Song of Surrender

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Golden oldies

Working on the cover story of the April issue of Sruti has been a rewarding experience. First, Vamanan, the author, sprang a pleasant surprise last month by announcing the completion of the story, which we thought had got hopelessly stuck as some stories tend to despite the best of intentions and efforts.

In his inimitable, forthright, sometimes ornate style, he has strung together a credible story of a film actor and storyteller who is also a first rate aesthete with a deep appreciation of music and dance.

While Kothamangalam Subbu was a master of the folk art of villupattu and a capable exponent of Harikatha, it was his enormous success with writing a novel on the intertwining lives of a bharatanatyam dancer and nagaswara vidwan, that indubitably enhanced his claims to a place in the annals of classical music and dance. With Tillana Mohanambal, he came up with a cult classic of the genre, no less.

It was while trying to source photographs for the story that we initially thought we had run into some reluctance on the part of the family to cooperate. How wrong we would be to come to any such conclusion was emphasised by the warmth and friendship of Subbu’s two sons who came over with the images—and anecdotes about their father and his associates.

From the conversations a picture of a caring family man and a nationalist with a highly evolved aesthetic sensibility emerged—qualities that made him a sensitive artist in his chosen field of writing and performing arts.

The family’s collection of Subbu’s works and related photographs and illustrations naturally led us to a treasure trove of line drawings and paintings by Gopulu—a legend of Tamil journalism—which adorned the pages of the weekly Ananda Vikatan in its prime.

The older son Viswanathan, now approaching 80, is a devout follower of his father’s art and has kept villupattu alive with regular performances, including his own additions to Subbu’s repertoire. The younger son Srinivasan has been the conscientious collector of Subbu memorabilia in the family.

What followed when we decided to seek Gopulu’s permission to reproduce some of his brilliant illustrations for Tillana Mohanambal, was another experience of being enveloped in the embrace of old-world courtesy and generosity.

Gopulu—or S. Gopalan to give his real name—lives in an independent bungalow in a quiet residential neighbourhood of Chennai, now retired from his life’s work. When he suffered a stroke some years ago, he taught himself to draw and paint with his left hand, but eventually recovered fully. He did continue to pursue his passion for some years, but now he is too frail to continue, though his mind is alert and his eyes are kind and welcoming. “It’ll be my pleasure; please use my pictures any way you want. You are doing good work,” he told us.

It was time for some nostalgia, and Gopulu remembered the time he spent with SS Vasan and his colleagues at Vikatan, including Subbu. “Tillana Mohanambal was his dream novel for a long time. A brief hint of the story first appeared in Gemini’s 1950s blockbuster Chandralekha. His stories flowed from him in a spontaneous gush. They benefited from Vasan’s editorial skills.” 

Meeting the Subbu family and Gopulu has been one of the high points of Sruti’s recent journey.

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