After all these years, and no matter what Rajaji thought of it, Gemini’s Avvaiyar remains a landmark film. Much of its success was in the way SS Vasan transformed a series of disjointed episodes concerning the lives of various ancient women Tamil poets into one seamless film, featuring a composite Avvaiyar as it were. It established KB Sundarambal as the quintessential Avvai, the learned and wise woman, and she lived thereafter in the shadow of that image. One of the reasons for the abiding charm of the film is the way Avvai is portrayed, as a warm-hearted grandmother figure that most viewers could associate with.
Among the many memorable moments in the film is Avvai’s meeting with Lord Murugan. In fact most people would probably recall just this one scene from the entire production. Avvai has finished much of her work on the earth and is sitting under a tree when a young cowherd arrives and asks her if she would like fruits from a tree nearby. On her saying yes he asks her if she would prefer them hot or cold. Avvai is puzzled and perhaps even somewhat contemptuous of the question. How can fruit fresh off a tree be hot or cold? She would have the cold ones she says. The child then shakes the tree and the fruits fall to the ground. Avvai on picking them up proceeds to blow on them to remove dust whereupon the child asks her as to whether the fruits were hot and if not why was she blowing on them? Her ego punctured, Avvai asks as to who the boy really is, and he reveals himself to be Lord Murugan, first by himself, then as an adult, astride a peacock, in the company of his two consorts.
A song attributed to Avvai that runs as follows is held up as proof of this incident –
My eyes will know no sleep
For I lost to the young bull that shepherded black buffaloes.
The axe that did not flinch while cutting hard wood
Has been dented by a tender plantain
In Vasan’s Avvaiyar the success of the scene was as much due to the child artiste playing Murugan as it was to KBS. The sequence ends with the very popular song, Mayilerum Vadivelane, which KBS thereafter sang at most of her devotional music performances. This is preceded by a delectable free verse Velane Sentamizh Vitthaga. The entire scene lasts ten minutes or so in a nearly three-hour film but it remains the highlight.
Not many will know the young boy who played Murugan. That was PN Kumar, who passed away on April 9, 2021. While his role in Avvaiyar may have brought him fame, there was a lot more to Kumar than just that for his was a life dedicated to the arts.
Born on August 20, 1940 to PS Narayanan and Lakshmi at No 3, East Chitrakulam Street, Mylapore, Kumar came under the influence of his maternal grandfather, the famed writer of science in Tamil, PN Appuswami. Having studied in his early years at the Children’s Garden School and later at the PS High School, he enrolled in 1950 at the Besant Theosophical School, Adyar when his grandfather shifted home to the then newly established colony of Gandhi Nagar.
According to his sister, Dr PN Aruna, Kumar was inspired to take to dance after witnessing a performance by Rukmini Devi Arundale at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylapore in the 1940s. “He was dancing all the time with proper steps, araimandi etc with a perfect sense of timing,” says Dr Aruna. Noticing this, PN Appuswami arranged for formal training in dance, this being imparted by Picchai, a niece of the redoubtable Mylapore Gowri Ammal, the last hereditary Devadasi of the Kapaliswarar Temple who taught Rukmini Devi, Balasaraswathi and Vyjayanthimala among others. The household was also full of music, with TL Venkatarama Iyer teaching Dikshitar kritis. Soon Kumar could sing well and also play several instruments.
His talents in acting were noticed by scholars such as Dr V Raghavan who regularly featured him in the productions of the Samskrta Ranga, which staged classical plays in Sanskrit. VC Gopalratnam got him to act in the plays of the Suguna Vilasa Sabha as well. Lakshmana Aiyar, a talent scout for the All India Radio obtained permission from Kumar’s grandfather to have him act in a radio play and when it was broadcast SS Vasan came to hear it and was impressed.
Gemini’s Avvaiyar was many years in the making and at the time of the radio play the family was still in Mylapore. Vasan came calling and convinced PN Appuswami to allow Kumar to act as Murugan in the film. The responsibility of ferrying him every day to the shoot and bringing him back was entrusted to R Ganesh, who was then a Gemini staffer and also acting as Deivigan, a prince in the same film. Gemini Ganesh as he would become known later, fulfilled his responsibility faithfully and became a close family friend.
By the time Avvaiyar hit the screens in 1953, Kumar had moved to Adyar as mentioned earlier and joined the Besant School. The title credits give his name as Kumar. He received offers to act from studio houses such as AVM and Vijaya-Vauhini but his grandmother decided that one film was enough. The boy had to get serious about his education. While at Besant School he also studied dance at Kalakshetra under teachers such as Rukmini Devi, Sarada Hoffman and Jayalakshmi. He graduated to performing lead roles in Kalakshetra’s productions, playing Lord Rama. Because of a resemblance between the two, the role of the child Rama was entrusted to VP Dhananjayan, who would later blossom as a great dance exponent. The performance featured Rama Ravi and Shanta (Dhananjayan), singing and dancing as the young Lava and Kusa!
On completing his schooling, Kumar enrolled at Vivekananda College where he was a regular in plays and competitions, routinely winning prizes. The scholar Anna (Subramaniam), who was associated with the Ramakrishna Mission got him to act in plays and participate in oratorical contests. His ability to read three languages and his eidetic memory helped greatly in these assignments. It was no wonder therefore that on graduating and taking up a job in the private sector, Kumar became a part of Cho Ramaswami’s Viveka Fine Arts and acted in several plays. “He was a quiet person who excelled in female roles,” says ‘Burma’ Shankar who was a regular in the same troupe. “The audience welcomed him and before the arrival of Sukumari and a couple of other female actresses, he was our mainstay for women’s roles.”
In his later years, Kumar immersed himself in books and the arts.
Did he ever look back at the moment of glory when the Indian cinema-going audience applauded his Murugan? We will never know. But his continuous search for artistic refinement did seem to indicate that he lived by another dictum of Avvaiyar – What we have learnt can be compared to a fistful of sand. What we do not know is the size of the universe.
(With inputs from Dr PN Aruna and PN Srikant, Kumar’s siblings.)