Two Virtuosos and Palghat

A place where they grew up…

Palghat, a quiet and unassuming district, is the granary of Kerala. An uncomplicated and uncluttered place on the Western side of the Sahyadri range, this was where a gap in the mountains opened out for the artisans of the Tamilakam, allowing them to trade and communicate with the developing domains of the Malayalam culture, near the coast. As a border town of sorts, it became home to many diverse communities and resulted in an admixture of Tamil and Kerala lifestyles, art, and culture. The language, the food, and the outlook of Palghat are, therefore, somewhat unique. As an important railway junction in the British rail network, it later connected travelers coming in from the North and the Eastern cities to Kerala, a junction diverting them North towards Calicut or South, onwards to the metropolises of Cochin and Trivandrum.

Not only was it a locale peopled by all kinds of Hindu religions and castes, but it was also a place where many Rawuthers and Muslims settled down, especially near Puthunagaram and Palghat, these people having filtered in from Coimbatore and other palayams where Haider and Tipu used to camp once upon a time. After all, this was the principality where the Achan rulers once invited the Mysore Sultans, to help them ward off the invasions of the Zamorin. Primarily an agricultural district even today, you come across temple towns and paddy fields along the way. Not much happened in these places, other than temple festivities. When occasion permitted or when one got truly bored, the adventurous would in the old days, board a clackety bus to Palghat to either to see a film, buy some clothes or to eat some tiffin at the Ashoka Bhavan or chomp a biryani at Noorjehan.

Bullock carts hogged the road and the occasional bus would creak and growl along behind them till the road opened out and allowed them to pass, with a frustrated roar. Cherumar workers walking in a row carrying hay and paddy on their head to the granary of the landlord’s house was a perineal sight, and some could be seen crouched or hunched over the paddy fields, planting or harvesting, much like you saw in the old black & white movies, while the Nair landlord clad in a dhoti would walk by, head held up, taking in the scene and the situation of the crops, calculating the returns. Over yonder, behind the many coconut trees or the occasional iconic palmyra palm, jack fruit and mango trees, you could hear faintly, music being played through the temple speakers, typically a Carnatic kirtana – perhaps even an MS Subbalakshmi offering.

Walk towards that noise and you would cross an Agraharam with row houses on both sides facing a lovely temple pond ringed with coconut trees, all starkly spartan, where you would see ladies of the house wearing their sarees the Tamilian way and drawing kolams or a rare child at play. The bathhouse still has a few semi-clad women, washing clothes, with the sound of the pounding – of cloth hitting the granite stones, just to get the dirt out, sounding rat a tat, akin to gunshots, splitting the silence, sans a croaking frog or a bird's call from the distance. The ambi pattar uncle sitting on the easy chair on the Kolayi of the home, angling his Hindu newspaper to catch the morning light would be muttering about the state of the affairs, the government and what not, and how Madras was going to the dogs, cursing the political parties. Siva Siva. Today, there are no children or youngsters in those agraharams, they are all gone, with their parents to Chennai or Mumbai or Bangaluru. But come vacations or Navaratri, the homes will be buzzing with activity, children on the street and animated chatter all the way through the row houses.

Anyway, for some obtuse reason, I don’t really know why, the place, perhaps due to its serenity and quietness, resulted in the creation of so many great personalities who not only graced the administrative corridors of New Delhi and its politics, but also the armed forces and the railways, many a corporate office and of course much later, the IT industry. Add to that a vast number of incredibly talented artists - Carnatic or light music, there were vocalists, instrumentalists, and there were so many performers (actors) and writers. But I am not going to be general anymore, I will be specific and simply introduce two of the greatest exponents of their art forms, one a wonderfully talented Carnatic music singer, another a brilliant actress, both of great renown, favorites across generations. The actress was never of Palghat origin, but just stayed there for a while, but they remembered this little town years later and talked about it. That’s all the connection.

An uncle of mine called Kichetta, who used to work in the estates and a great buddy of my dad, had settled down for good in a place called Vandazhi, upon retirement, this place being just a few miles away from our village at Pallavur. The last time I visited him at Vandazhi was a couple of years ago, but this uncle passed away last year, sad to say. I still recall the last visit, and of Ammayi taking all the pains to make fresh unniappams and many other delicacies to welcome us on that occasion.

Like many other villages in Palghat, Vandazhi too is surrounded by fields and has a couple of temples, and in the 80’s boasted a school or two, perhaps a dispensary or a primary health care center, a few grocery shops and a tea kada or two. Like most other villages, a few buses which plied the bus route between Palghat in the North or Trichur in the West touched at Vandazhi, and well, it also had a post office where people would congregate and chit chat.

This was the village where our young lady spent her vacations, where she heard temple music wafting over loudspeakers and perfected her Carnatic music and her mastery over its ragas, talas and swaras with each visit. I was not aware of her connections to Palghat, as her name led most astray. When I listened to her speak on this specific subject, Vandazhi I was surprised to say the least - now remember, I have heard her voice so often as a music enthusiast and my skin tingled when I listened to her podcast of her younger days at Vandazhi, and how it got her interested in music, how the songs of Baburaj, Yesudas and other music directors enthralled her.

She was a Tambram (Tamil brahmin) too and a PI (Palghat Iyer) whose family had flown the coop long ago and one who realized many years later – that this was where she wished to settle down - By the water, with lush coconut groves around. The air filled with a few voices speaking Malayalam. And in the distance, the quiet sound of a temple bell. She added that she would always remember her vacations at Vandazhi and long to go back there, again and again.

That person is Jayshri Ramnath, who was born in Calcutta and grew up at Bombay to become a Maestra in the field of music, earning many awards, much recognition and numerous laurels along the way, a Padma Shri lately. For those still a bit confused, that is none other than the well-known singer Bombay Jaishri, granddaughter of Palghat Narayana Iyer.

I am sure most of you know who Bombay Jaishri is, but let me give you some highlights of her career and some background. Jaishri has this lovely thick, husky and mature tone, and has over the last two decades, given us so many lovely light music and classical renditions, a few of which are very popular, such as the film song Vaseegara. Jaishri was termed Bombay Jaishri by an interviewer many years ago, wanting to distinguish her from the many Jaishri’s in the field, and the name stuck.

Along the way she would pick up many awards and grace the Carnatic music field, also gracing the light music arena with an occasional film song. These days she is popular in the Carnatic performance circuit and is a philanthropist to boot. Not only is she well known in India, but is also much-traveled, giving performances all over the world. Some years ago, she won an Oscar nomination for her composition in ‘The life of Pi”. But we will come to some highlights of her career a little later, let us get back to her memories.

Those interested should listen to her 7-minute podcast about those school summer vacation trips to Vandazhi in Palghat and how the music she heard there, as well as the daily extempore group singing sessions by the entire family taking turns, during the evenings, instilled the essence of Carnatic music into her soul. Her grandfather was the headmaster of the CVM school at Vandazhi, and every vacation (just like many of us did) she, her mother Seetha and her two brothers took the train from Bombay to Olavakot station in Palghat, then the bus to Vandazhi, to spend all of two months, in that blissful world away from the hustle, bustle, smell, noise, grime and dust of Bombay. Jaishri mentions her thatha’s house had a thatched roof, but that sounded a little incongruous to me, for a headmaster in the early 80’s would have surely merited a tiled house, even if it were rented.

Nevertheless, her descriptions match the typical Palghat scene I mentioned earlier, a house surrounded by coconut, mango and jack fruit trees, a temple nearby, with the temple pond and of course temple music wafting from the loudspeakers early in the morning, from 4AM as Jaishri sates, and that daily infusion was according to her, what influenced her music deeply, even before she learned music and its structure and grammar. The music of Vandazhi remained with her, and came back often, bringing nostalgia, gratitude and many good memories. She recalls the magical voice of Yesudas from the temple speakers and she recalls the days when they partook more in music than conversation, at home. The scenery, the sounds of the rain and the music of the insects hovering around the dimly lit bulbs, always remained with her.

She starts the podcast singing an evergreen Malayalam song popularized by Yesudas – Sumangali nee orkumo. Though her Malayalam accent is typical of a Tamilian, she narrates the story magically. While the rest of the episodes are as good though short, the one about Vandazhi, is of course dear to me. Her narration is splendid and tinged with nostalgia, and she tells us about her uncle who always purchased two extra bulbs so that no evening would go dark due to a blub failing with the voltage constantly fluctuating, and her grandpa would tell them stories of his childhood, lounged supine on his easy chair. This maternal grandpa was the Headmaster at CVM Vandazhi, and she refers to him as Vicha Thata.

Her paternal grandfather Palghat Narayana Iyer, who used to offer music tuitions at Bombay, must have originated from another Palghat agraharam, Jaishri does not mention those details in this podcast. Anyway, she says it was that temple music she heard between 4-630AM which got deeply imprinted in her mind as she grew up, this helping her internalize and connect to serious Carnatic music, later on.

A few highlights from her life and career would help you understand her journey - Both her father Subramaniam and mother Seetha were quite proficient in Carnatic music, and her father used to perform in concerts. He died young when Jaishri was just 6 but her mother Seetha ensured that her music lessons continued. Initially, she learned Carnatic music under TR Balamani (Shankar Mahadevan, another PI was also part of the group) at Matunga. After usual rounds in the light music and Geet, bhajan, ghazal performance scenes, she became a jingle and track singer in Bombay. She was then chosen as a disciple of the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman and was trained in the nuances of Carnatic vocals by that great performer. That was when she moved to Chennai. Also proficient on the veena, Jaishri was trained on the instrument by G N Dhandapani Iyer. Before she performed Carnatic concerts at the age of 28, she was as I read, the voice behind many a jingle, notably Ponds dream flower, Bournvita, Mealmaker and Rexona!

Somehow her connections to Kerala continued, and the one song which blew her into the limelight had yet another Malayali connection. She got a call to sing for a film, directed by one Jayraj. Thinking that it was the Malayalam film director Jairaj whom she had previously sung for, she went to the studio to see a young fella clad in shorts getting it all ready for her to sing a seductive song. Alarmed and assuming that she was in the wrong place, she was quickly convinced by this new music director that she was in the right place and chosen for that very song due to her low pitch, that was how the young Harris Jayraj, got her to sing that iconic song Vaseegara, the song which catapulted her into the common man’s heart!

A commerce graduate, with a diploma in Indian music and also trained in Hindustani classical music, Jaishri is very popular in the performance circuit. I don’t need to say more, for she has achieved so much and is at the pinnacle these days, so mellifluous to listen to. In fact, sometimes when we pick up a  kirtanam to learn in our music class, most suggestions are to learn them from the Jaishri versions.

Jaishri has high regard for the Malayali music fan and she once said “Kerala’s culture and tradition are quite different from elsewhere.  The people here love music and enjoy music festivals. I performed here on the occasion of Vishu. People appreciate music here”. But after she got nominated for the Oscars, things got a bit complicated when she was accused of plagiarism, as some Malayali’s believed she had borrowed heavily from Iryimman Thampi’s Omana Thingal Kidavo, to create her version, without attribution. I am sure that matter has all been laid to rest and forgotten, I feel there is nothing much to argue about, in this case.

There are so many other stars with Palghat origins who don’t mention their Palghat connections, probably they have no lasting memories of the town, or it could be that they prefer their karma Bhoomi to their Janma bhumi, as I mentioned in my article on PI’s or Palghat Iyers some years ago.

So that was Jaishri Ramnath and her association with Vandazhi, a place that inspires her to sing. How about the other person? Even though she makes only a brief mention, I would like to add her to this little article, because I thought it fits in here. She was a great actress of yesteryears who regaled us with brilliant performances in the movie Guide, and many Guru Dutt movies, such as Pyaasa and Kaagez Ki Phool. The actress is none other than Waheeda Rahman, who spent a few of her childhood years in Palghat.

In the early days, Palghat was a little different. After the Mysore Sultans arrived during the second half of the 18th century, they decimated Malabar and also disrupted the entire structure in Palghat. Life had taken a new turn, the Nairs were a hunted lot, so also the Brahmins (Nambuthiris and Tamil brahmin settlers), after attacks and looting of the temples by the Mysore soldiers. Camps were established for the soldiers near the border, at Palghat, near Koduvayur and closer to Trichur.  After a while the British came in, to defeat the Mysorean army and with it, the ownership of the entire region passed on to the East India Company. But the magnificent fort which was constructed by Haider remained, as it does to this day, and the Kotta Maidanam and the fort are basically rallying points at Palghat. Families go there during holidays, while concerts, games and processions, as well as meetings, are regularly held there.

As I had written before, I have always passed the fort, since the road that takes me from Palakkad town to Pallavur, snakes by the Kotta Maidanam (the ground by the fort) and is beside one of the ramparts of the majestic fort. Sometimes it is dry and black, sometimes it is covered with moss, but it has always stood there, hardly damaged by the years, the weather or the many thousands who folk by every year to see it. The complex is square in shape, situated on 15 acres of land, with walls of immense thickness and strong bastions at all four corners and in the middle. The sober majesty of those laterite walls of the fort quietly hides many tales of valor and courage.

After the British took over the fort, it was made into a Tahsildar’s Kutchery, and the fort housed several British government offices. It was turned into a jail in 1877. In the 20th century, the fort became a Taluk office once again. Now declared as a monument, the Fort is under the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India. The old draw bridge has since been replaced by a permanent one.

From my earlier article on the ICS officer Ratnavelu Chetty and his tragic days in Palghat, you would have noted that Ratnavelu was at Palghat during 1880, and well, by this time the British administrative setup was pretty well in place. During the 1930’s a district commissioner was posted to Palghat, named Mohammed Abdul Reham. Among his four daughters, was one, who remembered her days from Palghat many decades later.  She is none other than Waheeda Rehman, one of India’s leading and popular actresses. Let us see what she had to say about Palghat, her earliest memory. Quoting Waheeda from the nice biography penned by Nasreen Munni Kabeer…

My father was a district commissioner. His name was Mohammed Abdur Rehman and my mother was Mumtaz Begum. Father passed the IAS [Indian Administrative Service] exam and finally became a district commissioner sometime in the 1930s. It was through his friends that his marriage was arranged in the late 1920s. My father was posted all over south India, so we managed to pick up some of the local languages. I am not very fluent in Tamil and Telugu, but I can get by. You don’t easily forget what you learn in your childhood.

I must have been about four or five years old. My father was posted to Palghat, which is now called Palakkad. It’s in Kerala. During the Onam festival we went to the Palghat Fort to watch the procession of decorated elephants. We stood on the parapet and my father lifted me high in his arms so I could see the elephants through the opening in the fort wall. The image of those beautifully adorned elephants is still clear in my mind.

Like a fool I told my father that I wanted to own an elephant. He said: ‘Darling, it’s not possible. An elephant is a big animal; you can’t keep an elephant as a pet.’ ‘What about a baby elephant?’ He patiently explained that the baby elephant would grow up into a big elephant.

A brilliant dancer, a popular actress and the quintessential beauty of Bollywood, she hailed from the Madras presidency. From her teens, she went on to act in scores of movies in numerous languages, winning a plethora of awards including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri.

Interestingly one of her favorite performances was for the only Malayalam movie she acted in, one that never got released – she names it as the 1972’s film Trisandhya. The storyline is based on a short story by Uroob, and the film was directed by Raj Marbros. Waheeda plays the character of Indu who is in love with Bhasker, but gets married to his elder brother instead. In an accident, the husband dies and a paralyzed Bhasker is bedridden, with Indu taking care of him, donning the role of a Nurse. This film explores the delicate relationship between a housewife and her young brother-in-law. Her friends and produces were quite upset that she did this arty role at that time. I read elsewhere that her experience with this film was also not so good, following which she refused to regional themes, interestingly Benegal’s Ankur. That was Waheeda Rehman and her little tryst with Palghat.

So many other luminaries had connections to Palghat, and I will bring this to an and by mentioning some of those names. On the musical side we can talk of Usha Uthup, Sreevalsan Menon, Shankar Mahadevan, Haricharan, MS Viswanathan, Stephen Devassy, P Unnikrishnan, P Leela, Unni Menon, Swarnalatha, Malaysia Vasudevan, the Ranjini - Gayatri sisters, the list can go on and on. Add to them the many virtuosos from the past such as Mani Iyer, Chembai, MD Ramanathan, and of course the pioneer of them all, Parameswara Bhagavathar who graced Swati Tirunal’s court.

On the film side, we have examples such as Trisha, Vidya Balan, Priyamani, Ajit (Thala), Gautam Menon. So many writers came from those quite environs, some are OV Vijayan, VK Madhavan Kutty, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, Anita Nair and then again, we have administrators and politicians namely CS Nair, VP Menon, KPK Menon, SS Menon, TN Sheshan etc. and not to forget, our inimitable Shashi Tharoor.

But I will admit, few were as evocative as Jaishri when it came to remembering those roots.…


Conversations with Waheeda Rahman – Nasreen Munni Kabeer 

Vandazhi – A short video

An interview with Bombay Jaishri and a link to her podcasts 

The Iyers Of Palghat - Historic Alleys

pics – Bombay Jaishri – Wikimedia courtesy – Kayaniv, waheeda Bollywood Hungama (Wikimedia)



SG said...

Interesting blog post about Palghat. Loved reading it. Bombay Jayashree stayed with us in Salt Lake City for 4 days. This was long before her entry in to the film music world. She is a very nice person.

Maddy said...

Yeah SG;
I can imagine, would have been a nice time! For sure.
Not too many changes yet, at Palghat..

R's Rue said...

I enjoyed reading this post.