The internet has this habit of suddenly throwing up a gem or two and a recent find is 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 of movies were made in this category. 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, at least till the 1950s, dwelt on the Hindu pantheon and canon. It also helped that the first wave of filmstars 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 Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer, was more importantly a student of noted Harikatha exponent Tirupazhanam Panchapakesa 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 Tillaisthanam Narasimha 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 M.S. Ramaswami Iyer, 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 Tiruvarur to Tiruvaiyaru 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, being 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,” says the write-up in ghoulish delight.
Songs and screenplay
The book lists a total of 32 songs out of which one is a verse by Sadasiva Brahmendral (‘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’s praise by his cousin and disciple, Manambucchavadi Venkatasubbier. The rest are all Tyagaraja compositions. Strangely, four songs with almost certain personal references by the composer — ‘Anyayamu Seyakura,’ ‘Giripai,’ ‘Paritapamu’ and ‘Nadupai Palikeru’ — do not feature.
The screenplay is credited to M.P. 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, the director being Virendra C. Desai, later the husband of actress Nalini Jaywant for a while. It would appear that much of the production depended on T.P. Kalyanarama Sastry, son of Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal, the guru of Madirimangalam Natesa Iyer.
Apart from being assistant director, Kalyanarama Sastry also essayed the roles of Serfoji and Bobbili Kesavayya, an arrogant itinerant musician who went around challenging people and who was quelled by Tyagaraja. According to Prof. Sambamoorthy, it was Syama Sastri and not Tyagaraja who defeated Kesavayya. The film appears to have grafted the story of one of the Trinity to another.
The role of one of Tyagaraja’s disciples was played by a Rajagopala Iyer. This may have been Maruthuvakkudi Rajagopala 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 book’s front cover has a photo of Madirimangalam Natesa Iyer as Tyagaraja. The back cover (surprise!) has a photo of Sita, who played the role of Jalpesa’s wicked wife. In those days, it was the vamp who got most of the publicity anyway. The book can be found at www.digitallibrary.in.
The Chennai-based author and historian writes on music and culture.