On March 12 , Appa is 94. We celebrate his anecdotage, and cherish the gift the of humor, that he has given to all of us in generous proportions. This is our greatest asset, and a gift that goes on giving.
He got it from his mother, Venkamma. Not so much from his father, the taciturn Anglophile, Ramabrahma, once the Headmaster of Sardar’s High School Belgaum, who lived by the clock, and always noted the time he did anything.
This is a photograph of Appa, aka Sheshagiri,taken in 1941 or 1942. At the age of 18, in Solapur. It was the summer he spent a month with T.P Kailasam, the reigning Emperor of trilingual wit, and humor, and Master of Drama.
First about the picture. Sheshagiri was then a student at the DAV College, Solapur, and home was that of his Uncle, Dr Subramanyam, the Health Officer of Solapur City. The marriage of cousin Shankaran (Dr Subramayam’s son) was fixed with Gomathi . The bride-to-be wanted photographs of the cousins and relatives of her betrothed, and so it was that Sheshagiri was marched off to a studio , tweed coat on, to have this picture taken.
Dr Subramanyam (brother of our grandfather Ramabrahma) lived in a big house on Patalamma Gudi Road near Armugam Circle, and figures regularly in the diary of Ramabrahma, whom, says the diary, he visited nearly every day, at around 4 pm!Ramabrahma’s own house of course is Mahadev Vilas, on the corner of Ratna Vilasa Road and Kanakapura road, already mentioned in earlier stories.
This is the youngest photograph that we have now of our Appa. He remembers the studio was on the road where Bhagawat cinema house and another theatre whose name he’s unable to recall ( McKenzie?) were located, opposite the Solapur City Health Offices. Bhagawat cinema has now transformed into the 21st century avatar a multi-plex.
This was also the summer that the great Kailasam came visiting. And Sheshagiri practically overdosed on Kailasam It was during a random conversation with Appa a couple of years ago, I learnt of his “Kailawesome” summer, 75 years ago!
“Tell me about Grandmother Venkamma,” I said, for she had died when Big Brother Subri was barely a year old, and we have never seen her. Amma had spoken fondly of her, and yes, her sense of humor, and there were a couple of photographs.
She was a good hostess, a great cook, and had blended comfortably into life in Dharward, and later Belgaum, wherever her husband Ramabrahma’s job as an education officer in the Bombay Presidency took him. She had started to wear her sari in the Maharashtrian style which was common in Belgaum , and introduced her friends to the Tamil way of celebrating Varalakshmi pooja.
Many grey eminences , writers and citizens of Bangalore often came to Belgaum on work, and Ramabrahma, Headmaster, Sardar’s High School hosted them in his home, or in one of the hostels on the campus So it was that the great,eccentric racounteur, the soul and spirit of Kannada theatre, and humor literature aka T P.Kailasam, came to stay for a few days. He was delighted to learn that Venkamma could laugh in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu, and some English, and he set about regaling his hostess with spontaneous one-liners, and tri-lingual puns.
KAILASAM’S GIFT OF THE BOOK
He once brought presents for the boys, Sheshagiri and his older brother Pandu. Books published by Ward, Lock & Co -Robinhood for Pandu and Aesop’s Fables for Sheshagiri who was around 10 at the time.Both were inscribed with a message and signed by Kailasam. Sheshagiri was not impressed with his Aesop’s Fables, for it had no pictures in it ! He made bold enough to tell Mr Kailasam, who right away sent for a new , illustrated copy. But when the new book arrived, Kailasam had already left, so he had no inscription now.
“My favorite story was the The Donkey’s Shadow”, Appa said to me, reminiscently. The book, of course has been lost.
TOLLU GATTI PHOTO PROJECT
Meanwhile, Kailasam undertook an unusual project at the legendary Katti Studio in Belgaum. He made himself up as each of the characters of his play Tollu Gatti, and got photographs taken of each of them. He then sat with the studio owner and explained to him the technique to put them all together and voila’ ! He had a single photograph of Kailasam as entire cast of Tollu Gatti!
The fate of that photograph is not known. Neither do we know why Kailasam undertook this project. But plainly, he enormously enjoyed dabbling in “trick” photography!
THE LONG KAILASUMMER
Fast forwarding to the summer of ’42, the time Sheshagiri’s photograph was taken. One morning he was summoned from his classroom to the chamber of his English Professor Sadasiva Iyer, at DAV College . He went, wondering what lay in store, and presented himself before Mr Iyer, who said, “ Ah Sheshagiri, Mr Kailasam has just arrived from Bombay, you are to take him home to your uncle. He is to be your guest for a few days.”
Sheshagiri complied, quietly pleased at the prospect of a few evenings filled with humor, that would break the tedium of polite conversations at the dinner table. Home was the residence of his paternal uncle, Dr. M Subramanyam, the Health Officer of Solapur City, while Sheshagiri attended college. With cousin Shankaran away studying in Poona, it was quite lonely for young Sheshagiri expect when Shankaran visited for holidays.
Uncle welcomed his guest with the stoicism of a long-suffering host, remarking to Sheshagiri that the man was not likely to leave very soon, and, would doubtless cause him many a headache , throwing the household quite out of gear. But he was practically family, and a genius. One had to make allowances for his eccentricity. When Old Gally came to nestle in the comforting arms of Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth could hardly give him the heave-ho.
SHESHAGIRI IS SHORTS-CHANGED
The entertainment began right away for Sheshagiri. Kailasam’s luggage had gone missing on the train from Bombay, and he “borrowed” a pair off the clothesline at the back of the house. It happened to be Sheshagiri’s PT shorts, but it become TP Kailasam’s and was never returned to its owner.
Kailasam settled down quickly to his erratic routine of writing, drinking, smoking at odd hours. There were plenty of evenings when he regaled the host and his nephew with his endless supply of spontaneous humor and impromptu poetry.
The 1940s Solapur , a dusty little town with many cotton textile mills, already famous for the Solapur bedsheets, was not known to be a place where the high-minded gathered and discussed literature and philosophy. An occasional cinema, and dramas on the theme of mythology were the most popular entertainment, for the large workforce employed at the mills. However, Kailasam often had visitors, the local grey eminences, so to speak, with whom he had long conversations and discussions, and he went out to meet people at the office of Prabhat Theatre, which had been provided to him by the manager.
Sheshagiri and his “chaddi dost” spent many evenings being a one-man-show for a one-man-audience. Sheshagiri learnt that during his student days, Kailasam had been a magician’s assistant to a hata yoga master who had become very popular in England. This hata yogi used to give lectures, and perform “magic” at private events and for a while Kailasam played his assistant. The magic tricks included chomping glass and sipping acid.
It was Kailasam’s job to go around the audience showing them the glass and the acid. Kailasam told Sheshagiti that a little girl in the audience once asked “why does he eat glass?”
“Because he wants to eat bread,” Kailasam had said.
An excellent football player, a fact he used as a bargaining chip to continue being a student in London, he was asked, “why don’t you go back to India?”
“Because I fear my father has reserved the fatted calf for me,” he said, meaning his father, T. Paramasiva Iyer, was waiting to deliver a kick on his backside, when he returned home.
Gandhiji’s recently acquired love for soya bean inspired the Kailasam-speak that went “ Khaya bean, soya Gandhi”,
Sheshagiri wondered if it was true Kailasam could blow smoke rings, and sign his name in it. Kailasam laughed, and said it was just a myth that wouldn’t go away!
Kailasam, described by N. Sharda Iyer as a scientist , sportsman, wit, actor, playwright and bohemian in her book, “ Musings Indian Writing In English”, then put on his scientific hat and explained to Sheshagiri the science behind smoke rings.
VISITOR TO AKKALKOT PRINCIPALITY
A few weeks later, Mr Kailasam had a visitor. Mr M.S.Sardar, aka Barrister Sardar who was also part time judge in the Akkalkot Samsthana , who took him away , to be the guest of Akkalkot royalty. Akkalkot, now a municipality of Solapur, was ruled by the Bhonsle family, which had been installed as rulers by Chatrapati Shahuji in 1712. Going by history, Kailasam’s host was Vijayaraje Bhonsle, who ruled from 1936 to 1952.
He was gone about 10 ten days. When he returned, he brought with him a neatly typed and bound copy of his latest work, which, plainly, he had been putting the finishing touches to in the preceding weeks at Solapur.
Sheshagiri soon learnt that Kailasam’s latest work was the play, “The Brahmin’s Curse”, about the tragic prince Karna and his guru Parashurama, from the Mahabharata. A reading was arranged at Prabhat Theatre, and Sheshagiri was part of an audience of about 50 Solapurians, making him one of the first to hear the play read by the great man hinself. He never forgot the last lines of the poem “Karna”-
“Availed thee naught ‘gainst unjust death! Alas,
Be fooled babe ‘gainst fate’s bewild’ring odds!
bauble of the jeering gods.
Seventy-five summers later, Sheshagiri, our Appa, recited these lines to me from memory. I took notes. Appa asked, “ do people know Kailasam these days? Who reads him? Who’d be interested in my Kailasam story?
Let’s find out on SweetKharaCoffee, I said.
Who wouldn’t want to hear from a boy who was present at the first reading of The Brahmin’s Curse, by the great Kailasam himself?