N C Vasantakokilam

Kamakshi, for that was her given name, was born in 1921 and hailed from an Iyer family of Irinjalakuda,now in Kerala. The family had however settled down in the port town of Negapatam (now Nagapattinam) on the Bay of Bengal. She was blessed with a melodious voice and her father had her trained in Carnatic music in Negapatam in the music school of Jalra Gopala Iyer (so called because he played the jalra in Harikatha-s). She and her father nursed the ambition that she should be a performing musician and win fame and fortune.

She too married but the marriage did not last long.Ambitious and with her goals clearly set, she parted from her husband and pursued her career with devotion and tenacity. The poor man set up a modest restaurant (called “coffee club” in the Tanjavur district lingo) in Tiruvaiyaru. Whenever Vasanthakokilam came to that town for music concerts during the popular Tyagaraja Aradhana festival he would shut shop and vanish from the town. With her fame slowly but surely growing, she set her sights on cinema and knocked on its doors. By then M.S. Subbulakshmi had come into the movies and become a star and cult figure. With MS making waves could NCV be far behind? There now entered her life a person of charm and some clout in the fast-growing Tamil cinema, C.K. Sachi. Hailing from a family of noted and successful lawyers of Coimbatore, C.K. Sadasivan (Sachi, for short) was drawn to the new medium of cinema, which he took to with gusto. Sachi had also directed ‘Radha Kalyanam’ in 1935.

He became Vasanthakokilam’s patron and protector, and promoted her as singer-actress. In 1940, he produced the movie ‘Chandragupta Chanakya’ in which Vasanthakokilam played the princess Chhaya who falls in love with the eponymous hero. Her make up materials came from London and her costumes were made by expert tailors of Madras and Bangalore. Indeed Sachi gave her such a new “Hollywood look” that many found it difficult to recognise her in the movie!

With Sachi losing his hold in the movie world and not getting films to make, Vasanthakokilam realised that she would not get heroine roles any more. Besides, her career as a performing Carnatic musician had begun to take off and Sachi concentrated on promoting her as a competitor to MS. Whatever MS did she did. When MS cut discs of Hindi songs, which was the fashion during the 1940’s NCV followed suit! While the music was tunefully melodious, her accent and pronunciation of Hindi were not up to the mark. However, her discs of Carnatic music sold well and her fame spread. Her health too suffered and she fell a victim to tuberculosis, a dreaded disease in those days. She was known as a very obstinate woman, not always easy to get on with. SundarRao Nadkarni told this writer in the late 1950’s that she was a difficult actress to handle and did not always listen to the director. In ‘Krishna Vijayam’ she refused to do some scenes because they would affect her dignity as a noted musician! “Romba pidivaatham pidicha pombaley!” That’s how he described her in his Kannada-Konkani accented Tamil! She lived in a spacious bungalow on Eldam’s Road, Teynampet with Sachi. The relationship soon came to an end and she relocated to Gopalapuram where she lived with her sister. She died in November 1951 of TB. She was just 30 years old. Very fond of flowers, she wore loads of them in her hair! With MS and D.K. Pattammal reigning supreme and with M.L. Vasanthakumari coming up fast to catch up with them, NCV was beginning to be outshone. However, oldtimers remember her and her music and recall the days sixty years ago when she was almost at the top of the singing world. She was gifted with a golden voice which was the envy of many a Carnatic musician. It was a voice with a rich and pleasant timbre,very pliant and malleable (“kambi polsaareeram”) which could accommodate briga-s and fast paced renderings,without any distortions (pisiru) or losing its melodious quality.

Nagapattinam Chandrashekhara Vasanthakokilam, was a shooting star in the field of Carnatic music whose ringing mellifluous voice captured the hearts of many rasikas.She was also a noted actress.

Born in Irinjalakkuda, Kamakshi’s (original name) family soon moved to Nagapattinam, where she began her training under the tutelage of Nagapattinam 'Jalra' Gopala Iyer, an accompanist in Harikatha performances.

With her captivating voice, resonant in perfect sruti and clear diction- she delivered the emotional content of the songs very well. In 1936, the family moved to Madras, where she started giving many concerts. She won the first prize in vocal music at the Madras Music Academy annual conference of 1938, which was presided over by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. On listening to her, the stalwart Tiger Varadachariar, called her the‘Madhuragita Vani’.

The audience were delighted by her performance of Tamil kritis at the festivals of the Tamil Isai Sangam in Madras and Nellai Sangeetha Sabha in Thirunelveli. She also performed for the Tyagaraja Aradhana every year from 1942- 1951.

She released many commercial recordings of classical and semi classical songs. Some of her famous ones include: yen palli kondeer ayyaa, thanthai thaai irundhaal umakkindha, mahalakshmi jaganmatha, saarasa dala nayana and needayarada.

Her early death at the age of 32 was a blow to many.Within her short life-span, Vasantakokilam created a lasting impression in the music field.

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