M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, popularly known as MKT, was born in Mayavaram on March 7, 1910, the first son of Krishnamurthy Asari, a goldsmith. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Trichy and settled there.
M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar
Thyagarajan was endowed with a fine voice from his childhood. He showed no interest in studies; instead, he spent all his time singing and listening to hymns and songs sung on the stage. In those days, music as a profession was neither respectable nor remunerative. Krishna murthy did not want his son to become a musician. Frustrated by his father’s disapproval of his aspirations, the boy ran away from home. After a long search, Krishnamurthy found his son in Cuddappah enthralling a large crowd with his mesmerising voice. A delighted father took the boy home and encouraged him to pursue his passion.
K.G. Natesa Iyer, a senior railway man who was running an amateur drama group, heard Thyagarajan in a bhajan session and, with his father’s permission, enrolled him in his troupe. In his very first role as Lohidasa in Harischandra, Thyagarajan won the hearts of one and all. He became a ‘star’ overnight, at the age of ten! Enthused by his success, he trained in stage acting under veterans of the time. Music, however, remained his passion.
* * *
Madurai Ponnu Iyengar, a noted violinist of the town, volunteered to train the gifted boy in Carnatic music. The training lasted six years, at the end of which Thyagarajan gave his maiden concert in Trichy. He was accompained on the violin by his guru, and on the mridanga by Dakshinamurthy Achari. Achari’s guru, the percussion wizard Pudukottai Dakshina murthy Pillai, played the khanjira for Thyagarajan. At the end of the performance, Dak shina murthy Pillai publicly announced that he had never heard such brilliant music, and hailed the boy as a ‘Bhagavatar’. Thyagarajan henceforth came to be known as Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. Even S.G. Kit tappa, the monarch of Tamil theatre, warmly affirmed that Thyagarajan deserved the title. Encouraged by the commendation, Thyagaraja Bhagavathar started taking advanced training under Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, the Alathur Borthers and the great composer Papanasam Sivan.
Around 1920, MKT started acting professionally in plays. The first dama in which he played a hero’s role was Pavalak kodi. It was staged for the first time in Trichy in 1926. He was paired with S.D. Subbulakshmi who matched him in every respect, including singing. (In those days, good songs alone guaranteed the success of plays.) The two made history. This was followed by several other stage successes, such as Valli Tirumanam and Nandanar. MKT’s handsome looks, excellent dialogue delivery and versatile singing in a sonorous voice made him the prince of stage actors. His plays were staged in most of the towns of the Madras Presidency as well as Ceylon, Burma and Malaya.
* * *
Noted film producers Lakshmanan Chettiar and K. Subrahmanyam who happened to see Pavalakkodi decided on the spot to make it into a film with the same pair in the lead roles. Released in 1934, the film Pavalakkodi was a box office hit. MKT’s next film was Naveena Sarangadhara (1935), followed by seven more films. His Chitamani ran to packed houses for more than a year at the same theatre, and Haridas set a record by running for 114 successive weeks at Broadway Cinema, Madras, making MKT the first superstar of Tamil cinema.
Film music those days was directed by such giants as Papanasam Sivan and G. Ramanathan. While they chose bakti-raga-s for most of the songs, they also used many rare raga-s, and MKT made all of them immortal pieces. MKT took classical music to every nook and cranny of South India through the medium of cinema. But he never accepted roles in films with atheistic content, which the Dravidian movement tried to introduce in this medium.
MKT’s films made him rich and famous and brought him unparalleled prosperity. He lived in style, owning a milk-white horse (seen in Haridas) and the latest model cars. He built three bungalows in Madras, besides one in Trichy. He celebrated the weddings of his three sisters lavishly.
When the Trichy station of All India Raido opened in 1939, MKT gave a concert on the inaugural day. He was one of the principal promoters of the Tamil Isai movement and the Tamil Isai Sangam. He had a large repertoire which included kriti-s of the Trinity and post-Trinity vaggeyakara-s, including all leading composers in Tamil. He gave concerts all over South India, in temple festivals and at wedding receptions. He never sang film songs in his Carnatic music concerts or those held in temple festivals. Nor did he charge a fee for his concerts at temples and educational institutions.
Bhagavathar was greatly devoted to his guru-s. He gave a concert at the 60th birthday celebrations of his guru Papa nasam Sivan in 1951. He deemed it an honour.
A sad aspect of his musical career was that, in spite of his acknowledged versatility in Carnatic music, no sabha or organisation, other than the Tamil Isai Sangam, gave him the stage for concerts. Nor was he allowed to sing in the Tyagaraja aradhana festival in Tiruvaiyaru.
* * *
When MKT was at the pinnacle of his film career, Fate dealt him a devastating blow. In November 1944, along with N.S. Krishnan and a few others, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for his alleged involvemnet in the sensational Lakshmikantham murder case. On appeal, the case went up to the Privy Council in London. It remitted the case to the Madras High Court, which eventually set him (and others) free in 1947 for want for clinching evidence. But by that time, MKT had been behind bars for 30 months and lost his reputation. For a person who lived the life of a maharaja, incarceration had a chastening effect. He returned to Trichy and did not accept any contract for acting. He produced his own film, Rajamukti (1948) and Puthu Vazhvu (1957) and acted in a few scenes in three other films. They did not fare well.
Towards the end of his life, he turned philosophical and spiritual. He undertook pilgrimages to places of worship and ashrams. His favourite deity was Samayapuram Mariamma. He stopped giving concerts, except in the temples he visited. Suffering from high blood pressure and acute diabetes for quite some years, he was admitted to the General Hospital, Madras, in October 1959. The end came on November 1st. He was buried in a village on the ourskirts of Trichy. The noted playback singer, Seergazhi Govindarajan, sang two songs of eulogy to his departed friend.
A legend in his lifetime, MKT continues to live in the hearts of his fans and admirers.