Thankam Vasudevan Nair spent her twilight years trudging between oblivion and memory. Most of her reflections were on her glorious days on stage, music, songs she had sung and her husband who had thrown open this world for her. Most of the time, they were disjointed images, which she laboriously tried to glue together.
July 23, 2021, marks the birth centenary of this once famous actor-singer of Kerala. This generation may not have heard of Thankam. But the history of early Malayalam musical dramas and films will not be complete without documenting the contributions of of this actor-singer and her husband, Vaikom Vasudevan Nair. There was a time when packed audiences waited with bated breath, as Thankam came on stage and sang soul-stirring songs, in her full-throated, high-pitched voice. For almost two decades, beginning in the late 1930s, this couple was a rage in the drama and music stage.
When Thankam spoke, she was vibrant, emotional. Often the anecdotes would get repetitive and confusing. But there were a handful of moments that she could always recall. And, often, they acted as a catalyst for the light to seep through the misty haze of her later life. Thankam would then talk animatedly, sing snatches of her songs, even as the story of her life unfolded.
Although Thankam has been widely recognised for her contributions to the stage, and won the prestigious Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Fellowship, it was singing that shaped her destiny. She met her life partner, Vasudevan Nair, when he came to their ancestral home at Aranmula to teach music. Those memories always remained vivid.
“He had come to teach my elder sister Ponnamma (Aranmula Ponnamma is a National-award winning Malayalam stage and film actor). I used to join in. He was impressed by my singing and told the person who brought him to my home that he was prepared to teach me. I was hardly 16 when I began studying music formally,” Thankam had said during a conversation this writer had with her.
Vasudevan Nair was a sought-after stage actor and so the music classes were intermittent. “He would teach a kirtan and I would learn it in 10 minutes and sing it. He would come back after a week or so and teach another one. One day, he dropped a bombshell by telling my mother that he wanted to marry me. This created a furore. There was a lot of opposition from members of my family. The conservative elders of my father’s Malethu family did not want me to be married to a stage actor. But I stood my ground, making it very clear that I would marry no one else. The wedding took place despite the protests.”
During the early days of their marriage, Thankam’s involvement with drama was restricted to assisting female actors during rehearsals. Vasudevan Nair and his friend had started a drama troupe. The play they chose was PremavaichithyamorSasidharan B.A. written by N. P. Chellappan Nair.
“The female actor chosen was from the north of the State. Her Malayalam was a different dialect. My job was to teach her the dialogues and songs. Despite our best efforts, she failed to impress. The first performance was round the corner and everyone was anxious.”
It was then that Vasudevan Nair and his friend Gopala Pillai, husband of one of Thankam’s sisters, thought of a last-minute replacement. “They asked me if I could play the role of the heroine. I still remember that moment, a moment I was waiting for. I agreed though my only stage experience was a couple of plays at school.”
Thankam’s stage debut was at Kadakkavoor in Thiruvananthapuram district in 1939. Newspapers carried advertisements of the play; posters were splashed across the State with photos of the husband-wife duo. Theatre was defined and constricted by the culture of the age. Female actors were rare on stage. Thankam’s decision to act sparked a new row.
“I got letters that were abusive, accusing me of having denigrated my family, its honour. Ironically, these same people who led the protests applauded my performance.”
From then, for nearly 16 years Thankam accompanied her husband in a series of plays that were extremely popular across the country. “It was like a long dream. Taking into account the opposition to my decision, to act, my husband took special care of my well-being. He bought a car, a black Austin, in which we drove together to the venue and returned. I remember how people flocked, some to see the car and some to catch a glimpse of us. Never did I feel awkward nor were there occasions for me to regret having taken up acting as a career.”
The popularity of the husband-wife team prompted many leading drama troupes of the time including Ochira Parabrahmodaya Nataka Samithi, to rope them in. This troupe produced plays like the blockbuster Yachaki . In fact, this play was so popular that the troupe agreed to stage it only if the organisers were willing to stage another play, Vasanthi , first. These plays were staged before august audiences.
“Among the lingering memories of those days is the evening at Aryasala Chitra Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram where the then Diwan Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer came to see the play. The moment he was seated, the curtain went up and I had to come on stage. I was literally shivering and simply went through the motions rather mechanically. Only when the scene ended, followed by thunderous applause, did I feel satisfied,” reminisced Thankam.
Thankam used to proudly talk about how once in Madras (Chennai) the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and Congress leader K. Kamaraj was among the audience. At the end of the show he stepped on stage. “He made me and my husband stand on either side of him and talked about the play, especially about our singing. I remember him saying that my eyes were expressive, ideally suited for acting. These are memories that I will carry to my grave.”
Some of the other popular plays in which Thankam acted were Rajabhakti, Aniruddhan, Chechi, Shubha Prateeksha and Deshbandhu . The last mentioned was banned by the government. But it was Yachaki that brought her name and fame.
“My entry in Yachaki was dramatic. Dressed in torn clothes and leading my blind father, I used to enter the stage singing the hit song, ‘Pavangalil pavangalaam yachakar nammal…’ Even as I sang I used to stretch out my begging bowl and the audience used to put money into it. At the end of each show, I used to hand over this money to the actor who played my father (Kandiyoor Parameswaran Kutty). Years later when I met this actor, he told me that he built a two-room house with the money collected from the shows. That scene was so popular.”
On the celluloid
Egged on by his friends, Vasudevan Nair decided to produce a film. Thankam was cast in the lead along with her husband. The film, Kerala Kesari (1951) was directed by V. Krishnan. It had lyrics by K.K. Padmanabhan Kutty and music by Jnanamani. Loosely based on the Robin Hood tale, the film was inspired by some of the popular Tamil films of the time. Thankam spoke bitterly about her first foray in films. “From the first day, I knew that I would not fit into this new world. I felt odd when I was asked to come for make-up early in the morning. I found it difficult to mingle with strangers. My husband urged me to be more ‘forward’ but I could not change. Somehow I finished my job and decided that it would be my first and last film.”
Kerala Kesari was a huge flop. Critics slammed the film as ‘regressive’ and a ‘big bore’. This took a heavy toll on Vasudevan Nair emotionally and financially. He decided to end his acting career and with it Thankam’s too. The film did have some bright spots. It was the first Malayalam film to introduce a ghazal and also an Ayyappa devotional. Thankam sang three songs, ‘Janmamo hathamayi…’ ‘Thaniye paazhilaay…’ and ‘Venalkaalam poye…’ which won appreciation.
Ending their stage career, the husband-wife team created a unique concert format that included English songs composed by Swami Sivananda Saraswati and Rabindranath Tagore along with traditional Carnatic kritis. They also sang English nursery rhymes set innovatively in Carnatic ragas.
In his last days, Vasudevan Nair was hit by cerebral thrombosis. His one request to his wife was to continue singing as long as she could. And this is what Thankam did. She, accompanied by her daughter Laila, sang in concerts till the last couple of years of her life. Thankam passed away on August 3, 2007, at the age of 86 leaving her firm footprints on the sands of time.