Meanwhile, Paatti was pulled out of the Academy after her first year there because her marriage was fixed, and then she got married at 13 and made her own little world interesting with her incessant curiosity, great ability to absorb new ideas, and her interminable book-reading. Plus, I found her singing to be rather reminiscent of that of M S Subbulakshmi.
About two years ago, while in the middle of a series of long conversations with her over three days that burrowed back into her childhood and over the extended extended family, I managed to dredge up enough information about people to build three lines of families going back four generations - her father's line, her mother's line, and her husband's paternal line. And, during the conversations, these trees threatened all the while to throw branches out in unexpected directions.
I mentioned her tiny tryst with history. While exploring that topic further, I also got a little more. Her father was a commissioner with the Travancore Devaswom Board, and the Vaikom temple was under his supervision when the Temple Entry incident happened; and he was the one who sent word to the king of Travancore, informing him about the volatile situation at Vaikom and suggesting a step back, which ended in the historic Temple Entry Proclamation that threw open temples in Kerala to all. Paatti's father also lost almost all his money in the Quilon Bank imbroglio centering around the similarly initialled Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer and C P Mathen, with the former stating firmly that he was the only CP, and then demonstrating it to the 'impostor' and the world by engineering a run on Mathen's bank and taking the bottom out of it. Shankara Iyer was an unfortunate part of the collateral damage.
In the middle of those and many more stories, there was the little matter involving Paatti herself - the occasion when Mahatma Gandhi visited her town... and she sang before him... and Gandhiji patted her on her head in appreciation. Well, he liked M S Subbulakshmi's music too!
Paatti also talked about a movie called Bhakta Prahlada. It was naturally about the pious boy Prahlada, and in the movie he got his friends to worship Vishnu, and they went around singing God's praise. And one of the kids in this chorus was Paatti.
I let that go at that, relishing the digressional tidbits but focused on getting my family trees into shape.
* * * * *
A week ago, I saw an email in my inbox where someone had shared a YouTube link of a recording of a Carnatic piece on the violin from 1905. I listened to it - and oh yes, the style was not just deliciously old-world but the stop-finger technique was also vastly different from the fluidity that the Carnatic violin has today. I went to the uploader's page, and found about 300-odd old recordings posted by him. Curious, I scanned his uploads, and right up there I found Prahlada (1941).
The conversation from two years ago came vaguely back to me. No 'Bhakta' but still, there it was! There were two songs from the movie. I called home and spoke to Paatti.
"What was that movie you said you sang in?"
"Bhakta Prahlada," she said.
It was the year before her marriage, and she and a few other kids were called to the studio that was located behind New Theatres in Trivandrum. There, she said, they had the kids sing; and she remembered one song that began 'Naaraayanam Bhaje Naaraayanam'. The man who made the movie was K Subrahmanyam, the man who married S D Subbalakshmi, the actress, she said. Yes, SDS was his second wife, as I found. And Prahlada was the third talkie in Malayalam.
"Did you sing just that one song?" I asked Paatti.
"No, no. There were four or five songs. We recorded them over two days. At that time, of course, we didn't know what it was all about. They called us over, asked us to sing, and that was that. We didn't realize they were recording all this...." And Paatti went into some background that she spiced up with her usual wit and dramatic flair.
They - and she along with them - seemed to have recorded all of the songs of the Prahlada ghoshti. That was good, and a relief; both the songs I had found on YouTube were sung by a chorus. Pretty scratchy copy 70-odd years on, but who cares! Here was Paatti's recorded song, though I couldn't pick out her voice from the chorus... come on! she couldn't have picked it out herself 72 years later! She couldn't identify the song either, but you think in those days they would have got hold of different bunches of kids to sing songs sung by the same characters in the movie?
I must add here that those were the days before sound mixing. The video and audio had to be recorded simultaneously. So, if you saw a song on film you could be sure that the actor on screen was singing the song for real during the shoot and that the entire orchestra and the recording engineer were just offscreen. Paatti's recording in the studio wouldn't have made it to film; that version was just for the audio release.
So, there you have it! We have the oldest recorded person in the family, and maybe the only one - she goes by the official name of S Lakshmi Ammal after she was initially named Ananthalakshmi and universally called Paappa. For comparison, Paatti's idol, MS, recorded her first song along with her mother, when she was 10 or 11; Paatti was 12. Paatti's recorded film song was in 1941, while MLV, who was born within a couple of months of Paatti, had her first recorded song in Rajamukti, seven years later. And last night, Paatti sang a couple of lines of a song, a little breathless from age and health but the notes all in place. That's a non-career of over seven decades, and I haven't heard her sing a false note yet!