The internet has this habit of suddenly throwing up a gem or two and a recent find has been a digitised copy of the song book of the 1937 Tamil film Bhakta Sri Tyagaraja. It is the first of three films made on the composer, the others being Chittoor V Nagiah’s Thyagaya (1946) and Bapu’s Tyagayya(1981).
The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen identifies Saint Films as an Indian genre, which taps the country’s long tradition of bhakti poets. The first phase of the talkies was when the maximum number movies pertaining to this category were made . Indian theatre had already made full use of saintly lives given that there was ample scope for drama, emotion, miracles and above all, plenty of songs. Since the talkies in India faithfully emulated the stage almost till the 1970s, it was no wonder that they too dwelt at least till the 1950s on the Hindu pantheon and canon. It also helped that the first wave of film stars were almost all classical musicians and theatre artistes, prized more for their ability to sing than to act. This was essential for any film on a saint.
The 1937 Bhakta Sri Tyagaraja was no different. The key role was played by Madirimangalam Natesa Iyer (1900-1953), who while a disciple in music of Sangita KalanidhiUmayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer, was more importantly, a student of noted Harikatha exponent TirupazhanamPanchapakesa Sastrigal. For all his exalted status among the Carnatic musicians, it must be noted that they had the sketchiest details of Tyagaraja’s life. When the practice of his Aradhana gained ground in the early 1900s funds were wanting. To aid this, Harikatha exponent TillaisthanamNarasimha Bhagavatar fashioned a biography of Tyagaraja, filled with a lot of pathos, wondrous happenings and much myth. By 1927, when the first ever English biography of Tyagaraja was serialised in The Hindu by MS RamaswamiIyer, all of that Harikatha was accepted as reality.
The brief outline of the film as given in the song book follows the same narrative. Tyagaraja’s father is portrayed as having to migrate from Thiruvarur to Thiruvaiyyaru owing to extreme poverty, which is a complete falsehood given that he was a hugely respected and honoured court discourser on the Ramayana. There is the evil (and almost entirely fictitious) brother Jalpesa, goaded by his wife. And then there is Raja Serfoji, wanting Tyagaraja to sing in his praise and when the latter refuses, ordering his imprisonment. He later relents of course. If all of these travails were not enough to make the Prophet Job pale in comparison to Tyagaraja, the film concocts Ganapatigal, a diabolical Vedic scholar, who out of extreme jealousy at Tyagaraja’s success, torments him further. “Watch how he suffers,” entices the write up in ghoulish delight.
The book lists a total of 32 songs out of which one is a verse by Sadasiva Brahmendra (Chinta Nasti Kila), another is a piece sung by the thieves as they set about waylaying Tyagaraja and his entourage en route to Tirumala. A third is Swamiki Sari, the Devagandhari composition in Tyagaraja’spraise by his cousin and disciple, ManambucchavadiVenkatasubbier. The rest are all Tyagaraja compositions. Strangely, four songs with almost certain personal references by the composer – Anyayamu Seyakura, Giripai, Paritapamuand Nadupai Palikeru do not feature.
The screenplay is credited to MP Sundararaja Iyer, who as per film historian Randor Guy, was a well-known attorney at law.The film was made in Bombay by Sagar Movietone, thedirector being Virendra C Desai, later for a while the husband of actress Nalini Jaywant. It would appear that much of the production depended on TP Kalayanarama Sastry, son of Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal the guru of Madirimangalam Natesa Iyer. Apart from being Assistant Director, Kalyanarama Sastry also essayed the roles of Serfojee and Bobbili Kesavayya, an arrogant itinerant musician who went around challenging people and who wasquelled by Tyagaraja. As per Prof Sambamoorthy, it was Syama Sastry and not Tyagaraja who defeated Kesavayya. The film appears to have grafted the story from one of the Trinity to another.
The role of one of Tyagaraja’ disciples was played by a Rajagopala Iyer. This may have been MaruthuvakkudiRajagopala Iyer, a fellow student with Natesa Iyer under guru Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer. The role of Tyagaraja’s wife Kamalamba was essayed by a Smt Kamala, which for all we know may have been a screen name.
The front cover of the book has a photo of MadirimangalamNatesa Iyer as Tyagaraja. The back cover (surprise!!) has a photo of Sita, who played the role of Jalpesan’s wicked wife. In Indian cinema it was the vamp, and not the heroine, who gathered much of the publicity anyway. The book can be accessed from http://www.digitallibrary.in.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated Feb 26, 2021 under the Friday Features column