Songs of the soil

A video documentary pays tribute to the immense contribution of theTamil lyricist Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, whose songs were rooted in the socialist ideology.

Published : Jun 11, 2014 12:30 IST

Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram.

Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram.

THESE words of MGR, emphasising the importance of the lyrics of Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, or “Pattukottaiyar”, in the creation of his popular socio-political image, came straight from the heart. The lyricist extraordinaire, fondly called “Makkal Kavingnar” (people’s poet), died at the age of 29 in 1959 following a botched-up sinus operation in the Government Hospital, Madras (now Chennai). But between 1956 and 1959, he penned 250 songs, a feat no Tamil lyricist or poet has rivalled so far. His use of simple but strong words in contrast to the ornate language that was perhaps well-suited for the mythical storylines of that period ushered in a fresh perspective of socialist thought in Tamil cinema. Pattukottaiyar endeared himself to the masses through his down-to-earth lyrics that were radical in the manner in which they questioned feudal expression, as reflected in the anguish of the deprived, and lifted their spirit.

In a fitting tribute to this exceptional poet, P. Saron, a former college professor, has brought out a 150-minute documentary titled “Makkal Kavingar Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram” on the significant events in the brief but eventful life of Pattukottaiyar. Many academics, including Tamil scholar Solomon Pappaiah, have published research works on the poet’s creative genius, but this is the first time an attempt has been made to document his life in a video format.

Saron’s engrossing video documentary was released in Chennai in May by M.S. Viswanathan (MSV), who, in association with T.K. Ramamurthy, composed the music for the poet’s lyrics for Pasavalai (Tamil, 1956). The music maestro Ilaiyaraja received the first copy of the video CD. The documentary opens with K.N. Ramachandran, the poet’s childhood friend and an artist, taking us on a trip down memory lane.

Saron has revisited the poet’s life, starting with the serene and scenic village of Sengapaduthankadu, his birthplace near Pattukottai in the then undivided Thanjavur district and where he “found oneness with nature with its chirping birds, lily-blooms in silvery ponds, leaping fishes, lush green fields” and got inspiration for his poetry.

If nature’s pristine eminence laced Pattukottaiyar’s poetry, it was his sensitivity to the sweat and toil of the common man, farmers and other workers that endeared him to the masses. He was perhaps the first lyricist to intertwine romance and the philosophy of communism in sublime songs. He embraced socialism and the Marxian ideology like many youths of his time in Thanjavur, where a militant peasant movement against landlords was emerging with the Left in the lead. The veteran Communist leader P. Jeevanandam had cast a spell on him. He got involved in various agrarian and working-class struggles influenced by radical reformist leaders such as B. Srinivasa Rao, Iranian, Sivaraman and Kalappal Kuppu. Srinivasa Rao fought against the repression by landlords in Keelavenmani village (now in Nagapattinam district) where 44 Dalits were burnt alive in 1968 for demanding minimum farm wages.

The song “Thenaru payuthu, senkathiru sayuthu, aanalum makkal vayuru kayuthu” (The river of honey flows/ripe rice paddy stoops/but the stomachs of people remain parched), which he wrote for a play in 1950 and was later used in a film, heralded the arrival of a people’s poet. It was highly critical of the institutionalised inequality in society.

Pattukottaiyar’s simple and seamless poetry was rooted in his own experiences. According to the documentary, he took up 16 different vocations, from ploughing the fields to picking mangoes and coconuts to driving bullock carts, before becoming a cinema lyricist. In praise of the dignity of labour, he wrote the song “Seiyyum thozhile deivam, antha thiramaithan namadhu selvam, kaiyum kalum than uthavai” (Work is worship/skills are our treasure/hands and legs are the support) for Aalukkoru Veedu (1960).

His experiences and his interaction with the working class helped him understand workers’ pangs, which made his poetry drip with socialist ideas. He disdainfully ridiculed man’s avarice and captured the rhythms of human life. He warned the youth not to fall prey to obscurantism and superstition. He sarcastically pointed out the aspirations of the middle classes and their relentless pursuit of wealth in “Kaila vanginaen, paiyila podala, kasu pona idam theriyalae” (took it in my hands, did not put it in the pocket, but don’t know where the money vanished) ( Irumbu Thirai , 1960).

The veteran Tamil film actor S.S. Rajendran, who has enacted on screen many songs written by Pattukottaiyar, called him an “evergreen artist”. Interestingly, Pattukottaiyar, had no formal education. He took his cues from his father, Arunachalam Pillai, who was a folk singer and poet, and “Anaikkadu” Davis, a Tamil teacher who honed his writing skills.

The Dravidian movement left a deep impact on Pattukottaiyar. He held the Dravidian leader E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ in high esteem and considered the poet Bharathidasan, a staunch follower of Periyar, his “guru”. When Periyar visited his village, Pattukottaiyar and his friends garlanded him, an act which was considered blasphemous then.

His respect for Bharathidasan had reached folklore proportions in cine circles. He used to begin his works with the line, “Long live Bharathidasan”. Speaking at the documentary launch function, Mannar Mannan, Bharathidasan’s son, said Pattukottaiyar came to Chennai (in 1952) to become a stage actor, “but my father discovered the poetic potential in him and introduced him into cinema”.

Pattukottaiyar’s contemporaries included stalwarts such as Marudakasi, Kothamangalam Subbu, K.D. Santhanam, Ku.Ma. Balasubramaniam, Kannadasan, and Thanjai Ramaiya Doss.

Saron told Frontline that his mission to document the life of the poet faced many hurdles as he had no leads. “The material available on him is insufficient. We had to depend on clippings from journals such as Murasoli, Janasakthi,Ananda Vikatan and other publications to which he had contributed in his earlier days. Ananda Vikatan even ran an editorial on his passing away.” Hence, the documentary had to be based on exhaustive interviews and recollections of Pattukottaiyar’s wife, relatives, friends and contemporaries and some stage artists who were associated with him, besides visits to places where he lived and worked. “It took seven years for me to complete this lofty task. I am quite happy that I could document the poet’s life and works for the next generation,” Saron said.

Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement and the Left’s class struggles in the Madras Presidency had revolutionised Pattukottaiyar’s outlook and thoughts, which in turn lent credence to the enhancement of his lyrical exuberance. The songs, rooted in socialism, elevated Tamil lyrics to a different plane altogether. Saron said most of his songs were written at different times in his life and were used in many films later.

MGR acknowledged the fact that Pattukottaiyar was the first lyricist who laid the base for his ambitious political future with powerful songs. MGR was on a relentless but careful pursuit of lyrics and storylines that promoted progressive idealism so as to construct a sustained Good Samaritan image for himself, first on the silver screen and later in the political domain. Political analysts insist that Pattukottaiyar’s rage against social evils and his identification with anti-imperialist forces, expressed through explosive songs, benefited MGR the most. The songs that were used in MGR’s films have stood the test of time.

The Freedom fighter I. Mayandi Bharathi said Pattukottaiyar’s friends urged him to continue to write for MGR since the actor had a “huge youth following”. The lyrics penned for MGR’s Nadodi Mannan (Vagrant King, 1958) are a classic example of how he presented forcefully the idea of radical reforms. “Kadu velanchenna machan, namakku kaiyum, kalum thane mitcham” (What if the fields are lush with crops, we are left with mere hands and legs.) This pessimistic tone would later be offset against an optimistic response, “Kadu vilayttum ponnae, namakku kalam irukkuthu pennae” (Let the fields sprout, young lady, our time will come).

“MGR made him write the thought-provoking lyric “Thoongathe thambi thoongathe, nee sombaeri endra peyar vankathae” [Do not sleep younger brother; don’t be branded as lazy) for Nadodi Mannan ,” the veteran film-maker and a close associate of MGR, Rm. Veerappan, has said in the documentary.

“Thirudathe pappa thirudathe, varumaiai ninaichu bayanthu vidathe, thiramai irukku maranthu vidathe” (Do not steal, little girl/do not fear poverty/ you have the skill, do not forget) for Thirudathe (1961) and “Chinna payalae, Chinna payalae” for Arasilamkumari (1961) were the other songs that helped transform MGR into a mass hero. In fact, MGR wanted him to pen lyrics exclusively for his films. But that did not happen for reasons not known.

Mayandi Bharathi recalls how a “tall and well-built man” calling himself Pattukottai A.K. Sundaram insisted that Janasakthi (where Mayandi was working then) publish his poetry.

The documentary, ably assisted by the social worker and academic Parveen Sultana, has achieved its vital objective—revisiting Pattukottaiyar’s life without losing the essence of his principled and uncompromising life. “It is an important social document on a poet who transformed the very face of Tamil lyricism,” she said.

The documentary has thrown light on some interesting facets of his life and character. The poet never compromised on his “poetic pride” and did not allow anyone to tinker with his self-esteem even when he faced acute poverty. Film producers Vaidyanatha Iyer and T.R. Sundaram of the Salem-based Modern Theatres got a taste of his unbridled anger when they made him wait for his wages. They were told by the poet, in writing, to “give respect and take respect”. The producers realised their folly and made amends. This incident is reflected in the line, “un naramboduthan pinni valaranum thanmana unarchi” (your self-esteem should grow in your sinews) in the song “Chinna payalae, Chinna Payalae”.

“Pattukottaiyar, with his lucid renderings, caught the imagination of all. A complex issue would be expressed in the simplest of terms so that it could be understood well and savoured by the common man. It worked wonders for him and for Tamil poetry,” said Ilaiyaraja, who rued that he did not have an opportunity to compose his songs. S. Senthilnathan, who had critically analysed his songs in his book, pointed out that Jeevanandam had said that Pattukottaiyar’s songs had two distinct components of expression —folk and modern.

He was neither moralistic nor seriously philosophical. He was just angry with the scourge of inequality. He wanted people to develop a scientific temper, which he believed would remove irrational beliefs. When mankind tried to explore space, he celebrated the efforts with lyric, “Chandiranai thoduthu manitha sakthi” (Man’s might touches the moon).

He trusted and supported native vocations. His song “Chinna, chinna izhai pinni pinni varum chithra kaithari selai” (Tiny, tiny threads of looms of beautiful handloom saris) for Puthaiyal (Treasure, 1957) glorifies the art of weaving and the importance of preserving the handloom tradition. In order to understand the art of weaving, he spent several hours with weavers in Chennai. It is the only song that lauds the handloom industry. Pattukottaiyar was a die-hard optimist. When he was struggling to get recognition in Chennai with hunger at his doorstep, actor N.S. Krishnan asked him to go back to his native village. But the poet rejected the idea, saying, “Puzhal eri neer irukka, poga vara car irukka, Ponnusamy soru irukka, poveno Chennaiai vittu, thangamae thangam” (There is water in the Puzhal lake, there is a vehicle for commuting, Ponnusamy [hotel] provides rice, why must I leave Chennai, my dear?).

“He proved Krishnan wrong and established his place in Chennai with sheer grit and determination,” pointed out Ganesan, Ponnusamy Hotel’s present owner. Flakes of such optimism could be noticed in many of his songs. Ponnusamy Hotel is still functioning in Royapettah in Chennai.

MSV recalled how he had turned down the poet who sought his audience. But “my ego was shattered when after three days of much reluctance and contempt, I read his songs. [MSV said he cried that night.] I was amazed at their exceptional qualities and I used them in Pasavalai . Till today I carry that remorse,” he said.

The State government nationalised Pattukottaiyar’s works and built a memorial for him in Sengapaduthankadu. Saron wants the house in Royapettah where the lyricist spent his last few years to be converted into a memorial. As Ilaiyaraja pointed out, the poet’s place remains vacant.

Pattukottaiyar’s son, Kumaravel, who works in a government department in Chennai, was three months old when the poet died. His wife Gowrammal’s knowledge about him was limited since they lived together for just one year. But Gowrammal, 74, has no regrets. “I lived with a great man who was known for his creativity and humaneness. Time did not matter here. My life with him is a poem in itself—short and sweet,” she told Frontline . Gowrammal lives in the village alone, savouring the memories of the one year she spent with the phenomenon called Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram.

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