The saint, the song, and the social revolution

A new music project titled Anbenum Peruveli radically reinterprets the work of the 19th-century Tamil poet-prophet in the year of his bicentenary.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

A portrait of Vallalar, born Chidambaram Ramalingam on October 5, 1823.

A portrait of Vallalar, born Chidambaram Ramalingam on October 5, 1823. | Photo Credit: Onemai Foundation

First you hear a drumroll. Then the crash and clang of cymbals, like the rev-up before a rock concert. The camera arcs over a signature scrawled in a sort of cursive Tamil: “Chidambaram Ramalingam”. Lines of a poem, a mystic paean to love, appear with subtitles on the screen to the heartbeat of the drums, intercut with visuals of what looks like a jamming session in a studio.

Now, silence and birdsong. As you wonder about the poem, the camera cuts to the flame of a lone earthen lamp. And then emerges the image of a monk in white robes, hands clasped, face inscrutable. Born Ramalingam on October 5, 1823, near Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, this man would come to be known in the Tamil world as Vallalar, “the magnanimous one”. Thus opens the documentary on a music album named Anbenum Peruveli (“the grand expanse called love”), which radically reimagines Vallalar’s poetry in the year of his bicentenary.

LISTEN: A new music project titled ‘Anbenum Peruveli’ radically reinterprets the work of the 19th-century Tamil poet-prophet Vallalar in the year of his bicentenary.

Anbenum Peruveli is a collection of six audio NFTs (non-fungible tokens) secured on the blockchain, commissioned by the blockchain technologist Vignesh Sundaresan and conceptualised by the Singapore-based non-profit Onemai Foundation. A hive mind of artists and scholars have deep-dived into the life and work of Vallalar, who famously wrote “Vaadiya payirai kandapothellam vaadinen [Whenever I saw crops wilting, I too withered]” and for whom jeevakarunyam, or compassion for all sentient beings, was equal to the worship of God. The earthen lamp with its steady burning flame speaks for this poet-prophet’s way of life, in which light (he called it arutperumjothi, the great light of compassion) and love (or thanipperumkarunai, infinite mercy) were the enduring truths.

An aerial view of the Sathiya Jnana Sabai (Hall of Truth and Wisdom) built by Vallalar in Vadalur in 1872. 

An aerial view of the Sathiya Jnana Sabai (Hall of Truth and Wisdom) built by Vallalar in Vadalur in 1872.  | Photo Credit: Onemai Foundation

Vallalar is often acknowledged as the first “popular” poet of modern Tamil. Tamil’s own bard Subramania Bharati hailed him as “puthiya vizhippin munnodi” (the pioneer of a new awakening). In his essay titled “Love in the time of hate”, the writer and journalist A.S. Panneerselvan notes: “There are five critical elements in Vallalar’s work: simplicity, lyricism, compassion, seeking the truth, and finally, refraining from being a literal interpreter of any of the earlier texts. It was a major departure from the militant Saivism that held sway from the days of the later Cholas, and it created the space for multiple coexistences of faith, traditions and ways of life.”

The sixth tirumurai

Vallalar’s disciples published his verses as six books, or tirumurais, which were later compiled into the Tiruvarutpa (Songs of Grace). While the first five tirumurais bear the stamp of the Tamil Saiva Siddhanta bhakti tradition, the tide turns in the last one. The sixth tirumurai mirrors the mind of a man who has broken free of caste to feed the poor and the hungry at a time of famine. It is a clean break from religion and ritual, an open embrace of the idea of Anbe Sivam: love is God, God is love. It was not published in Vallalar’s own lifetime for fear of a backlash.

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Like the sixth tirumurai, the Anbenum Peruveli project, too, is a departure from the usual format of an art project. At its heart are six verses selected by Panneerselvan from Vallalar’s vast oeuvre of 5,818 songs. These have been set to music by Sean Roldan and sung by leading Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan, who is accompanied by Vikram Vivekanand on the guitar, Shalini Mohan on the bass, and Ramkumar Kanakarajan on the drums.

The eternal lamp in the Sathiya Jnana Sabai, symbolic of Vallalar’s philosophy of arutperumjothi (the great light of compassion).

The eternal lamp in the Sathiya Jnana Sabai, symbolic of Vallalar’s philosophy of arutperumjothi (the great light of compassion). | Photo Credit: Onemai Foundation

The six songs are a splendid jukebox of genres (fusion, rock, heavy metal, jazz, Celtic blues, rap), styles, and moods (prayerful, affirmative, upbeat, reflective, playful, anthem-like) and swing from the familiar to the funky. A bonus is the inclusion of a strings section by the Celtic Folk Ensemble (recorded at Abbey Road Studio, London) and the Skopje Studio Orchestra, North Macedonia. In Sean Roldan’s musical interpretation, Vallalar’s verses feel intimate and immediate, relatable and personal, burning and political. Here is 19th century poetry that speaks to the 21st century listener, music that allows the poetic expressions to emerge with clarity and ardour.
This website houses the six audio NFTs, the documentary film and a library of literature on Vallalar that is available in the public domain. 

The documentary and six music videos, directed by the filmmaker Rafiq Ismail and shot by the cinematographer Karthik Muthukumar, add another facet to Anbenum Peruveli. While the documentary captures the camaraderie and the buzz of a live music studio during the recording of the six songs, it is much more than mere “making-of” footage. Embedded in the narrative are conversations with Tamil scholars and historians who shine a light on Vallalar’s life and work and reflect on how his belief system broke out of the traditional Saiva Siddhanta template to an expansive world view born out of empathy and fellow feeling.

Among the speakers is Professor V. Arasu, former Head of Department of Tamil, Madras University, and scholar of the Dravidian movement, who sketches a brief biography of Vallalar and his growing–up years. He points out how in the Manumurai kanda vaasagam (1854), a prose rendition of the 12th century Saivite epic Periya Puranam, Vallalar spells out the injustices of the British Raj using the persona of King Manuneethi Cholan, giving us an insight not only into the society of his time but also how deeply he cared for the world around him.

For Vallalar, 1867 was a milestone year, says Professor Arasu. That was when the first four books of the Tiruvarutpa were published, thanks to the efforts of his prime disciple, Thozhuvur Velayudha Mudaliyar. It was also when the Samarasa Veda Sanmarga Sangam, a society based on the principle of universal brotherhood, and the Sathiya Dharuma Saalai, a charitable feeding house in Vadalur, Tamil Nadu, were established. The anaiyaa aduppu (the hearth that never dies out) that Vallalar lit for cooking at the Sathiya Dharuma Saalai continues to burn to this day, feeding hundreds of people irrespective of caste and creed.

A jamming session in progress, with Vikram Vivekanand, Shalini Mohan, Ramkumar Kanakarajan and Sean Roldan.

A jamming session in progress, with Vikram Vivekanand, Shalini Mohan, Ramkumar Kanakarajan and Sean Roldan. | Photo Credit: Onemai Foundation

The folklorist M.D. Muthukumaraswamy highlights how the late 19th century was a time of Tamil renaissance, which seeded both the Indian nationalist movement and the Dravidian movement. Professor K.R. Arumugam draws attention to the twin defining moments of that period: the Great Famine of 1876–78 and the evolution of print culture. While his contemporaries vied with one another to give their holy books pride of place in print, Vallalar chose to focus his energies on tackling pasippini (the sickness of hunger) instead. He declared that jeevakarunyam would be his only “religion” henceforth. The historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy observes that this act of Vallalar’s was both a radical revolution of the heart and a revolt by a Saiva Siddhanta insider.

The ‘coming out’

The documentary sets up an interesting parallel between Vallalar’s breaking free and Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s own musical crossover. The first song of the Anbenum Peruveli album is from the fifth tirumurai: “Orumaiyudan ninadhu tirumalaradi ninaikkindra uttamar tam uravu vendum [Let me keep company with the noble ones who single-mindedly contemplate thy flower-like feet].”

This verse, usually sung in Carnatic music concerts in a worshipful tone, feels more a wish list in the soundscape created by Sean Roldan. As Sanjay Subrahmanyan finishes each stanza with the earnest refrain of “vendum vendum” (I wish, I want), violins surging, drums in a rhythmic groove, a familiar hymn breaks fresh ground.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan can sound like a live wire in one song (“Arutperumjothi”, with its heavy metal vibe) and sweetly poignant in another (“Kallaarkkum katravarkkum kalipparulum kalippe”, Joy for the unlettered and the learned alike). There is a particular point in “Anjathe Nenje” (Fear not, dear heart) which begins with a tinkling, lilting lute on the pentatonic scale, when the chords shift and his voice soars into a whole new sky. He even croons a la Frank Sinatra in “Vennilaave”(Oh milk-white moon).

“‘Anbenum Peruveli’ is a palimpsest built on the words and ideas of a man who walked the talk, a saint and social reformer who was rooted in the real world.”

But it is in “Ithu nalla tharunam” (The time to do good is now) that he lets go. Structured as rap, its lyrics—“Mathittha samaya madha vazhakkellam maainthathu/ varnasramam enum mayakkamum saaindhadhu” (The old ways of religion are gone/the illusion of varnasrama has fallen)—are a rap on the knuckles of orthodoxy. With an urgent, electric vibe, the rendition and lyrics both promise a thought revolution.

“When we discussed this project with Onemai, I said: I don’t mind doing anything but I will be a singer.... Whatever you want I’ll sing,” said Sanjay Subrahmanyan to Frontline, referring to his coming out of the Carnatic classical comfort zone.

As for the music videos, it is as if artists picked up a flaming torch from musicians in a cultural relay of sorts to create a collage of enduring visuals. When the dancer Ruchi Raveendran twirls, dervish-like, her hands lifted heavenwards, to the chorus of “vendum vendum” in the Kerala countryside, the song “Orumaiyudan” takes on a lapidary quality. The painter Athiveerapandiyan creates a many-splendoured abstract painting from scratch to the riffs of “En iyal udambile, enbile anbile” (In my body, my bones, my love) that rise to a crescendo in “Arutperumjothi”.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan recording the song “Arutperumjothi” in the studio.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan recording the song “Arutperumjothi” in the studio. | Photo Credit: Onemai Foundation

If “Anjathe nenje” opens a window into the daily practice of the theatre artists of Puducherry repertory company Indianostrum, the dancer Nrithya Pillai brings “Kallaarkkum katravarkkum”, with its stirring Celtic chorus, to life in the zen-like calm of Marudam Farm School in Thiruvannamalai.

The breeziness of “Vennilaave” belies its profound philosophy (“satchidananda kadalile naanum thaazhndhu vizha vendukinren vennilaave / I wish to delve into the sea of spiritual bliss, oh milky-white moon”) even as Ramamurthy’s surreal animation conjures up whole new worlds in a handful of frames. “Ithu nalla tharunam” becomes an anthem for the “power of now” as Kishore and his troupe of dancers perform the Krump in the stark salt flats of Marakkanam.

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Anbenum Peruveli is a palimpsest built on the words and ideas of a man who walked the talk, a saint and social reformer who was rooted in the real world. As Panneerselvan says, the six songs collectively make for a modern manifesto, or desiderata, for our times. As he also points out, none of the food politics and welfarism of successive governments in Tamil Nadu over the last century would have come about if not for Vallalar.

In her book The Transformation of Tamil Religion: Ramalinga Swamigal (1823–1874) and Modern Dravidian Sainthood, Srilata Raman notes: “This profound empathy for the poor and the hungry is considered to be [Vallalar’s] lasting legacy to the Tamil people.” She traces how Vallalar became a secular, anti-caste icon of the Dravidian movement: “The Self-Respecters placed Vallalar within a progressive Tamil teleology—one which, far removed from the superstitions of religion, would point the way to a utopian humanistic society, undergirded by pagutharivu (rationality) and created through social reform.”

The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol. Thirumavalavan sums it up when he says that Vallalar was the one to sow the first seed of Tamil modernity, and the one who preached and practised all that Ambedkar and Periyar envisaged, at least half a century before they did. In an inspired turn of phrase, Thirumavalavan declares Vallalar the “Aanmeega [spiritual] Periyar”. And that, perhaps, is the best testament to an ascetic activist who chose the path of jothi (light) and sama neethi (equality) over saathi (caste). 

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