Tuesday, June 4, 2013

TALES FROM THE CAPITAL CITY - XXV

SHARADA AMMAL AND SOME 'GOOD OLD MEMORIES'

Once I asked Sharada whether she had visited the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in her younger days, before the legendary ‘Temple Entry Proclamation’; the days when the land and people were divided in the name of the ‘caste’. “Yes, of course” - was her prompt reply. She continued; “During those days I had many friends from nearby Nair families, I went to the temple with them and no one noticed me or my caste. Even if they found out, they couldn’t kill me, can they?”

Sharada Ammal, one of the oldest female members of the Manacaud crafts guild was born in Manacaud (c.1925). Sharada was the youngest daughter of Neelakandan Achari of Putten Veedu and Narayani Ammal, a member of Kunnathu Veedu, Attingal. Sharada in her younger days had witnessed the days of glory of the ivory craftsmen and artists of Pillavilakam, Pinarammoodu and the related families in Thiruvananthapuram. The children in the family adore her, and she is always seen happy with them, narrating stories and singing songs. Her frail figure and gentleness have now betrayed her inner self. She had changed from a determined soul that she once was in her younger days, to the gentle frame of a loving grandmother.

Though she was born as a member of the Manacaud guild, Sharada’s parents had maintained a strong relationship with the Kunnathu family, the tap root of the guilds of ivory craftsmen. One of Sharada’s earliest memories is that of a boat journey she took with her immediate family members to Attingal. The little girl was initially reluctant to go near the water but after some time she stretched her hand felt the cool waves of the river. Narayani, her mother soon lifted her up and seated her away from water scolding whether she wanted to fall into the ice-cold river. She attended the girls’ school at Vadakkae Theruvu, inside the fort complex. Sharada says; “The classes would come to a halt when we heard a whistle, it was the time for the Kings ‘ezhunnalathu’ in his car. All the students would start singing Vanjeesha Mangalam, in praise of our land, its protector Sree Padmanabha Swamy and his humble servant”, she continues, “Occasionally he (Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma) would be accompanied by his sister Karthika Thirunal. The Maharaja, on hearing the song would raise his head and smile at the students”. Sharada was in her teens when she started learning classical music with her cousins and nephews. ‘Karamana Kuttan Bagavathar’, a famed vocalist well versed in both Carnatic and Hindustani music came to Pillavilakam to train them. Her elder brother Kolappan Achari, an accomplished harmonium player and an artist was the first one in the family to be lured by the tinsel world. Kolappan who went to Ä€ryashala to make backdrop paintings for Golden Theatre Company left home with them. Neelakandan Achari, his father spend years travelling all over India, searching in vain for his lost son. According to Sharada it was not her brother’s fault, it was destiny that made him do that. Karicha Keshavan, the family astrologer had predicted that when Kolappan would turn twenty-one, the house would become a ‘maranaveedu’. Kolappan left his house and family when he was twenty-one years old, leaving a wound in the hearts of his parents and siblings and thus proving right the prediction. After this incident, Sharada’s interests in acting and singing were not so welcome in the family. Her brother Thanuvan Achari was the one who opposed most.

One fine day when Sharada was busy engaged in her daily chores, humming a song and helping her mother in the kitchen, her nephews came with a newspaper safely tucked inside a bag. After ensuring that Thanuvan Achari was not there at home did the boys dare to take out the newspaper. The newspaper had an advertisement saying that Merry Land Studio, owned by Subramanyam was searching for new talents, beautiful women who were well versed in acting and singing, for acting in their two upcoming projects - ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and ‘Nalla Thanka’. Finally yielding to the requests of her nephews, Sharada wrote to the studio. Days went by and everyone including Sharada and her nephews forgot the incident, until a fateful day. To quote Sharada’s own words, “I still remember that day, that evening I went to the Shangumukam temple with our neighbour’s family. After visiting the temple we went to the beach and saw aeroplanes landing at the nearby airport. It was such a lovely evening. However, when I reached home, I could sense some problem from the facial expression of my mother, she seemed tense and nervous. My brother was there but he did not speak a word to me”. It so happened that when Sharada went out, a letter addressed to her was delivered at Putten Veedu. Thanuvan Achari, her elder brother was surprised to see the large envelope. In those days it was not usual for a young unmarried woman to get a letter addressed to her. Those who got letters were always looked upon with suspicion. Curious, he opened the envelope; inside there was a large certificate saying that Sharada has been selected for the screening test. She was asked to appear before the director of the film in a prescribed date. Sharada’s father who saw the anger in Thanuvan’s face had tried to lighten the mood by saying that Sharada was lucky to get such an opportunity. Sharada says, “Appan was also not willing to send me to the film field, though in the family we nurtured the tradition of song and dance, it never occurred to the elders that a girl from the family would choose to make her life out of it”. Thanuvan after reading the certificate, without any word tore it into two pieces and threw in the dustbin. Sharada later learned about this from her mother. Her nephews got the certificate from among the trash and pasted the pieces together; however, that day Sharada made up her mind, not to act.

Years passed by, Thanuvan Achari and Neelakandan Achari passed away. Sharada soon found herself living with her elder sister’s family. It was during this time when the idea dawned upon her that she could pursue her desire to act without her family’s consent. The support of her sister and her husband imparted confidence. Sharada was selected for the leading role for a play written by Venpalakkara Vishwambaran. The play was named ‘Stithisamathwam’. Sharada played the role of the heroine ‘Sumati’. Subbarao, a resident of the Agraharam complex inside the Fort who was an employee in All India Radio was the hero. Sharada with her good looks and sweet voice and natural acting skills became a star. Her second play, named ‘Rakthasakshi’ was staged in V.J.T. Hall, in which she donned the role of the heroine ‘Sulochana’. According to Sharada, it was the thick layer of makeup and the different voice tone she used while in the stage had probably saved her from being spotted by her relatives who were living in the same town. However, once when she returned from Chirayinkil after a play Sharada was tensed to see posters pasted on the fort wall bearing her pseudonym ‘Manacaud Sharadambal’, however, this time too she was not caught.

Sharada still remembers her days of acting when they had rehearsals in an old house in the Statue area. Everyday Sharada had to check with the authorities about who is coming as musicians for the rehearsals. Kanada Subbayya Bagavathar and Kuttan Bhagavathar, her paternal uncles were well known musicians of the day and were sometimes invited to hear the songs or to compose songs. Sharada had to plan her schedules in such a way that her relatives who visited the house would not spot her there. “Those were adventurous days, many times I hid in the green room when my uncle was there”, says Sharada with a grin. In those days she sometimes had to stay with her fellow artists in the house. There were two young lads who attended to their needs. Abdul Khadar and his brother Abdul Wahab have been always there with them. They brought food for the female artists, whom they always addressed as sahodarimar (sisters). Soon the young men with their charm and good conduct became everyone’s favorite. “It was in one of our visits to Chirayinkil that we visited Abdul Khader’s house”, remembers Sharada. After some years Sharada was married to Janardhanan Achari, her muracherukkan, the marriage didn't last long, as Janardhanan went to Madras never to return. Sharada was alone once again. She had decided not to act again. During later years she spend days staying with close relatives. Wherever Sharada stayed, the children adored her. Though childless, she brought up children from two generations who lovingly address her as Avva. Once while staying at a relative’s house, Sharada heard a man’s voice from the television, the voice had evoked her memory, was it a long forgotten voice that she was hearing? Sharada raced to the room where the television was kept. On the television she saw a handsome young man; it didn’t take long for her sharp mind to recognize him as the ‘attendant’ boy Abdul Khadar; who was now famous as ‘Prem Nazir’! 

More information on Prem Nazir, 'The Evergreen Hero' of Malayalam cinema: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prem_Nazir