During her heyday she was one of the top three woman classical Carnatic musicians, M.S. Subbulakshmi and D. K. Pattammal being the other two. Interestingly all of them were involved in movies, more precisely Tamil cinema. Pattammal as an off-screen voice - a “playback” singer - and the other two as onscreen singing performers. MS had a halo of glamour around her and even as teenager she had hit the headlines. But N. C. Vasanthakokilam did not have that kind of glittering halo. Though her musical talents and skills were as good as that of MS she lacked the good looks, glamour and charisma and that indefinable factor, the class or “X-factor” which MS had aplenty. Nor did she have the movie star looks and figure and all that goes with a star! But certainly she was a singer of haunting melody and high musical values. Yet she did act in a fistful of films during 1940s. Some of them are remembered to this day, like “ Haridas”(1944) “Valmiki”(1946) and “Ganagavathar” (1942), “Venuganam”(1941), and “ Krishna Vijayam” (1950).
Kamakshi, for that was her given name, hailed from an Iyer Brahmin family of Irinjalakuda now in Kerala but the family had settled down in port town Negapatam (now Nagapattinam) on the Bay of Bengal . She was blessed with a melodious honeydew voice and her father had her trained in classical Carnatic music in Negapatam. She and her father nursed and nurtured the ambition that she should be a performing musical artiste and win fame and fortune.
The sadly neglected Indian film pioneer, the lawyer-turned-filmmaker, K. Subramaniam had strong links with Negapatam through marriage into a wealthy lawyer’s family. Ever a talent scout he felt that the girl had talent and could be groomed into a singing Tamil film actress. That was the period when onscreen performers had to sing in their own voice and the now common and routine off-screen-voice-lending —”playback” system was not yet in vogue. Prompted by his encouragement — and promises — the father and daughter landed in Madras where they hardly knew any soul or body except K. Subramaniam! They had not much money either.
Regretfully they could not meet Subramaniam for he was away in Calcutta making a film.
They were all at sea in the bayside metropolis. Luckily a family friend, a young bachelor, a native of Negapatam who had learnt music with Kamakshi under the same guru, was then working in the Egmore station of the then privately owned South Indian Railway. (SIR). He came to their rescue and gave them refuge in his bachelor quarters on the outskirts of the city.
At some risk and much trouble the Good Samaritan worked hard to promote his small town friend - by now, his lover! Using his connections he succeeded in getting his mate a break to sing over radio then run by the Corporation of Madras. The local station broadcast its programmes only in the evenings. All India Radio, Madras was yet to be born! She sang too at many places in the city and cut discs (then called ‘plates’) for His Master’s Voice. (HMV). She also won prizes and gold medals in music competitions. Critics and crowds began to take notice of her. By now she he had a new name, N.C. Vasanthakokilam!
The Good Samaritan’s family came to know about it all and married him off quickly and the relationship came to a sad end! However he kept in touch with his pal and met her now and then as ‘just friends’!
She too married but sadly the marriage did not last long. Ambitious and her goals clearly set, she bade her husband goodbye and pursued her career with devotion and tenacity. The poor man set up a modest restaurant — called ‘Coffee Club’ in the Thanjavur district lingo and idiom — in Thiruvaiyar. Whenever Vasanthakokilam came to that town for music concerts during the popular Thyagaraja Aradhana festival celebrations he would shut shop and vanish from that town. He did not wish to be in the same town as she even if it was only for a day!
With her fame slowly but surely rippling out she set her sights on cinema and knocked on its doors. By then M.S. Subbulakshmi had come into movies and become a star and cult figure. With MS making waves can NCV be far behind?
(To be continued)
(The writer is an eminent film historian)