V. N. SundaramRequiem to a boys’ company actor and thirties hero
(A personal tribute to the actor and playback singer who passed away on Dec. 14, 2009 at the age of 92)
The last time I met Sundaram, he spotted me in a crowd at the entrance of the Karpagambal temple at Mylapore. I had not noticed him, and was a bit surprised to see him standing by me. It was pradosha day, an evening special for Shiva temples and the teeming crowds were hurriedly leaving the temple after the special pujas. The doorway of the temple was no place to leisurely exchange pleasantries.
‘‘It so many months since you met me…Indha Maadhiri Paaraamugamaa Irukkalaamaa…Is it right to keep away from me in this manner’’, Sundaram was saying as he gazed into my eyes. He was not an outgoing man, and not given to exhibition of emotion. I was somewhat surprised by the expression of warmth.
In so many earlier meetings, he had been reticent answering questions. He was quite disenchanted about the way his film career, both as an actor and as a playback singer, had shaped – he once referred to himself as ‘veenaappoanavan’, one who came to no good – and I was the one who pestered him with questions about this song, about that film, about this co-star, about that music director! The fact was that he did not like recalling much of all this. I should say that he heroically resisted throwing me out!
He was too soft a man to do anything of the sort. I would even say he was something of a shrinking violent who shielded himself from the harsh eyes of society. He had even made bold to tell me…‘‘Why do you do all this…why not take up some other profession’’. That chance meeting turned out to be our last.
At the doorstep of the goddess Karpagambal whom he loved so much. When he had been desperate for a home and was offered a housing board flat in some far-flung locality, he had declined the offer. ‘‘ My life centres round this temple. I have to be here every day’’, he had said.
I remember seeing him in the temple in the late eighties…a dignified old man with classic features and a regal bearing. Clad in a sandal coloured jubba and spotless eight-yard dhoti, the spare man of wheatish complexion would be accosted by old-timers who would recall the song ‘Chinnan Chiru Kiliye Kannamma’ that he had sung with M.L.Vasanthakumari in the film ‘Manamagal’.
I had not embarked on my lifetime task of documenting the life, times and work of the singers and composers of Tamil cinema at that time. A child of the sixties who grew up hearing more assertive and louder stuff, to me Sundaram’s voice and style of singing then seemed somewhat quaint and old-fashioned.
When I met him last, age and illness and caught up with him and he looked quite ‘reduced’. He was being chaperoned by his daughter, and trying to get away safely home in a vehicle parked away from the milling crowds. I accompanied him for a distance and bid him goodbye.
A few years before this, his visits to the temple had been cut short by a rash auto driver who dashed against him and fractured his leg. (I remember seeing a lawyer at his place who got him the due compensation from the insurance companies). Sundaram was then away from his beloved temple for many months, and even when he recovered, his daughters insisted on going with him. His visits dwindled. I had been lucky to be spotted by him that last time.
About a decade back (he was in his early eighties then), he was concerned about some family problems, and also anxious to know the longevity indicated by his horoscope. A gave him the astrologer’s reading, that there was no danger till 2004. As it turned out, he pipped the prediction by a neat five years. He would have attributed it to his favourite deity.
He worshipped her in the manner of the Srividya ‘upasakas’, esoteric adorers of the mother goddess as the underlying principle of the universe. He had named his renovated house, ‘Srimaatre’.
Sundaram was a product of the rich nagaswaram music that flowed from the temples of Tamil Nadu in the past. He was born in Vishalur, a village in Kumbakonam taluk of Thanjavur district. These fertile regions watered by the Cauvery were also rich in Carnatic music. At the western end of the Agraharam street there was a temple for Vishnu, and on the eastern end stood a temple for Shiva. This Shiva temple boasted of two ten-day festivals, with great pipers like Thiruvenkadu Subramania Pillai and Rajarathinam Pillai participating. The inhabitants of Vishalur had developed a wonderful ear for the good music they heard. They had a prodigy in their midst too…young Sundaram who was born in 1917.
He was named Haalaasya Sundaram by his parents, but later it was shortened to V. N. Sundaram for the drama posters. (The name is the Sanskrit form of Sundareswara of Madurai, which is also called Aalavaay ; Haalaasya is the Sanskrit form of Aalavaay).
Sundaram’s parents had meant to put him under Carnatic vidwans to sharpen his skills and make him a stage singer. But poverty stalked the family, and Sundaram had to join a ‘boys company’, touring troupes of young boys whose high pitched voices made them reach the biggest audiences in those mike-less days. In this way, Sundaram earned not only his maintenance but also became the bread-winner of the family. C. S. Jayaraman, who later attained some recognition as a playback singer was also in the same boat as Sundaram…but somewhat shorter than him. When they found themselves in the same drama troupe, Sundaram would play the male lead and Jayaraman would be his pair.
Sundaram’s dramatic career seems to have lasted just a few years, with him crisscrossing various troupes in between. The dramatic troupes were subject to various fluctuations – from poor audience response, to fly-by-night contractors to natural disasters. A storm destroyed the properties of Sundaram’s company while it was stationed on the banks of the Manimuttaar river at Vriddhachalam.
As far as the boys were concerned, a Damocles sword hung over their heads…the prominence given to the singing whiz kids would come to a dramatic stop once their voices broke and pitches plummeted. Sundaram, however, cherished the memory of those teenage years, when he was king, even literally, I should say. Apart from being the ‘Rajapart’, he was the ruling voice of the stage plays in which he figured. ‘‘When speaking of the drama of those days, I must emphasise that singing was the first, second and last priority. Everything else was secondary’’, he would tell me. I noticed the pride and satisfaction in his voice. He had been happy then.
Films had begun to talk and sing in Tamil in October 1931, and Sundaram was on the verge of a makeover. The man who would help him make the transition from a drama career that was petering out to the celluloid world was ‘Madhura’ Baskara Das (1892-1952), a lyric writer famed for his patriotic gramophone songs. Baskara Das was an established drama playwright (‘Vaadhyaar’, as they would say) and was the lyric writer for the first Tamil talkie ‘Kalidas’. He had the right connections and introduced Sundaram to the Vel Pictures’ producers who were looking for a boy to play Markandeya (1935) in a film of the name. Baskara Das seems to have played the role of a quasi agent for Sundaram, and from Sundaram’s mumblings – he didn’t like to emphasise this part of the deal – it is clear that he even took a cut from Sundaram’s payment.
But his career flourished and opportunities increased. Sundaram got to act in some films with great men behind the camera…director Murugadasa (of Nandanar fame) and camera director K. Ramnath, a genius of the film medium . The two worked for Markandeya, and shot ‘Sundaramoorthy Nayanar’ (1937) with Sundaram playing the lead. Both Murugadasa and Ramnath were particular that the film on the Saiva saint should have musical nativity. An Odhuvaar, traditional Thevaram singer, was brought to tutor Sundaram. Dhandapani, a harmonium player, was the supporting instrumentalist.
The producer was one Thyagaraja Chettiar, and he had brought none other than Rajarathnam Pillai for the inaugural function. ‘‘Who is the Rajapart’’, asked the famous piper, extending the jargon of the stage to cinema. Sundaram was introduced, and sang snatches of Rajarathnam Pillai’s famous Thodi to him…and going by Sundaram’s account, both the gesture and his singing prowess pleased the great master. (These are accounts given to me by Sundaram himself in languorous afternoons, as he sat in the portico of his house awaiting the return of his grandchildren from school…While normal copyright laws apply for all writing, I would expect any information taken from my work, or any insight gained from it, to be properly attributed. A society, as well as the individuals who are part of it, benefit by such acts. Let us not live in a world of greed, but in a space full of good-neighbourliness).
The Puranic era of the thirties found Sundaram acting in six films in all, culminating in his portrayal of Adi Shankara in Sankaracharyaar (1939), which was shot in Calcutta. Papanasam Sivan could not make it to that city, but he taught the artistes all their songs with a warning that there should be no dilution of Carnatic content with Hindusthani stuff. (Sundaram’s Chandrahasan had been full of Hindusthani melodies based on ragas like Peelu, Bagesri, Hindusthani Thodi –our Shubapantuvarali).
Sivan knew he could bank on Sundaram’s musical sense. He had written ‘Paraatpara’ for Sundaram (Markandeya) and the Vaachaspati song was sung so well by Sundaram that M.S. Subbulakshmi picked it up. It went on to become a permanent feature of the Carnatic repertoire. In my view, Sundaram’s upper trajectory as an actor ended with the thirties.
In the early forties he figured in some supporting roles in the films made by character actor, Serukalathur Sama. These films, like ‘Shylock’, ‘Rajasooyam’ and ‘Subadhra Arjuna’ are now lost, and did not do much in their own time. But Sundaram would remember Sama as a true friend. Sama was of course a fine actor and had a taste for good cinema.
Sundaram used to remember music composer K. V. Mahadevan also with gratitude for being helpful and friendly. (‘Sama and Mahadevan are the only true friends I like to remember’). The composer made Sundaram sing for the film ‘Dhana Amaravathi’ (1947), which marks Sundaram’s earliest effort to change over to playback singing, a trend that was picking up in the late forties. The song is available, and shows up Sundaram’s masculine voice and robust Carnatic style. The song that Sundaram would be remembered for, ‘Bharati’s Chinnan Chiru Kiliye Kannamma’ was tuned by the shortlived genius C. R. Subburaman for N.S. Krishnan’s Manamagal ( 1951) as a raga malika in Kapi, Maand, Vasantha, Tilang and Sivaranjani. M.L.Vasanthakumari sings the song and V.N.Sundaram joins in at the end. MLV was singing for Padmini, who is a music student in the film, and Sundaram was playback for T.S.Baliah, who portrayed a Bhagavathar with romantic proclivities. Somehow this little jewel of a song came to signify both composer Subburaman’s genius and Sundaram’s very identity! But one day Sundaram would ask me, ‘Naan appadi enna pramaadhamaa pannittaen’ (What’s so great about my performance!). Truly, there are no fireworks in the song, just little coruscating ornamentations rendered with control and economy). It was his visiting card to fame, and almost the only one he had.
The MLV-VNS combination worked in other songs as well (‘Paavi Enum Padupaavi’, Manamagal; and ‘Varuvaay Manamohana’ – Inspector – which has very interesting dialogue interludes).
Sundaram sang in ‘Ulagam’ (a much touted and highly publicised Tamil-Sinhala bilingual which proved a resounding flop), and Gemini’s ‘Avvaiyar’ and ‘Raji En Kanmani’. He sang the songs well, but they made no mark in the public memory.
T.G. Lingappa brought him out the softer romantic aspects of Sundaram’s voice in two songs in ‘Kalyanam Panniyum Brahmachari’ . I have it from Lingappa himself that Sundaram found it difficult to shift gear to the lighter aspects of song – he was more at home in the raga-oriented heavier stuff. Thus spake Lingappa.
Sundaram’s friend K.V. Mahadevan gave him a song in ‘Koondi Kili’, which turned out to be the lone MGR-Sivaji starrer in Tamil film history. It goes, ‘Raathirkku Buvvaavukke Laattiri’ – not a pallavi one likes to hear two years after India became a republic. But unfortunately Sundaram himself was sometimes in no better state of finances. He lived in a rented portion at Mandaveli and had a family to cater to.
He would try to make ends meet by playing second fiddle to T.R.Mahalingam in his special dramas…a role, I gathered, he hated to play. Once he had given a warning to TRM and stomped out of the relationship. The ‘Koondi Kili’ song was a pastiche of tunes, but at each turn Sundaram gave off his best. There was a touch of dramatic song (Aaruthal Siname etc), a hint of qawwali (Ennaannu Solvadhu) and all that.
This sort of thing could have worked out for him in a big way, but opportunities were generally scarce. Veenai Ramanathan, one-time associate of music director S.Venkataraman, scored the music for Naane Raja, a film that Kannadasan had modelled more less on the Ramayana story. Ramanathan, who would shortly renounce the world and depart for the Himalayas, did a Lingappa for Sundaram. Another melody song. Sundaram and P.Leela created a romantic atmosphere with, ‘Sindhu Paadum Thendral’. The song is sometimes heard even now, but the film was a flop.
Just as there was a short-lived association of Sundaram’s singing voice with T. S. Baliah, the film world now sought to make him a viruttam specialist (free style singing outside rhythm). He sang poetic verses for Ambikapathi, Tenaliraman, Malai Itta Mangai and Veerapandiya Kattabomman. In Kattabomman, his ‘ Vettrivadivelane’ hit the bull’s eye, and he is remembered to this day for his effort.
M.S.Viswanathan, who was present when his master and guru C. R. Subburaman made Sundaram sing ‘Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma’ cast Sundaram’s voice opposite Chandrababu’s in a comedy song in which T. S. Baliah and Chandrababu jousted in a Carnatic versus Western rock duel. (Pathibhakti, Rock Rock Rock..).
Paramakripanandana (Naan Kanda Sorgam), Manamaganaaga Varum (Kumara Raja) sort of rounded off his singing career. Sundaram told me that he once went to Gemini studio after he was called for a recording. Again, he was to sing for Baliah. He was briefed about ‘Varavu Ettana Selavu Pathanaa’. It was to be a dramatic song in which the sons and daughters-in-law revolt against the disciplinarian father(in-law). The old man was to be supported by his grandchildren. Something in Sundaram revolted. He decided he was not meant for such stuff and returned home. In the event, TMS filled up for all the male voices in the song with his usual elan.
Almost all the films in which Sundaram acted are lost…except Pattinathar (1935), which has been partly retrieved in the enormous appetite of the ever growing TV channels for film fare. His career had more or less crashed when he was just a few years into his forties. Yet the family pulled through, and today its members are well-educated and reasonably well to do.
Sundaram was lucky in some ways and singularly unlucky in some ways. When he entered the boys company, it was almost the last wave before the very concept would take a beating. For the next generation, there was no boys’ company to come to the succour of poor boys with a yen for singing. But he was very unlucky that not even one of his films in the second half of the thirties was a big hit. This brought his acting career to a stop in a few years. Sundaram resigned himself to his fate.
When in the nineties I quizzed him about his film avatars, he would ask, ‘‘Do people bother about all those things now’’. During lazy afternoons he would listen to some of his songs…he would feel that he had done a creditable job but had received a raw deal in return.
There was an attempt to give him a government award…he would have nothing of it. Personally he would tell me that it was too late in the day for any such thing. ‘‘Great men like Rajarathnam Pillai and S.V. Subbiah Bhagavathar have valued my singing. I don’t need any confirmation from lesser men, and that at this time of my life’’ . There was more sadness that bitterness in his remarks.
I had invited him for the release of the first part of ‘Thirai Isai Alaigal’ (Waves of film music), which carried his story in extenso. He would not attend, and I too would not insist as I knew that he liked to keep away from the glare. Later I take the book to him. He asks me read the chapter about him. He listens silently till the end. Generally, he tended to be glassy eyed. Now his eyes are moist. ‘‘Dai…unakku enna nandri naan pannappoaraendaa….Boy…how am I going to show my gratitude to you,’’ he would say softly. ‘‘You do not need to, Sir. You are a great singer. And on behalf of Tamil society I am expressing my gratitude,’’ I would say. That is how our relationship continued for a decade and a half.
Perhaps there was some propriety in his having bid me farewell at the temple. The bond between an artist and a sahrudaya, like all great things in life, has a higher angle to it.