Nonagenarian Pappukutty Bhagavathar says music is the secret of his energy.
“What is the secret of this inexhaustible energy?” Ninety-seven-year-old Pappukutty Bhagavathar was asked as he completed an impressive Carnatic music concert in Thrissur recently. And pat came the reply, “music.”
Small wonder that Pappukutty Bhagavathar, the oldest among the surviving veterans of ‘Sangeetha Natakams' (operas) of yore, was selected for the State government's S.L. Puram award this year. That Bhagavathar is the only actor-musician to be selected for this prestigious award so far and that too at this age, makes this honour more noteworthy.
“I feel extremely honoured since this is the most prestigious award of the State government in this field. Though late, I am happy that my services as an actor (on the stage and the screen), musician (Carnatic, playback ) and kathaprasangam artiste, have been finally recognised by the government,” he said.
A contemporary of Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, Sebastian Kunjukunju Bhagavathar, Augustine Joseph and Vaikom Vasudevan Nair, Pappukutty Bhagavathar took to the stage when he was seven. The child artiste who appeared as an actor and singer in the play ‘Vedamani' was encouraged to learn music by his fans.
Formal training in classical music started under Krishnankutty Bhagavathar and later continued under Chandradasa Kamath. At 17, Pappukutty turned a professional musician. Soon there was a flurry of invitations from different theatre troupes. Perhaps the role of Mary Magdalene in Artist P.J. Cherian's bible play ‘Misiha Charitam' was a break.
“I remember even now how I was presented a cup by the veteran Madurai Rajaratnam Pillai for this memorable role,” Bhagavathar reminisced. Those were the halcyon days of theatre and innumerable were the plays and the stages he had appeared. ‘Prema Ganam,' ‘Mahati,' ‘Maya,' ‘Sthree,' and ‘Paradesi' were some of them. Thikkurissi's ‘Maya' was once staged for 30 days at a stretch. Its presentation was almost a record – 297 times in a year.
From stage to screen
His performances on the stage fetched him opportunities in films as well. Altogether, he acted in 20 films and sang for many of them. They included ‘Muthalali,' ‘Vilakuranja Manushyar,' ‘Viruthan Shanku,' ‘Aalmaram,' ‘Bharyamaar Sookshikkuka,' ‘Prasanna' and so on.
In those days, music recitals usually preceded the dramas. Tyagaraja's composition in Kharaharapriya – ‘Pakkala nilabadi' – was his favourite. And so was Saigal's ‘Soja rajakumari,' repeated recitals of which fetched him the sobriquet ‘Kerala Saigal.'
He continued: “Harmonium was an indispensable instrument for dramas and a harmonist enjoyed pride of place. Malabar Gopalan Nair, father of M.G. Radhakrishnan, was a reputed harmonium player and the competition between us elicited generous applause from the audience, wherever we sang.”
Bhagavathar's fame as a musician saw him presenting music concerts throughout Kerala. His accompanists included doyens such as Kottaram Sankunny Nair and Malabar Gopalan Nair on the ‘Chavittu' Harmonium, Mavelikkara Krishnankutty Nair and Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair and music composer Devarajan's father Kochugovindan on the mridangam, and Nedumangad Sivanandan on the violin, to mention only a few.
He had a long association with Augustine Joseph. “We travelled far and wide both for dramas and concerts.” The association was so close that Augustine Joseph wanted him to be the ‘godfather' during the baptism of Augustine's son Yesudas. But Bhagavathar refused the request as he was a bachelor then. But, for the baptism of Yesudas' younger brother Mani, he donned the role of the godfather.
Legion of disciples
Even at this age, Pappukutty Bhagavathar continues to be a much revered teacher of music. His disciples are a legion. Bhagavathar's daughter Selma, the late K.G. George's wife and a playback singer herself, is another disciple.