Illustrious gurus and thirst for knowledge — these are the ingredients of Thanjavur Kamala Murthy’s success.
Kamala Murthy reveres Banni Bai, Saraswathi Bai and Pudukottai Kanakambujam Amma.
Clad in a six yard cotton sari, M.S. style, she greets you with a Namaste and ‘Ram Ram.’ Every sentence she speaks is punctuated with the refrain that her successes are due to the grace of her Guru and God.
Quite agile at 78, she is into her 55th year of performing for All India Radio. Harikatha exponent T.R. Kamala Murthy traverses back to her moorings in typical style at her son’s apartment in K.V. Colony, West Mambalam.
She dwells permanently in Thanjavur and visits Chennai either to fulfil professional commitment or to spend time with her sons and grandchildren.
“As a child I was drawn more towards music than studies and hence I would never miss any music programme or harikatha that took place in the vicinity of Tiruvaiyaru. My maternal grandmother who was very fond of me wanted me to stay with her at Chidambaram. Little did I realise that this stay was going to play a vital role in my life,” begins Kamala Murthy.
“On the East Car Street (Keezha Veedhi) lived 75-year old Raja Bhagavathar who was a bachelor, well versed in music and harikatha. Realising his talent Natarajarathna Dikshitar made him stay at his house, thus helping the cause of music. Joining the neighbourhood children when they went to him and singing along with them became a routine. Impressed by my turning phrases during classes and my undaunted approach, he volunteered to teach me harikatha in particular. He followed the style of Tirupazhanam Panchapakesa Bhagavathar”.
Raja Bhagavathar first taught her the basic music exercises and varnams in ragas such as Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam and Thodi. The first harikatha she learnt from him was ‘Vathsala Kalyanam’ with all the ingredients and Kamalamba (as she was called before her marriage) had the talent of repeating it within a few classes without any stutter. Satisfied, Bhagavathar arranged for her arangetram at Dikshitar’s house. She was eight years old then.
“My guru sat beside me and maintained the rhythm with ‘kundu talam’ and for every mistake I made the kundu would come hard on my toes. The pain made me even more steadfast in correcting my mistakes never to repeat them. I still remember the vaira oosi full skirt, red in colour with green border, that was presented to me by Dikshitar. Chidambaram Srirangchariar’s second son Kanteeravan played the mridangam for my arangetram. Harikatha exponent Embar Vijayaraghavachariar was his other son.
“During Navaratri that immediately followed I was invited to perform harikatha on ‘Vathsala Kalyanam’ by the Dikshitar families at their houses. People thronged to listen to my harikatha, although the story had been repeated several times.”
She says she never missed the ardhajama puja and the gnana kshira prasadam at the temple of Lord Nataraja and owes her success to the blessings of the Kalanathan (Lord Nataraja).
“It was almost a year in Chidambaram, when my father unable to bear my separation, took me back to Tiruvaiyaru. I was not given enough time even to inform my guru Raja Bhagavathar about it. Realising my absence after a few classes he told my grandmother that my talent should not be wasted and that I should continue learning harikatha from Tiruvaiyaru Annasamy Bhagavatar, famous vidwan. Raja Bhagavatar passed away within a few weeks.” Kamala Murthy pauses choked with emotion.
Music lessons continued with Annasamy Bhagavathar who, basically, was a very shy person. His knowledge and delineation of ragas such as Thodi and Bhairavi was admired by doyens, who stayed in his house during festival periods. She learnt Valli Kalyanam, Garuda Garva Haranam, Rukmini Kalyanam and Sita Kalyanam from him.
When hardly sixteen years old, Kamalamba’s maiden performance at Tiruvaiyaru was at the Saint poet’s samadhi attended by none other than Bangalore Nagarathnamma who lived there.
There again, it was ‘Vathsala Kalyanam’ that drew appreciation from everyone. Bangalore Nagarthnamma showered special praise on the teen’s talent. And for young Kamala it was a blessing to learn kritis from Nagarathnamma, who stayed at the samadi during the day.
It was time to get married and the groom was Krishnamurthy who was serving the military. She then came to be known as Kamala Murthy. Thanjavur Gopala Bhavathar played mridangam for her regularly.
Vocal support is indispensable for harikatha and Kamala found an ideal partner in her younger sister.
Marriage would have applied brakes on Kamala’s career but for the influence of Thanjavur Rajam (guru of mridanga vidwan Thanjavur Upendran).
He arranged many programmes for her and the family did not object. Rajam, in fact, became a regular in her performances. Kanteeravan took over after his passing away.
Classes with Annasamy Bhagavathar helped Kamala improve her repertoire in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. Bhagavathar always insisted on learning the language to understand the songs.
The support of her husband and mother in taking care of the family and children was something rare to find in those days, a boon according to Kamala Murthy.
Kamala Murthy reveres Banni Bai, Saraswathi Bai and Pudukottai Kanakambujam Amma all experts in harikatha field.
Kamala Murthy adores Venkatasubramania Sastrigal of Saraswathi Mahal library who was well versed in Sanskrit and Tamil.
Embar Vijayaraghavachariar showed a lot of interest in her development and helped her hone her skills.
“Harikatha came to us from the Marathis. Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar could be called the moola purusha of harikatha that was in vogue in Thanjavur. He was responsible for bringing it on stage with a bench to seat the accompanists.”
Kamala Murthy then goes on to explain various aspects of harikatha and recalls the services of Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavathar for the development of the genre.
Even today she consults Swaminatha Athreya, Asthana Vidvan of Kanchi Mutt, living in Thanjavur, for clearing her doubts and the Saraswathi Mahal library for reference purposes.
She firmly believes that the urge to learn new things should never be given up. It is continuous search that keeps the mind agile and the makes the art thrive.
(A monthly column on those who have kept the art of storytelling alive)