Singer, Actor, Story-teller, Cine-artiste: M K Kamalam

Translated by J Devika

[M K Kamalam was born in Kumarakom, Kottayam as the second daughter of Kochupilla Panikkar and Karthyayani in 1928. She rose to fame as a stage actor and was one of the first lead female actors in Malayalam cinema, who appeared in the third Malayalam movie Balan (1938).  Despite gaining much fame as an artiste, Kamalam drew back into domesticity and was soon forgotten, until she was rediscovered towards the end of the twentieth century. Sajitha Madathil’s short biography of Kamalam from which this excerpt is drawn (S Madathil, M K Kamalam, Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala State Chalachitra Akademi, 2010) reveals the immense talent and tenacity that a woman needed in order to enter theatre and cinema in the early 20th century. ]

“[In those days] musical plays gave equal importance to music and literature. Her training in acting and song rehearsals to practice the songs scored for particular moments in the plays made it possible for M K Kamalam to rise to becoming the heroine of Balan and that of the first female singer in Malayalam movies. She could sing well and also create her own shlokas. Her younger daughter Meera who heard of these times from her mother, remembered it thus: “My mother played the role of Alli in the play Alliarjunam . In it the hero and heroine enter into a question-and-answer song competition. Once when she was stuck without an answer, she drew upon a shloka that was not in the script which sounded appropriate! Amma used to say that this won her everyone’s praise.”… Starting as a stage actor at twelve, by fifteen, she was an acclaimed actor… (pp.14-16)

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…  Until around the age of 25, her [Kamalam’s] world was mostly of the stage. She travelled all over Kerala then to perform on stage. She remarked proudly that this included Malabar too. When she started out as an actor in the 1930s, musical drama was the popular form. Later, social drama overtook it. The actor in M K Kamalam came to be tested in these plays. This is how she recollected those days: “I joined Sri T T Thomas’ Kairali Kalasamithi persuaded by Sebastian Kunhukunhu Bhagavathar, after having gained good training in my father’s children’s drama samithy. We performed the historical play Anarkali. That was a roaring success. The next year we presented a biblical story, Magdalena Mariam. ” She remembers an anecdote from then. A thief who had come to see the play was so affected by Kamalam’s amazing role that he burst into tears, shattered by Mariam’s sorrow. The police was able to catch hold of him easily because he had appeared in public. And even as he was arrested, he was weeping and sobbing! A third play, Pratapasimhan, was put up after that. Kamalam appeared on over three thousand stages before Balan brought her much fame.

In many places, the notices announcing her plays advertised it as “acted by the heroine of Balan”. In many places,  the audience overflowed the theatres and mobbed her. There were occasions on which she had to appear onstage and sing a song to calm down the audience. Besides working with such luminaries of Malayalam musical and social theatre such as Sebastian Kunhukunhu Bhagavatar, Augustin Joseph, P J Cherian, C I Parameswaran Pillai, Swami Brahmavratan and others, she also mastered popular story-telling art of the time, Kathaprasangam. Her extraordinary singing talents made it possible.,,” It was my great desire to go to Sivagiri and perform my kathaprasangam about Sree Narayana Guru [in his presence] there. But then I was performing from stage to stage those days — it seemed impossible. In those days,you had to send an application and be subject to an interview and so on in order to be invited to perform at Sivagiri. But I was invited there without any of that. But there was a play fixed for the same day. What could we do? My father said, pray to the Guru.  I did so, and he heard my prayer. The postman arrived with a letter saying that the play was postponed. And so I had the good fortune to go to Sivagiri and perform the kathaprasangam.”… (pp. 33-37)

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