It was in the late 1990s and I was in Easwari Lending Library in Avvai Shanmugam Salai peering into some old Tamil magazines. Suddenly, my eye fell on a page with a photograph of ML Vasanthakumari in it. She being one of my favourite artistes, I dropped everything else and sat down on the floor between book racks to read further. MLV was narrating an incident that happened early in her career.
A concert invite had come from an obscure village in Kerala. The problem was that there was no family elder to accompany her. But MLV was very keen to go. Her parents finally zeroed in on her elderly ghatam accompanist to act as her chaperone. A team was put together and a telegram was sent out to the organiser confirming acceptance.
The artistes travelled by train to the town closest to the concert venue. On getting down they found nobody to receive them. Having waited quite a while MLV made enquiries as to how to reach the village concerned. She was informed that the only option was to hire a cart, reach a river, cross it by boat and then walk to the village. The ghatam artiste was all for going back but MLV would not give in. And so they hired a cart and set off. It was getting late by the time they reached the river and there they had to wait quite a while for a boat. Eventually, they made it to the other side and then set off on a long walk, their path lit by a flaming torch that the boatman had provided. The timing of the concert had long gone by and the team, even the intrepid MLV, was quite sure that there would be no one when they reached the concert venue.
They were in for a surprise when they finally made it. The entire village and going by the number of people probably those from surrounding villages too, was patiently waiting. It was of course a matter of surprise that not one of them had thought it necessary to receive the artistes at the station. But equally startling was the confidence they had that the performers would eventually land up, no matter how late. Having quickly got ready, MLV and team sat down to perform, and the concert went on till late at night. It was well received, and the audience applauded greatly at the end. And then, just as she concluded someone hastily pressed a bag of cash into her hand and even before she and her fellow artistes had got off the stage, everyone had vanished. It was almost surreal. She and her fellow performers made their way back – via foot, boat, cart and then train, the ghatam artiste all along predicting dire eventualities and lamenting over he could explain to MLV’s mother in case something untoward happened.
I chuckled heartily on reading this article. And now I come to the sad sequel. This was in the late 1990s and so there was no question of taking a picture of the page on a cell phone. I was younger and probably more foolish than I am now which explains the fact that I did not even think of purchasing that magazine immediately. I even forgot to note the name of the publication and its date. It is just that the story has remained with me. Those who read this are well within their rights to think I imagined it all.
A couple of months after chancing upon, reading, and then losing this article, I met ‘Vikatam’ Krishnamurthy, MLV’s husband, at his home in Mandaveli. I mentioned the episode to him, and he smiled and said it summed up his wife in one page. (Do I have a recording of that interview with him? No.)
It was so typical of MLV he said, adventurous in spirit, to sportingly go off to Kerala, based on a vague telegram invite. And it was so typical of her to have made a success of it as well. I agreed entirely with him. Call it the urge to perform, the creative fire or whatever. What a woman! What an artiste!
This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 16, 2021.