Monday, November 2, 2009

M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar Birth Centenary Observed in Durban, South Africa

Phoenix-based Cultural trail-blazers Deepam Productions hosted a tribute to M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar on Sunday, 01 November 2009 to mark the Birth Centenary of the talented actor and singer who became Tamil cinema’s first superstar.

An enthusiastic crowd attended the impressive programme at the University Hindu Centre on the Westville Campus of the University of Kwazulu-Natal. Veteran musician and recording artist Madhavan Nair led the impressive ensemble, supported by vocalists Kumaran Raman, Asogan Moodley, Abheran Moodley and Selven Moorthy backed by musicians Kumaran Moodley, George Naicker, Ravi Manickam, George Govinden, Kalayvan Moodley, Soma Pillay and Bharatha Natyam dancers from Natya Kalanjali.

The FREE show compered by the multi-talented Tamil scholar Samalan Sarugaser featured talks by playwright Ronnie Govender and newspaper columnist Devan Nair.

Old favourites like Krishna Mukundha Murare, Dheena Karunagarane, Maname Nee and Manmadha Leelaiyil delighted the audience in a programme that lasted more than 2 hours.


Most fans of Tamil films know only the recent development and innovations in film music. When Kalidas, the first Tamil talkie, was released in 1931 it heralded a new era in the Indian entertainment industry, an era in which dialogue was complemented by songs.

Although many lauded and celebrated the introduction of films with sound and the mellifluous music that became their hallmark, there was a strong and vociferous group that were highly critical of what they termed the corruption of Carnatic music.

To many of the Vidhwans, what the film music composers were doing to music was akin to blasphemy.

What the blossoming Tamil cinema desperately needed at that point was something or someone to bridge the ever-widening gap between Carnatic music and film music. The person who bridged this gap and elevated film music was M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.

His songs were firm favourites of many subsequent singers, T.M.Sounderarajan heading this list. TMS used to sing MKTs songs and loved them to such an extent that, given the first opportunity, TMS persuaded music composer G.Ramanathan to use the song Radhe Unakku Kobam Aagaathadi for the film Kulamagall Raadhai.

Years later when the great MGR used to go on outdoor shooting trips, he would only listen to songs by MKT. In his early days of cinema, MGR co-starred with MKT in the 1941 film Ashokkumar.

MKT transformed Tamil cinema and redefined film music and became the fledgling industry’s first superstar. He was also the first and only Tamil superstar to achieve cinematic fame by his rendition of Carnatic music.

He was born on 3 January 1909 as Thyagarajan in the district of Mayavaram to his parents, Krishnamurthy and Manikaathammal. As a young boy, Mayavaram Krishnamurthy Thyagarajan showed little interest in studies but a keen interest in spiritual hymns like the Thevaram and Thiruvasagam.

Thyagarajan also was a fan of the stage artist S.G.Kittappa and used to sing his songs – something that his father was not at all happy with. This was because stage artists at that time were seen as immoral and unworthy of respect.

Not finding encouragement, the young Thyagarajan left home without the knowledge of his parents. When his father traced him to Kuddapah, he found that Thyagarajan’s singing attracted scores of people wherever he went.

After much persuasion Krishnamurthy allowed his son to join Mr Nadesa Iyer’s drama troupe as an actor. Thyagarajan gained fame as an actor through his first stage play, Harichandhra and word of the child prodigy spread far and wide. Thyagarajan was only 10 at the time.

Soon thereafter Carnatic Guru Madurai Ponnu Iyengar took him in to teach him the finer nuances of Carnatic music. Six years later Iyengar wanted Thayagarajan to sing solo in a concert and had to do a great deal of persuasion on his former protégé, mirdhangam player Dhakshinamurthy Pillai to play the mirdhangam. Dhakshinamurthy initially refused and eventually reluctantly agreed only because it was at the request of his respected Guru. Dhakshinamurthy was so impressed by the youngster’s voice that, in his speech after the concert, declared that the young Thyagarajan had been blessed by Lord Murugan himself. Dhakshinamurthy then hailed Thyagarajan as Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.

Thyagaraja Bhagavathar made his stage debut as a lead star in the play Pavallakodi which was produced in 1926. Not confined to any particular drama group

Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s fame rose rapidly as he was invited to all the major towns within the Madras Presidency (Present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh)

In 1934, MKT made his film debut in Pavallakodi - the film version of his hit play. More than the story or his acting, his rendition of the songs which took Carnatic music to the masses made the film a huge hit and MKT a cult-like figure. Pavallakodi had a total of 50 songs, 22 of which were sung by MKT. People flocked to the cinemas to see his charismatic face and the beautiful rendition of the songs.

MKT often used the same Ragam to convey opposing moods, the most famous of these is the use of the Sindhu Bhairavi Ragam in its perky mood in the song Vadhaname Chandhra Bimbamo to the soul-stirring Bhoomiyil Maanida in a sad mood. Even the harshest critics of film music had to concede that MKT was nothing less than a musical genius.

MKT also amazed Vidhwans with his use of the Charukesi Ragam, a Ragam so complex and difficult and rare that even Saint Thyagaraja had only composed one song in this Raagam. MKT immortalised this Ragam with the song Manmatha Leelai, paving the way for later songs to be composed in this Ragam.

In only 9 films, MKT became an unrivalled star, a career that was rudely halted when he and his friend N.S.Krishnan were framed for murder and jailed for 30 months.

The film fans were saddened and stunned and it took a lot of lobbying to have the two of them released. During his time in prison MKT was saddened by the fact that producers and directors did not bother about him. Those who did contact him only did so to demand the advance amounts they had paid him.

Ironically, during his period of incarceration, his Haridas which released in 1944 ran for three consecutive years through 3 Deepavalis.

On his release MKT found that the film industry had changed rapidly. The industry was under the influence of the atheistic DMK movement and the focus of films had already changed from a religious and moral focus to a focus on social issues.

Shunning the producers who came back to him, Thyagarajan turned producer but was unable to recreate the magic he had enjoyed before his imprisonment.

Having always shown a great reverence for religion and spirituality, MKT’s last days had a strong focus on religion. He undertook many pilgrimages and performed many concerts free of charge for charitable and religious organisations. From 1955 onwards, he visited every major Temple of shrine in South India.

When MKT began to lose his eyesight, he stayed at the Samayapuram Marieamman Temple and sang the Mother’s praise. The then President of the Nadigar Sangam, S.S.Rajendran, offered to take him to Chennai and pay for treatment there but MKT politely refused, saying that the the Mother Marieamman would take care of him.

During the last days of his life, he was suffering from severe hypertension and acute diabetes. Just 10 days before his death, he performed at a concert and delivered the same stunning range he had always done.

With his condition rapidly deteriorating, MKT was admitted to a Chennai hospital on 22 October 1959 but on the afternoon of 1 November 1959, he passed away.

His passing away was a huge loss to his family, his fans and the music world. Sadly, he was never given the recognition he deserved when he was alive and, equally sadly, there were few who then appreciated his contribution to Carnatic Music.

Today, 50 years after his death and more than 100 years after his birth, MKT is still with us through his immortal music that continues to delight music lovers the world over.


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