Hushed birdsong mingles with the incongruous screeching of power tools at a cabinetry workshop in a yard at Sangliyandapuram, Tiruchi. Functioning both as a cemetery and industrial area for the Viswakarma Maha Jana Sabha, the yard is the final resting place of M.K. Thayagaraja Bhagavathar (MKT), one of Tamil cinema’s earliest and charismatic charismatic film stars.
A grand state-funded memorial for the singing star is nearing completion, but members of the Viswakarma community, to which MKT belonged, feel his grave, built next to those of his father and mother, will need a more personal homage by way of a ‘ ninaivu mandapam’ (memorial) on the site.
“We are trying to raise funds for this project (expected to cost ₹20 lakh) within the community and keep the memory of MKT Aiyya alive for future generations. No matter how many years go by, MKT Aiyya will remain the original superstar of Tamil film industry,” said N. Karuppiah, president, Viswakarma Maha Jana Sabha.
Growing up in Tiruchi
Sixty-three years after his demise, the story of MKT — film actor, producer and Carnatic vocalist — remains focused on his rapid rise in pre-Independence India’s nascent entertainment industry, his imprisonment after being named as one of the many suspects in the sensational Lakshmikanthan murder case, and the slow decline of his glory years after his release from jail.
Fans can still visit some of the places in Tiruchi that shaped the life and career of the superstar in his early days, and perhaps get a more organic feel of the man before he became the image.
Born on March 1, 1910, in Thanjavur to Krishnamurthi Achari and Manikatthammal, Thyagarajan was the eldest of six children. Krishnamurthi was a goldsmith of modest circumstances.
Thyagarajan and his siblings grew up in the ancestral home on Khan Miyan Mettu Street at Kilapudur, Palakkarai, that their father had inherited from his father Muthuveera Achari.
A short walk away on Palayakovil Road is the Holy Redeemer’s Basilica (built in 1881) on the grounds of which was located the now defunct ‘Jebamalai Temple School’, where Thyagarajan studied until the fifth class.
A shrine close to his heart
Keen only on singing, the young Thyagarajan would goof off to go swimming in the Uyyakondan Channel. Across the road from the channel is Kuzhumiyanantha Swamy Temple, dedicated to a Siddha mystic who died in 1900. The shrine played an important role in MKT’s life, particularly in his childhood, from 1915 to 1920, when he is said to have practised singing while standing neck-deep in the Uyyakondan Channel, and then coming over for prayers here.
The open-air stage near the main shrine hosted many a kutcheri (concert) by MKT, who sponsored the electrification of the premises.
Music, stage debut
Kaalika Parameshwari Kovil in Big Kammala Street is where MKT had his formal Carnatic arangetram (debut) concert in the 1920s.
Thyagarajan’s paternal uncle Govindachari organised his nephew’s debut with an impressive team of accompanists. It is said Pudukottai Dakshinamoorthy Pillai persuaded his disciple Dakshinamoorthy Achari to play the mridangam, while he himself accompanied with the ganjira in the concert. Ponnu Iyengar played the violin, and thus was a launched the performing career of the artist who would later earn the sobriquet Ezhisai Mannar (that roughly translates as the King of Music).
As he mentions in an autobiographical sketch, Thyagarajan’s first guru was Chinnaiya Pillai, a violinist in Tiruchi.
The stage beckoned, when Southern Railway official and theatre impresario F.G. Natesa Iyer, impressed by the young Thyagarajan’s Bhajan singing skills, offered him his first role as Lohidasa in his play Harischandra at the Rasika Ranjana Sabha (the theatre is still functioning on its original premises on West Boulevard Road).
Mansion of memories
Among the grander remnants of MKT’s time as a film personality is the mansion (then known as ‘Anantha Nilayam’) on Royal Road in the Cantonment area. Now functioning as a hotel, the building was inaugurated in September 1943, and was the abode of MKT, his siblings and at least 25 members of his extended family.
The Art Deco style mansion with sweeping wooden staircases and high-ceilinged rooms has grills with letters ‘MKT’ worked into them.
Local lore has it that the star would take great pains to dress up before meeting the public, bathing in rose-scented water and dusting himself generously with ‘Cuticura’ talcum powder. Attired in silk clothes accessorised with stone jewellery, he would appear on the balcony of his mansion, looking like the quintessential matinee idol that the masses loved.
He died on November 1, 1959.