offered plenty to attract audiences. The voice was high-pitched and clear and she had a large repertoire of Tamil songs.

The Hindu dated November 8, 1951, carries a small news item. Captioned “Death of Srimathi N.C. Vasanthakokilam” it states: “The death occurred of Srimathi N.C. Vasanthakokilam, the well-known South Indian musician, last evening at her residence in Gopalapuram. She was ailing for the past two weeks and was in a private nursing home till November 6. She was 32.”

The star had been suffering from tuberculosis and it was only a matter of time before death came a calling. On November 21, there was an even smaller news item. It stated that “at a meeting of the Indian Fine Arts Society held on November 10 under the presidentship of Mr. K.S. Ramaswami Sastri, a condolence resolution touching the death of Srimathi N.C. Vasanthakokilam was passed.” And with that, N.C. Vasanthakokilam was history. It was a very quiet farewell to a person who for some time was considered to be a leading Carnatic musician.

Named Kamakshi at birth, she was from Irinjalakkuda in present day Kerala. Her career however began in Nagapattinam where the family had relocated. Her father Chandrashekhara Iyer had placed her under the tutelage of ‘Jalar’ Gopala Iyer, an accompanist in Harikatha performances. In 1936, the family moved to Madras, when based on the encouragement given by film director K. Subrahmanyam, it was believed that young Kamakshi stood a good chance in films. Her name was changed to N.C. Vasanthakokilam (the nightingale in spring). ‘N’ was for Nagapattinam and ‘C’ of course was her father’s initial.

The film career of Vasanthakokilam’s is well documented and so this article looks at her Carnatic music performances. It was a time when Brahmin and other upper-caste women were just realising that a career awaited them on stage. C. Saraswathi Bai had shown the way as early as in 1908 and following her came Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal and D.K. Pattammal. It was a strange new world where men still played an important role in career management. The guru, the father or the husband had to be manager and chaperon. Vasanthakokilam came on sans any of these appurtenances. Her marriage had been a failure. In later years, she found a life-partner in a lawyer turned film-maker, CK Sathasivan, who was popularly known as Satchi. It was a tempestuous relationship that endured till her death.

Musician in demand

Almost the first big singing opportunity was at the Music Academy’s annual conference of 1938, presided over by Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and declared open by the Yuvaraja of Mysore. The first prize in vocal music went to Vasanthakokilam. From then on, she became a musician in demand. While the Academy was her launch-pad, it was the Indian Fine Arts Society, with its long tradition of supporting women artistes, that gave her many concert opportunities. Yet another Sabha that featured her often was the Nellai Sangeetha Sabha in Tirunelveli.

Apart from the glamour of the silver screen that she brought with her, Vasanthakokilam’s music offered plenty to attract audiences. The voice was high-pitched and clear and was easily able to bring off brigas. She had a large repertoire and sang plenty of Tamil songs. She made several of Shuddhananda Bharatiyar’s songs famous. The Tamil Isai movement, gaining ground in the 1940s found in her a ready supporter. She was a regular at the festivals of the Tamil Isai Sangam. The Tyagaraja Aradhana also saw her perform each year between 1942 and 1951.

Perhaps remembering her own sacrifices in making it big, Vasanthakokilam was particularly encouraging of young women artists. She was so impressed with a girl whom she heard in the temple at Sholingur that she offered to teach her music. This disciple, Andal, would later make it big for a short while in playback singing. When PR Thilagam, a Tiruvarur-based artist sang, Vasanthakokilam gifted her a tambura.

Comparisons with MS

Her rise to the top coincided with that of another star – M.S. Subbulakshmi. Comparisons are odious but were perhaps inevitable in this case. Both had high voices. Both were recording successes and were given prominence in the advertisements for gramophone records. Both had men named Sadasivam in their lives though it must be admitted that Vasanthakokilam’s Satchi was no match to T. Sadasivam when it came to career management. Both acted in films and both had played the role of Naradar. If M.S. Subbulakshmi was felicitated in Kumbhakonam and given the title of Isai Vani, Vasanthakokilam also was at the same town and given the title Madhuragita Vani! Even today, there are many who swear that the stakes between the two were evenly poised, though by 1951, M.S. Subbulakshmi had gone far ahead in terms of public image and adulation.

But then, 32 is hardly an age to die and who knows, if only Vasanthakokilam had lived…

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)


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