Thanjavur Kamala Murthy, who passed away on Monday, was one of the authentic practitioners of the art of Kathakalakshepam

In the passing of T.R. Kamala Murthy, the world has lost arguably the last authentic practitioner of the art of Kathakalakshepam. True, she had lived to a ripe old age and the last few years had been challenging in terms of health and so it was a release. But to those who had been enchanted by her art of storytelling, it is a rude awakening. It is as though a grandmother has abruptly left in the midst of a narrative, leaving several grandchildren confused.

Everything about her brought to mind the world of Thanjavur. She lived in Baloba Lane, a thoroughfare that by itself was a throwback to another era. She embodied a time when Harikatha was a favoured art, much in demand in weddings, temple festivals and celebrations.

Born in 1932 and named Kamalamba, she was taken away to Chidambaram by her maternal grandfather when she was still young. Raja Bhagavatar, a local Harikatha artiste was a big draw for all the young children, for he taught them bhajans. He was impressed with her singing skills and trained her in Kathakalakshepam. Her debut happened when she was nine, at Chidambaram. Returning to Thanjavur, she was placed under the tutelage of the veteran artiste Tiruvaiyaru Annaswami Bhagavatar.

At the age of 16, Kamalamba performed a Harikatha at the Tyagaraja Aradhana, in the presence of the redoubtable Bangalore Nagarathnamma. The grand old lady, who had briefly forayed into Kathakalakshepam after C. Saraswathi Bai and Ilayanarvelur Saradambal had shown that women could also take to the art, blessed her and predicted a bright future. Marriage to T.S. Krishnamurthy, who was into military service, was a positive development in her career’s progress. Supportive in-laws took care of her young family even as she travelled. In later years, professional guidance came additionally from Embar S Vjayaraghavachariar and scholars Venkatasubramania Sastrigal and Swaminatha Athreya.

Kamala Murthy had a way with her stories. There was a gentle narrative – the story had an unhurried pace but she never meandered herself. Not for her the tendency of several other artistes to go off into tangential plots at the expense of the main theme. She stuck to the principal thread and everything she said or did had a bearing on it. The next important feature was the complete absence of the preaching element. She never belaboured the moral of a story, something that has of late become the mainstay of many modern Kalakshepams, which have therefore become discourses.

There was loads of humour – much of it of the Thanjavur variety – a honeyed barb here, a loaded comment there. And all said with a twinkle in her eye. As for music, it was superlative. All the classical ragas were there, though she did have a predilection for the rakti – Kedaragowla, Suratti, Sahana, Nattakurinji- apart from the Harikatha mainstays such as Kapi, Anandabhairavi, Huseini, Mand and Jonpuri. The songs were in many languages and her flair for switching effortlessly between speech and music was remarkable. The chipla to her was no finger ornament for it was kept busy throughout the tale. Her style was leisurely and took us back to when there was time to stand and stare. The voice was powerful, with a touch of masculinity about it, and yet it could deliver the softest touches.

She was known for several stories. Her debut theme was ‘Vatsala Kalyanam,’ which she delivered with verve till a few years ago. The ‘mama song’ of Duryodhana addressed to Shakuni alone was enough to draw applause. Her ‘Siruthonda Nayanar Charitram’ was so realistic that the great scholar Raya Cho (Raya Chokkalingam) said he was emotionally disturbed for days. Her Nandan Charitram and Sati Sulochana were masterpieces. Another was Neelakanta Nayanar Charitram. The storyline was simple but she extracted so much drama from it. You followed her with open-mouthed wonder, even as she deftly essayed Lord Siva, now coming as a mendicant and leaving behind a begging bowl in the Nayanar’s care, and then returning several years later, demanding it back. Her depiction of Kannappa Nayanar never failed to bring tears to the eyes.

Kamala Murthy received her share of recognition. The Sangeet Natak Akademi made her a Tagore Fellow. The Music Academy conferred on her its TTK award. But to her the real reward was in being asked to perform. She was happy that her granddaughter B. Suchitra had taken to performing Kathakalakshepam but she would always caution that this was a difficult art, requiring lifelong learning and passion to tell the tale. When asked about people who learnt just one nirupanam (theme) and claimed to be artistes, she would simply smile the question away.

All good stories have to come to an end and so has Kamala Murthy’s. “Ram Ram” dear lady, as you often said in farewell.