Song of Flavours ~ Andhra Grandmother Surya Kantham

by on July 5, 2016

A long chat with G S Kantham, 72, reveals the zest and serenity with which she leads her life. Going down memory lane, she talks about her childhood, her passion for music, her talent in the kitchen and much more. What comes through is the equanimity with which she balances her moments of pride and achievements with the simple turns of life. She shares a lovely rapport with my friend Jigyasa Giri, who accompanied me, led the interview and unearthed the various facets that add to Kanthamji’s charm.

Tell us about your childhood?
Mrs. Surya Kantham: I was born in Gunupuram, then Orissa, now Odisha, as the 5th offspring to my parents Mantha SriRamalu and Appala Narasamma on 12th Dec 1944. My father worked for the government in the Orissa Administrative service, so his was a transferable job. Every 2 or 3 years he would be transferred to a different place, within the state of Orissa. So I have lived in a few interior towns of Orissa, as well as in some larger cities such Behrampur, Cuttack and Rourkela.
Did you learn to cook as a young girl? Did your mother guide you through the first steps in the kitchen, so to speak?
(laughing gently) No! I never cooked before my marriage. My mother was an exceptional cook and fed us well, but neither of my parents ever worried about us sisters having to learn cooking. I guess they just knew we would manage.
How did you meet your late husband? When did you get married? Tell us about your family.
Oh, mine was a typical arranged marriage. Nothing romantic about it (smiles). My photograph was sent to some prospective grooms by the elders. My husband used to say that when he was coming to see me as a prospective bride for himself, he was late in reaching the train station, and he told himself that if he catches the train he will consider it a positive sign and if he misses the train he will not come to see me, considering it a negative sign – so you see, the train decided our fate. (laughs)
Vintage photos

I followed in my father’s footsteps and held an administrative post with SAIL, a Central govt. job at the young age of 19. I was married to my husband G. Ranga Rao at Tirupathi in 1965. I was barely 21 years old. He was in the pharmaceutical line of work in Chennai. Back then in 1965, SAIL had not begun operations in Chennai, so I had to give up my job – something I never allowed my dear husband to forget (smiles). But in turn, he was a good husband. He passed away when I was 47…that was an unfair blow, but I am blessed with two sons who are like Rama and Lakshmana – and of course two lovely daughters-in-law and three adorable grand children.
What are your other interests and hobbies?
I used to sing devotional songs in the temples along with my brother from the age of 12. Later, I had the opportunity to sing for All India Radio stations of Orissa and Bengal. I sang Jayadeva Keerthanas and Rabindra Sangeet. I won a few gold medals in singing competitions too (smiles shyly). Later, when I started working at SAIL in Rourkela, the management used to make me sing for their prestigious events. I have thus sung before great people such as Pundit Nehru, Dr.S Radhakrishnan and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy.
Those must have been such proud moments! So, did you continue to sing after marriage? Do you still sing at public gatherings?
Yes, the praise and adulation was quite a morale boost. After my marriage at 19 years of age, there was a gap in my activities. After a good many years I did get to sing along with Vijayakumar, son of the great playback singer Ghantasala at many light music programmes. Sadly though, he passed away and that marked the decline of my singing career. After Vijayakumar expired, I sang Annamacharya Keerthanas at TTD (Tirupathi Thirumala Devasthanam) for 5 years. I also became a member of TTD. I stopped singing due to my failing health and mounting family responsibilities.
That is so wonderful, and touching! You are indeed so talented and yet so humble!
It is all God’s will.
Coming back to the ladle, when did you really begin to cook?
I started cooking as soon as I was married. I cannot remember if I had any starting problems. Although I did not live in a joint family, we had a large extended family, and at any given time there were always 10 – 15 people in the house. I would do the cooking and soon my dishes were the most sought after in the family, so for any function also I would be given the task of cooking the meals.
Your dishes must have been quite exotic then? What were the popular demand dishes from family and friends?
Actually they were simple dishes. I guess I just enjoyed cooking and had a natural flair to cook and serve, thanks to my mother’s genes! I started getting creative with my cooking almost 20 years after my marriage. I think they used to like my Pulihara (Tamarind rice), wadai, thayir wadai, seeyam, payasams etc.
tribute by Jigyasa Giri to Surya Kantham

Can you share some interesting or memorable incident in relation to your cooking?
There are so many little incidents. Once during the festival of Deepavali, among other delicacies I had made murukkus too. As is customary, I packed them for all our relatives and close friends and received great praise too. But my husband’s sister’s husband, who was known for his short temper, was livid at me for sending the murukkus! Do you know why? About a month prior to this incident he had all or most of his teeth extracted and he used to love the murukkus made by me. So he got angry because he felt sad he could not eat them! This incident is both sad and funny. I should have remembered, but truth is, I forgot about his dental situation. Anyway, I told his wife to tell him to put small pieces in his mouth and suck on them till they became soft enough to swallow. But I suspect that she just allowed the situation to dissipate rather than dare to anger him further (laughs out loud).
That is truly quite funny. What do you like to cook the most?
I love experimenting with brinjals. There was a time when my sons were little boys, I wrote 120 brinjal recipes – all in Andhra Brahmin style! So my brother who was a famous Telugu fiction writer, actually published the book and paid me handsome royalties too back then. But after him, it went out of print and I don’t have even a single copy of the book now….
Oh! That is so wonderful about the recipes and the book! But equally sad about its tragic end! What was your brother’s name? What was the book called? Perhaps someone reading this article might still own a copy of it?
(laughing) – That’s a far cry indeed! Well, about the book – life’s like that. It was titled ‘Vantulu Varpulu’ meaning – cook and serve. My brother’s writings were quite popular back then. He wrote Telugu fiction and short film scripts too. His name was Mantha Venkataramana Rao.
How long did it take to write all the recipes of the book?
I don’t remember much now; I can’t even remember how the book looked. I think it took me 2 years to complete all the recipes.
Do your sons like your cooking? Actually I am sure they love it. What is their favourite dish?
All sons love their mother’s cooking once they are married. When they were little boys and even in their teens, they and my husband used to enjoy themselves and eat all sorts of food whenever I went to Hyderabad or Rourkela to visit my relatives. Now, of course, they say my cooking is finger-licking delicious! They like anything that I cook. And so do my daughters-in-law and grandchildren. And I enjoy cooking for them.
As a senior citizen of our country, what would your message to younger generations be?
Since you ask, my humble message to youngsters of my beloved country would be – please nurture your families and take care of them at every level. It is families that build nations.
Give us a one-line quip about your family.
I have done my duties well and am satisfied with the way my sons have evolved. They are both good human beings. Once, when I was ruminating about the sad times of my life, in order to bring me back into focus, my elder son asked me – so mother, have you won or lost in life? I smiled into his gentle eyes and said – I have won!
Thank you so much for this candid interview Kanthamji. It has been a pleasure speaking to you. Do share the recipe of one of your special dishes with us.
Yes, with pleasure indeed!

Pratibha Jain & Jigyasa Giri have co-authored vegetarian award winning cookbooks. Both of them were columnists of “SoulFood & SoulMates” at Harmony Magazine where they featured silver couples. In this interview, they both pay a tribute to G.S. Kantham, an Andhra Brahmin from Chennai. Part 2 of this post is a delicious pointed gourd side-dish shared by Mrs. Kantham.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr Mullapudi Venkata Surekha August 30, 2015 at 4:41 pm

It was very nice reading your interview with Mrs Kantham who is my aunt(my mother’s elder sister). I felt very proud while reading it. My aunt truly deserves it as she is a very hardworking person and a wonderful human being. She is also a very good cook, I always remember her cooking nice and delicious dishes for us. Hence I once again thank you for bringing her into the limelight.


jigyasa Giri September 1, 2015 at 7:07 am

It was truly rewarding to be in conversation with your aunt. A wonderful soul indeed :). I am so glad you liked the article! Many thanks Surekha :).


Rahul September 5, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Dear Madam
It is very much pleasure to see her with unmost interest and i really thank her and you to take this opportunity to see her in true heights.God bless her and she really sings very well try the song frm Ruudhali Film song its really touches to the heart and when ever he starts cooking she will sings the songs and complete the cooking and song will also complete. Her Elder sister also given thanks to you and her and she is feeling very much happy. We want to see more frm her side.
I’m her grandson i use to kanthamammamma.

Thank and Regards


Pratibha Jain September 13, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Hi Rahul, Thanks for the warm words. The interview shows her warmth and loveliness.


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