MGR’s annotations on the elite Carnatic Music Couple Revisited
by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 24, 2020
October 15th marked the 40th death anniversary of Carnatic diva K.B. Sundarambal (1908-1980). I wonder how many had watched the 29 minutes documentary on Sunderambal – the Legend, available in You Tube. It was posted two years ago. Narration is in English, describing the heights reached by her incomparable high pitched voice in mythological stage dramas, independence struggle of India (elegies to Motilal Nehru, Kasturi Bai and Mahatma Gandhi), Tamil cinema and Hindu spiritual circles. It also incorporates brief snippets on Sundarambal’s achievements in life by her junior contemporaries (S.S. Rajendran, Manorama and Sivakumar) who had acted with her in movies. The access link is, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGIeKfhgNEg
Pre-independent Ceylon, featured prominently in Sundarambal’s life. While she was staging plays in Colombo for her drama troupe in 1926, she was set up as competing rival with another male musician – none other than Shengottai Gangadara Kittappa (1906-1933). Love blossomed between these two artistes, and they got married in early 1927. It was a common law marriage, due to prevailing caste difference between the pair. Kittappa was of Brahmin caste and had already taken a 11 year old child bride Kittamma in 1924. Sundarambal, having origins from Kodumudi village was of Gounder caste; her father’s identity is lost to history. As such the initial ‘B’ before her name was that of her mother Balambal. Sundarambal did become pregnant after marriage, gave birth to a baby son, who died within two weeks. Married life soured to Kittappa, and he left her to live with his first wife. It has been told that Kittappa was forced to leave his lower caste common law wife by his kin. As is the routine for talented artistes in India and elsewhere, Kittappa became addicted to liquor and died on December 2, 1933 at the age of 27!
These dates and details are needed to comprehend, MGR’s annotations on the Sundarambal and Kittappa pair, in his autobiography, ‘Naan Yaen Piranthaen’. This is because, MGR had failed to record the years, while he had occasion to meet the pair, as a boy stage actor. MGR, born in 1917, began his acting career at the tender age of 7. It would be around 1924. He records that Kittappa and Sundarambal visited a play, staged by his party. This could have happened around 1927 or 1928, while the pair was living together. Then, MGR should have been 10 or 11. As Kittappa had died in Dec 1933, MGR also mentions a specific incidence where Kittappa had visited the ‘Dasavatharam’ drama staged by their company at Mayuram in which he was substituting for P.U. Chinnappa (1916-1951), in the role Bharathan, and gave him a vital advice on acting. Thus, it can be assumed that this particular incidence should have occurred around 1928.
MGR’s Annotations on Sundarambal and Kittappa
MGR’s autobiography, ‘Naan Yaen Piranthaen’ was originally serialized in Ananda Vikatan magazine between 1970 and 1972, while Sundarambal was alive. I provide translations of MGR’s annotations of his interactions with Sundarambal and Kittappa in late 1920s, below.
“Chapter 32 ‘Growth and Opposition’
While the company’s drama was staged at Mayuram, there happened an important incident which I couldn’t forget. That incident refreshed my life and created a blossom in my mind as well.
The first drama staged by the company was ‘Dasavatharam’. One day, Mr. P.U. Chinnappa, who played the Bharathan character rested since he had a throat problem. As such, on that day, I substituted him.
I had finished the first scene as Bharathan, and returned. Other actors were in a delighted mood. I inquired. I did hear their answer and understood. But, I was looking at those who answered. Then I came to my senses when I heard ‘screen had been raised. Uhm. [walk in]’
The news that Mr. S.G. Kittappa is in the audience, made me temporarily stunned. It could be said, that I was at a stage akin to a pauper who was dumbed with a big treasure.
I felt thrilled to show my talent in front of Mr. S.G. Kittappa. As such, I delivered my lines, looking at him. Then, there were no loudspeakers at stage. One has to deliver their lines to folks who were seated in the ground far away. We were taught to deliver only a few words to the actors standing nearby, and the rest towards the audience. That’s how, we acted.
But, on that day, though I had to deliver my lines by looking at Kaikeyi [the mother of Bharathan’s character], I delivered directly to the audience. No – No. My delivery was directed towards Mr. Kittappa, was the fact. I observed his reactions – whether he appreciates, approves or twists his face. On that day, I acted very seriously….
During the interval, Mr. Kittappa approached us inside the stage. ‘Where is Chinnasami (Chinnappa)’ he asked. That was his first question. Mr. Kittappa had a special cordial friendship with Mr. Chinnappa. I had watched this once previously at Salem…..
Kali N. Ratnam responded to his question, ‘He is staying at home, because he suffers from throat problem.’ The next question of Kittappa was, ‘Who was the boy, who acted as Bharathan, then?’ Before Kali N. Ratnam’s response, instantaneously I moved forward, Kali N. Ratnam then pointed me and answered ‘He is the one’.
Kittappa called me, ‘Come here’. Though I could hear that, I stood still.’ Then, Kali N. Ratnam shouted, ‘Why don’t you go near?’ At that instant, Kittappa moved near me, and hugged me. It was as if, a mother would hug her child. I looked up.
Even when I write this now, I could visualize his sweet, smiling face, and that kind look. What was his status, his rank and eminence.
When I looked at him, he patted me and said, ‘Well done’. Then, he told me, “Hereafter, however a big guy is watching your performance, you shouldn’t be worried about those things. You should act on your own. OK.’; and patted me once more.
The advice he told me then, guards me even now when I act at stage or cinema. These words, I also offer to others without fail.”
Following this, MGR had written that as Mr. P.U. Chinnappa had lost his voice (due to puberty), and couldn’t sing at high pitch, he (MGR) had to play the Bharathan role. As. Chinnappa’s year of birth was 1916, one can infer that he might have reached puberty around 1928. As such, I postulate that MGR’s first meeting with S.G. Kittappa could have happened in 1928.
“Chapter 44 – Persons with Recommendable Traits
[Note by Sachi: MGR mentions that the events described in this chapter happened prior to the event described in chapter 32. He describes his first meeting with Kittappa and Sundarambal here.]
…When we arrived at Chennai, it was around 10.00 pm. The news we heard then was a pleasant one. At the Royal Theater, where our drama was scheduled, we heard that the ‘Valli Thirumanam’ [The wedding of Valli] drama in which Mr. S.G. Kittappa and Mrs. K.B. Sundarambal act was being staged.
That’s all. We didn’t bother about eating. Through the courtesy of Mr. P.U. Chinnappa, we were able to see that day’s drama. He had taken permission from manager…
The theater was so crowded. Those who couldn’t get the ticket were seated outside. If someone spoke, they became angry and shouted, ‘Ush! Don’t talk’…
The bouncer at the entrance didn’t allow us in. Somehow, he [Chinnappa] went in, met the contractor and made us to move near by. Rather than saying ‘we walked’, it would be better to say ‘we ran’ near the stage…
We were able to see ‘Aha! S.G.K and K.B.S. near by. By the time we reached near the stage, S.G.K was exiting the stage, and K.B.S. began her song…
At the end of the drama, Kittappa inquired about us. As we also were from a Boy’s company, his interest in us was openly exhibited. Mr. P.U. Chinnappa came to be introduced to Kittappa then. Kittappa hugged P.U.C, and wished him well. Few of us were disappointed then, that we didn’t receive such patting. Nevertheless at a later instance, that I was a pleasant recipient of Kittappa’s hug and well wishes, I had written previously.
Mr. S.G.K then introduced to us K.B. Sundarambal, who was then cleaning her powdered face. He also then asked the manager courteously, ‘Didn’t Kali N. Ratnam come today?’
Mrs. K.B.S. also inquired us. She asked our names too. She might not have guessed then, that her services to politics will be highly regarded and she will be elevated to high pedestal by our actors’ community. I also couldn’t have guessed then.
But, the respect from people. Lady K.B. Sundarambal had received for her services to the State proves what a splendid career she have had.”
“Chapter 106 – Is There a Lock for Love?
….When my respected big leader Mr. K. Kamaraj was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, it was decided that awards should be given to three scholars who had contributed to the ‘three varieties’ of Tamil – Prose, Music and Drama. Mr. Thiraviyam came to meet me at the then house 160, Lloyds Road. He spoke softly and kindness. In politics, he was a Congress person. I was affiliated to the DMK. He was one of the officials of the State. I was then, the secretary of the South Indian Actors Federation. He let me know that the Federation should select the artistes for these awards. I asked, ‘who are being honored?’ He told me, Mr. M. Varadarajan for prose and Mr. Pammal Sambanthanaar for drama. To my question, whom have you chosen for the music, he responded softly as follows:
‘For music, it becomes a difficult task. There may be problems. Even we have to cancel the recognition ceremony’.
I was moved a bit, and told him. ‘The one who had contributed to music and drama, the one who had served the Indian independence movement, the one who is recognized in cinema – it’s Mrs. K.B. Sundarambal. If the Delhi had not recognized her with awards, should even the Tamil Nadu government forget her?
To which, Mr. Thiraviyam replied, ‘Your suggestion is appropriate. Mrs. K. B. Sundarambal certainly deserves it. I agree completely. But, on my own I cannot decide without the consent of the [state] government. Within two days, he returned to tell me the happy news – the government has decided to give the award to Mrs. K.B. S., and the Actors Federation can make arrangements to felicitate her.
But this message from him, made me thinking seriously. He [Mr. Thiraviyam] said,
‘It has been decided that Mrs. K.N. S. will be given the award. We will recognize her. But, for the moment we will not release her name. This has to be done, to avoid problems.’
It pinched my heart that, ‘Is this the situation where the respected leader Mr. Kamaraj is the chief minister of Tamil Nadu? If this was so, what is the position of an ordinary guy who is in the Opposition?’…
At that time, Mrs. K.B.S. had gone to Salem, to act in an exhibition. I sent her a telegram that, ‘Tamil Nadu government will give you an award. We wish your participation at the felicitation function arranged by the Actors Federation. The reply telegram I received was, ‘I haven’t heard such news from the Tamil Nadu government.’
I sent a second telegram, ‘In case of government recognition, [you] should accept our felicitation as well.’ Then, I received the reply – ‘Acceptable’.”
I have two specific inferences. First, what MGR pointed out in his autobiography half a century ago, about lack of recognition’ to Sundarambal at the national level remains a fact. Why there existed a ‘bias’ against her? Was it partly because, her father’s identity is unknown? Was it partly because, Sundarambal’s sponsor in pre-Independent India’s Congress Party, S. Satyamurthi (1887-1943) had died prematurely? Compare Sundarambal’s case to that of her junior contemporary and renowned singer M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916 – 2004). Like Sundarambal, ‘M.S’also went by her mother’s initial ‘S’ – standing for Shanmugavadivu. But, the identity of Subbulakshmi’s father is known. M.S. also had a strong sponsor in C. Rajagopalachari (aka Rajaji, 1878-1972), independent India’s first Governor General. While M.S. was recognized by Bharat Ratna award in 1998, when she was alive, Sundarambal was not.
Sundarambal was one of the prominent artiste who had contributed her services to the Indian freedom movement by her enthralling songs. Her range from stage dramas, cinema and spiritual songs was far wider, than her contemporaries. She had acted in movies from Bhaktha Nandanar (1935) to Tirumalai Theivam (1973) – a span of 38 years. In this long span, her co-stars included, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Aiyar (1896-1970), Sivaji Ganesan (1928-2001), S. S. Rajendran (1928-2014), A.V.M. Rajan (b. 1935) and Sivakumar (b. 1941). But, an entry for her is lacking in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema (1998). What is available is a brief annotation on her career, under the entry for Sundarambal’s movie ‘Avvaiyyar’ (1953). It notes, “Remembered mainly for Sundarambal’s classic musical performance. The actress and singer, a Gandhian, made her debut playing a sensational male role in Nandanar (1935). Avvaiyyar remains her best-known screen performance, putting her among Vishnupant Pagnis (Marathi) and Chittor V. Nagaiah (Telugu) as actors indelibly linked with the saint film genre.”
Secondly, to the best of my knowledge, no studies are available now, on the role played by the Eelam Tamil sponsors as well as merchant communities of Tamil Nadu in pre-independent Ceylon, who invited artistes and musicians like Kittappa and Sundarambal to perform in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from the fact that Kittappa and Sundarambal first met face to face in Ceylon in 1926, there is also another interesting episode of singer-actor M.K. Thiyaragaraja Bhagavathar’s (1910-1959) father dying in Ceylon while he accompanied his famous son. What we have now are few reminiscences recorded by famed actors such as T.K. ‘Avvai’ Shanmugam (1912-1973), which provide few details on such Eelam’s Tamil patrons. There is a vital need to collect available primary material from the descendants of such Tamil sponsors, before they vanish.
- Kolappan: A musical journey, relived. The Hindu(Chennai), Dec.30, 2013
MGR: Naan Yaen Piranthaen (autobiography), vols. 1 and 2, Kannadasan Pathippagam, Chennai, 2014. (originally serialized in Ananda Vikatan magazine, between 1970 and 1972).
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen: Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, Revised edition, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.
Vamanan: Thirai Isai Alaigal, vol. 1, Manivasagar Pathippagam, Chennai, 2nd ed., 2004, pp. 52-61.