It has been said that every man is a volume, if you know how to
read him. To encapsulate the life of a personality in a volume is at least
the initial spur to writing a biography. The story of M K Thyagaraja
Bagavather is the story of the rise and fall of the son of a poor
goldsmith from Trichy. It is the story of a young boy who ran away
from home because his father would not let him get carried away by
music and drama. He was later found and grew up to become the
biggeststar in Tamil cinema in his times. The story has much intrigue.
Extraordinary singing ability combines with ascent from a humble social
status to dazzling wealth, glamour, charisma, a charming personality and
gifted voice and participation in multiple dimensions of art (including
production of movies). Yet there is an unanticipated and abrupt fall from
stardom and the slow decline of a man who had already become a cult-
icon in his lifetime. The sad co-existence of fame and tragedy is such
that a mention of his name invariably provokes the remark, "The way
he lived and the way he lived". A broad outline of his life may be
known to many already. "The result is that", as Somerset Maugham
said in his Ten Novels And Their Authors about Tolstoy's War and
Peace, "the quality of surprise, which makes you turn the pages of a
book eager to know what is to happen next, is lacking; and,
notwithstanding the tragic, dramatic and pathetic incidents which Tolstoy
relates, you read with a certain impatience." Yet there is much in this
book that, I can say with a fair amount of certainty, have not been
compiled within two wrappers. And even the familiar elements lay
scattered in various places. And this is the first book on him in English.
I have striven hard to make my research as comprehensive as possible
with reference to the material available in the many libraries I went.
I have presented his life in a chronological sequence.
The entire exercise of writing this book consisted, for the most
part, of putting together fragments of information that I managed to
gather from multifarious sources in the course of my research.
Consolidation and arrangement of the bits and pieces of information
lying here and there had been the key task. And nuggets of
information lay hidden in the most unexpected places.
There is sufficient material about his public life but very little that
throws light on him as a son, husband, father and brother, the roles he
played in his private life. The scarcity of information about M K T's
personal life hinders light on how he acted in grief, anger, moments of
vexation, exhaustion and so on. The only source about his personal life
is his relatives but they have invested him in their memory with
solemnity and sacredness. At this length of time there is little else I
could do in trying to find more about his tempers or moods, his
frailties and foibles as perceived in the personal sphere, in his roles as
a member of his family and amongst his intimate circle of friends. I
have not found any of his personal letters except perhaps one. His
relatives say that he spent most of his time on his public activities and
was hardly seen at home. The magazines I went through only
substantiate that claim. A coherent and continuous narration of events
from his personal life has not been possihle. But this book, I hope,
presents him in all his dimensions as an artiste in much more detail
than has ever been presented hitherto and through a coherent and
chronological narration of events.
I hope I have used veracity and balance in the selection of
material and have not concealed from the reader the criticisms and
negative comments which magazines made about him at different times.
"The ideal biographer should be a perfectly impartial man", wrote Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle in his absorbing non-fiction' Through The Magic
Door', "with a sympathetic mind, but a stem determination to tell the
absolute truth". A biographer admires the personality whose life he
writes and the element of hero-worship could tend to project the hero
in brilliant glimpse and flawless and stainless perfection. But a
biographer does a bad job if he does not use proportion and balance.
But during the course of writing this book, I was constantly aware that
my admiration for him might make me glorify him disproportionately. I
hope I have done my best, despite the sympathy and adulation, to
guard myself against exaggeration and lack of proportion in writing
about him as an actor or singer or about his personal characteristics.
The efflux of time has caused the one problem that every belated
attempt to record long gone times faces. Many of those who knew him
personally, acted with him on stage and cinema, heard his concerts in
his best years, some of his family members and relatives, and
particularly those who knew him in his childhood and teenage days are
dead. Had a book like this been attempted three or four decades back,
much that is sorely needed today would have been easily available.
Papanasam Sivan, for instance, would have given us a wealth of
information, enough to form the subject matter of an entire book by
itself, both about Bagavathar's film songs and concerts. Sivan and
Alathur Brothers would have been the best sources to provide the finer
details about M K T's command in camatic music. M K Govindaraja
Bagavathar would have been the best source to recount his childhood
and formative years. But that kind of extensive research was not done
by anyone in those days and what is lost can never be found now.
In the name of writing not only on his life but also on the 'Times'
in which he lived my first thoughts were to paint on a much larger
canvas. But I later discovered that should I take that route, the
research and writing would have to increase manifold and the book
would not be ready by 2010, in which year his hundredth birthday falls
on 1 st March. I have therefore confined the digressions, which are
material not directly related to him, to sort of creating a 'period
ambience' and sometimes to set the right backdrop before narrating
certain events. I hope the material relating to the 'times' help create a
broader picture and provide an evocative account of the past.
On the banks of the river of Time, the sad procession of human
generations is marching slowly to the grave; in the quiet country of
the Past, the march is ended, the tired wanderers rest, and all their
weeping is hushed.
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there"
said L P Hartley". Many years ago, there was the Madras Presidency
and it was a different place. What today is one big Madras city, the
capital of the south in those days, slowly grew to its present shape
after the British started to get portions of it from different previous
owners. The city of Madras was no more than a collection of small
villages and there must have been a few hints here and there that
would have helped a present day native of Chennai recognize his own
city. Madras, as it was as far back as before the turn of the last
century, would reveal to him one astonishing scene after the other. It
would begin with the sudden flattening of the fabric of the city's
landscape. All the tall buildings of today vanish and the roads
suddenly appear broader, cleaner and quieter. People go about their
lives in a rather unassuming sort of fashion. Between Mylapore and
Mambalam, the psychological distance is much longer than it is today.
The roads 'get pitch dark and scary in the nights and some of the
densely crowded areas of today, are quiet and eerie, hardly inhabited
by people, and thickly covered by a dense growth of trees and
bushes. Some of the best-known and long-standing institutions and
landmarks of today do not even exist as an idea. "The beach of
Madras! What a splendid place it is!", observed B Rajam lyer while
writing in The Prabudha Bharata, 1896-98, a collection of articles that
were to be later published as the immensely popular Rambles In
Vedanta, "The abode of cool and refreshing sea-breeze, commanding
a prospect of vast illimitable ocean on the one side and the best and
the most picturesque row of buildings which Madras can boast of on
On History, Article contributed to The Independent Review, July 1904,
the other side, together with as picturesque a part called Marina, the
beach serves at once to fill a man with ecstasy who is fortunate
enough to take a walk in the morning over it." The silence in the
streets is only infrequently broken by the loud rumbling of the wheels
and the galloping sound of the horse-driven carriages. Horses heaving
their flanks, the driver bringing his whip down on them so that some
Mylapore lawyer may not be late to Court, the animals rearing and
slithering etc., must have been a common sight, so common that people
would have walked alongside hardly noticing it. There were 'Madras
Coach' and 'Bombay Coach', Phaeton, Landau, Landaulet and Dakart,
besides the 'Velur Jutkas' and 'Rekla'. In Victorian Madras, there was
also strict dress etiquette for riding out.
The last decade of the 19th century was important for the arrival of
new inventions on the scene. In the year, 1894, there was an exhibition
in Mount Road of a new vehicle, an amusing little contraption that
could run without being pulled by a horse, which would become
familiar to later generations as the motor car. A couple of decades later,
the motor car would become increasingly preferred to the old broughams
and phaetons. It is interesting to note how every time a new invention
appears on the scene and shows the exit door to its predecessor,
much annoyance is caused to people who are used to the old
fashioned method and found it well suited to their predilections. To
them, the new invention is nothing more than a disturbing intruder into
the settled order of things. In one of his articles in Ananda Vikatan,
in 1941, the well-known S V V recalls with fondness the "two-horse
carriage days" and likens the ubiquitous "ugly" motor cars in 1941 to
"piglets" running incessantly up and down the roads. "Where we
used to hear the sweet sound of the horses' gallop", he writes, "our
ears are deafened by the conch-like honking of the motor car shorn."
But the derision does not stop there. He loathed this new vehicle so
much that he reminds the reader, with his characteristic humour, that
there is only one occasion, according to hindu rituals, when a person
goes in a vehicle accompanied by the sound of a conch-shell! In 1894,
the tram, which has now long been obsolete and outdated as a mode
of transportation but still remains a fond memory among those who
have seen it before it was discontinued in 1953, was yet to begin
running. The tram would become the most popular form of transport,
carrying people from all sections of the society.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend