In tune with tradition

Print edition : March 12, 2004

ONE of the striking features of Tamil language and literature, which has a rich and almost unbroken history that spans over 2,000 years, is that even while being accommodative of and flexible to changes and experiments at different times, from the Sangam Age (300 B.C. to A.D. 300) to the present day, it has also been influenced by passionate attempts to retain the quintessence of its heritage in the form of grammar or literary rules and conventions.

It is not surprising, therefore, that contemporary Tamil literature can still boast of a significant presence of writers, on the one hand those who experiment with the various literary schools such as modernism, post-modernism, realism, surrealism and existentialism, and on the other those who stick to traditional forms.

The popular lyricist and poet R. Vairamuthu is among those who take pride in the Tamil heritage and swear by the traditional form's capacity to convey with ease modern and even complicated ideas. He is not, however, averse to change or modernism and he uses with equal felicity free verse (puthu kavithai in Tamil), wherever it suits him. For him, content is more important than the form. In respect of both poetry and film lyrics, Vairamuthu inherited a rich legacy. Eminent poets such as Subramanya Bharathi (1882-1921), whose patriotic songs in support of the Independence movement and immortal poetic works such as Paanchali Sapatham, heralded the age of modern poetry in Tamil, and his principal disciple Bharathidasan alias Kanaga Subburathinam, who was the pioneering poet and playwright of the Dravidian movement, took poetry to great heights. Similarly, between the 1940s and the 1970s, there was a long line of film lyricists such as Udumalai Narayana Kavi, Kambadasan, Marudakasi and Kannadasan, who churned out thousands of captivating film songs, many of which were of great literary merit.

Vairamuthu arrived on the literary scene in the second half of the 1970s with a post-graduate degree in Tamil Literature. He was seen as a poet of high promise and potential, thanks to the success of his first collection of poems, Vaigarai Megangal (Clouds at dawn), which hit the stands while he was still in college. He entered the world of films in 1980. It was a turbulent period in the politico-cultural history of Tamil Nadu. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the leaders of the Dravidian Movement, through their forceful writings, helped foster pride in the minds of the people for the Tamil heritage and a love for Tamil language and literature. But after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) captured power in the State in 1967 riding a wave of anti-Hindi sentiments that it had aroused over the years, the movement lost steam as many of the leaders were preoccupied with governmental and political responsibilities. It was also the time when the usefulness of Tamil as a medium of instruction began to be questioned and English-medium schools started mushrooming in the State, with middle-class support.

In the realm of Tamil poetry, traditionalism, which had been drawing strong support from the writers of the Dravidian Movement, began losing ground. After the success of Karuppu Malargal (Black Flowers) by Na. Kamarasan and Kanavugal + Karpanaigal = Kagithangal (Fancies + Fantasies = Scraps) by Meera (M. Rajendran), both in the form of prose poem, a number of young poets who wrote mainly on social themes, especially their concern for the poor and the underprivileged, began opting for the free verse. Puviarasu, Sirpi (Balasubramaniam), Mu. Mehta, Bala and Chidambaranathan, among others, emerged as poets of the new era. They wrote in free verse poems that revolved around socialist ideas, for the magazine Vaanampadi (Skylark). They were engaged in a fierce struggle with the traditionalists, mostly academics, on the one hand, and with a group of poets writing for the periodical named Kachatathapara on the other. Although the latter favoured free verse, it had different objectives. An outstanding poet of the time, Abdul Rahman, became part of the Vanampadi movement after his work Paalveedhi, published in 1974, proved a success. Although the movement ultimately succeeded in winning the approval of Marxist critics such as Kailasapathi, who had been critical of free verse, its poetic activity slowed down during the days of the Emergency (1975-77). (R. Balachandran, Stalin's Plays and Other Essays on Contemporary Tamil Literature, 1999.) The 1970s saw the emergence of a new Marxist group among writers, including Gandharvan and Senthilnathan.

Another important development in the mid-1970s related to Tamil cinema. Film directors and script writers such as Bharathiraja and Bagyaraj emerged on the scene with movies on rural themes. And, the camera, for the first time, moved to the villages. Until then, most of the Tamil films were city-based and dealt with themes relating mostly to middle class urban life. Films were shot only in studios based in Chennai. Bharatiraja broke new ground by taking Tamil cinema to the villages. He, along with music director Ilayaraja succeeded in providing folk music a prominent place. For Vairamuthu, who had taken up a government job in Chennai and published his second collection of poems Thiruthi Ezhuthiya Theerppugal (Rewritten judgments) in 1976, the moment to fulfil his long-cherished ambition to enter the field of cinema had come. His rural background and his acquaintance with the new poetical forms helped him in a big way. He was signed up for Bharathiraja's Nizhalgal. By teaming up with the Bharathiraja-Ilayaraja combine, he produced some of the best musicals of the 1980s, just as Kannadasan had in the 1950s and 1960s teamed up with music directors M. S. Viswanathan and Ramamurthi to produce some memorable melodies. From then on, it has been success all the way for Vairamuthu.

Even while writing film songs, Vairamuthu wrote poems for periodicals, which were only too eager to offer space to the popular lyricist who had attained star status. In both fields he made indelible imprints - in less than 25 years he penned more than 5,000 film songs and authored 32 books, most of them collections of poems. Kallikkattu Edhikasam (The Epic of Kallikkadu), which won him the Sahitya Akademi Award for 2003, is one of his seven novels. In 2003, the civilian honour of Padma Shree was conferred on him in appreciation of his contribution to literature. The Tamil Nadu government has also honoured him with several awards. He has won the national film award for the best film song five times.

VAIRAMUTHU is essentially a romantic poet. Many of his poems display his passion for Tamil language and literature and his adoration for the themes of love and valour, which occupy a special place in Tamil life and psyche. Artistic representations, from the Sangam Age to the present day, celebrate these two characteristics. With his scholarship and craftsmanship, the poet does it with aplomb. His fine imagery, fantastic imagination, strong vocabulary and wise choice of words and the way in which he weaves them into enjoyable poems/songs have ensured his popularity with both readers and listeners.

A Drop in Search of The Ocean is the first English translation of Vairamuthu's selected poems in Tamil. The collection comprises 58 poems, which were written at different times. Beginning with `Oh, New Millennium' and ending with `The Last Will', the book meanders through a range of subjects such as the "disappearance" of a river in southern Tamil Nadu, the enchanting beauty of the Niagara Falls, environmental degradation, the need to love animals, the frustration of a 37-year-old spinster, and the cries of a woman whose hovel is about to be dismantled by the custodians of law.

As rightly pointed out by the translator, the poet, like most of his ilk, "is essentially the happiest when he is the closest to Nature". The poet approaches the new millennium with extreme fear, not entirely unfounded given the rise in discord between nations, the competitive stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, the growing threat to the life of the poor and the blood-letting across the country over petty issues. However, he ends the poem with an optimistic appeal to the new millennium to bring "a nation sans sorrow" and "the gift of peace of mind". In `The Leaf', the poet turns philosophical about death when he sees a leaf being shed from a tree. The leaf asks the tree not to grieve over its death because "This is not the end/but a new beginning... To the branch shall I/ in some other form/ return through the roots."

While lamenting over the fate of a river he loved so much in his boyhood, the poet compares the river's shrinking to "the only saree of the old woman in the thatched hut" shrinking and becoming "threadbare". He concludes, "What was once/the grand thoroughfare/of poesy/is now/the one-track footpath/of jackasses." Standing before the Niagara Falls, he wonders: "Who is that has laundered the water/and set it out to dry/in the crevices between the rocks?" In `When Poet Becomes Scientist...' the poet, in his childlike desire, expresses his "yearning" to gaze upon the phenomenon of a bud blossoming exactly "at the instant" it happens and to listen to "the minute sounds unfolding petals make."

`Nest' tells the agony of a poor woman whose little home built on public land is sought to be demolished by government officials. She tells the officials how she built her home: "By saving thriftily and through back-breaking labour," by pledging her gold nose-screw and selling off her brass pitcher. When she realises that her desperate pleadings with the officials might not work, she makes one final appeal to them to spare, at least, a jasmine vine that her daughter had planted: May the vine "planted with love" be left undisturbed so that it can "bloom for someone."

Some of the poems in the collection display the poet's anger at the atrocities committed against the defenceless and his humane response to events that take place across the world. Whether it is the death of somebody in a plane crash or the killing of a helpless migrant bird, the poet gets deeply affected and records his protest against the "inhuman" action and the obvious irony in "making food of a bird" that came in search of food.

The difficulty in translating poems of this nature is evident. Yet, the translator, Balan Menon, has met the challenging and "daunting" task with reasonable success, "remaining faithful to the remarkable poet's diction and imagery, his vision and emotional intensity."

Interestingly, although Vairamuthu's forte is poetry, it is his novel that won him the Sahitya Akademi award. The book is considered the first Tamil novel on displacement. It tells the tragic tale of a large number of people who lost their homes and belongings when their villages perished following the construction of a dam across the river Vaigai in southern Tamil Nadu in the 1950s. The affected people included the family of the author, who was four years old then. Vairamuthu's moving narrative, which describes the agony of the affected, announces another dimension of his many-sided talent. The book, published in 2002, was a bestseller.

WHAT are the factors that facilitated the rise of a person like Vairamuthu, who was born in 1953 into an average peasant family in a small village in the then Madurai district to such levels of pre-eminence? Vairamuthu believes that it was possible not merely because of his academic qualification but because of his deep attachment to his village and the love and affection he has for almost everyone in the village. "Even at the tender age of ten years, I had a realisation that I was destined to choose a career that somehow related to Tamil," says the poet. Apart from the formal education he received in Tamil language and literature, for which he had a passion from his school days, the knowledge he acquired from village elders, including his grandparents, helped him prepare for his chosen career as a poet and lyricist. "Every bit of information that I gathered and knowledge acquired from my elders was and is useful to me," he says. "Many of these people may be unlettered, but they are not unwise," he explains. The stories from the epics that his grandparents told him, the sparks of their native wisdom in times of crises, the folk songs he heard, the proverbs ("containers of experiences"), and the songs that agricultural workers sang while toiling in the fields were all sources of wisdom. "These apart, I know each and every aspect of village life. I know everyone of my village by name. I have worked on our land and I have practical knowledge of every agricultural operation, from ploughing to harvesting. When I left my village for higher studies and later for taking up a job in Chennai, I did not cut my umbilical cord that linked me with the village," Vairamuthu says. It is this unbroken link with his village, he says, that keeps him in good stead. "Even today, I go to my village to refurbish myself.

He is proud of his Tamil ancestry. His acquaintance with Sangam literature familiarised him with the traditional forms of poetry. Consequently, he developed a passion for the Tamil literary traditions. Vairamuthu has also a fairly good grounding in world literature. Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), the Lebanese-born American writer and artist, is one of his favourite authors. Among the poets who have influenced him are Bharathi, Bharathidasan and Kannadasan, and numerous Tamil poets including Siddhars, Nayanmars and Azhwars.

AS a film lyricist, it was his love for Nature and rural life and, above all, constant practice that have helped his career. His objective has been to fill the essence of literature in film songs to the extent possible and he claims to have achieved reasonable success in this endeavour. In the years to come, he says, he wants to reduce further the gap between poems and film songs in terms of literary value. Describing Vairamuthu as a "competent and frontline modern poet", the critic Bala (R. Balachandran) says that although he is a modern poet, "his language is traditional, his vocabulary has all the flavour of a traditional scholar, and his metaphors, images and hyperboles reveal that he is a traditional poet who addresses modern themes."

The noted poet Gandharvan says that Vairamuthu has been able to retain the potency of his poems for well over two decades. "While a section of writers is engaged in making terse statements in the name of poems on obscurantist ideas in an incomprehensible language, Vairamuthu has been able to write poems in a simple but moving style on very relevant issues with a social perspective," he points out. Gandharvan is also appreciative of the consistency in his approach to problems concerning the common man and says that he has been expressing "progressive ideas, in an optimistic tone". Vairamuthu says that he will continue to write on social issues in popular magazines. One of his recent writings is about the "monster of globalisation," in which he tellingly explains the havoc caused by policies driven by the World Bank and the United States on the poor in developing countries over the past 10 years.

Bala says that Vairamuthu's reputation "as is well-known" is built on his film-lyrics - "an asset and liability to his creative career as writer of poetry". Vairamuthu is, however, confident of continuing on his chosen path of "writing for the people".

A Drop in Search of The Ocean: Best Poems of Vairamuthu, original Tamil poems translated by Balan Menon, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2003; Rs.395. Kallikattu Edhikasam, Vairamuthu Surya Literature (P) Ltd., Chennai 2002; Rs.200.

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