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Shooting star

Print edition : September 16, 2016
The lyricist Na. Muthukumar (1975-2016) resurrected the richness of language in Tamil cinema with his expressive lines, which were suffused with liberal yet non-didactic doses of philosophy.

When the Tamil poet and lyricist Na. Muthukumar (1975-2016) died recently in Chennai, he left behind a legacy that will be hard to match—lyrics for about 1,500 film songs, two National Awards and several other honours. His was a meteoric rise without parallel in Tamil cinema.

His first National Award came for the song “ Ananda Yazhai Meetukirai” set to Yuvan Shankar Raja’s music in the film Thanga Meenkal. The second award was for the song “ Azhage Azhage” in Saivam with music by G.V. Prakash Kumar. Who other than Muthu, as he was fondly known among friends, could convey a father’s unstinted love for his daughter so powerfully as he did in “ Ananda Yazhai”? The loss and deprivation of a mother’s love at a very young age and the extraordinary bond he had with his father translated into the rhymes and meter of the lyric. Many believe he achieved lyrical mastery with this song.

Muthukumar’s father was his “thayumanavar” (he who is also a mother) as his mother died when he was just four years old. His father, Nagarajan, a Tamil teacher in a school, compensated for the loss. “He is more a mother,” he once said of his father. It was his father who made him passionate about Tamil, which later encouraged him to pursue his master’s degree in Tamil literature. “My father opened up the magical realm of the Tamil language and literature to me,” he said.

Ananda Yazhai” was in many ways a lyrical tribute to fathers who raise their daughters. “ Iru nenjangal inainthu pesida ulagil varthaigal ethum thevai illai, adi, koil etharkku deivangal etharkku, unathu punnagai onre pothumadi…” (For an interaction between two hearts (of father and daughter), there is no need for words. Why do we need temples and gods when your smile itself is enough?)

When his contemporaries strove for sophistication, Muthukumar effortlessly wove a strong web of longing around his lyrics in what is perhaps the ultimate expression of a father’s affection for his daughter. He wrote on another occasion: “ Deivangal ellam thotre pogum thanthai anbin munne” (all the gods will lose before a father’s love). After Kannadasan and Vaali and later Vairamuthu, the Tamil film industry had not seen a poet with such spontaneity as Muthukumar. His use of imagery and metaphors gave the lyrics a whiff of freshness. For Keats, a thing of beauty was a joy forever. For Muthukumar, anything connected with nature and life was a thing of joy. He employed imagery from nature as any other poet would. But what distinguished him from the others was the unconventional way in which he used it, employing a simple language with which the common man could easily connect.

A song in the film Kadhal goes: “ Nilavoliyai mattum nambi ilaiyellam vaazhvathillai, minminiyum oli kodukkum” (Leaves shine not only in moonlight; even fireflies can light them up).

That was also how Muthukumar wrote the lyrics for the National Award winning song in Saivam. The lyrics fetched him and the singer Uthara national recognition. P. Unnikrishnan, Uthara’s father who is himself an accomplished Carnatic and playback singer said about Muthukumar: “Despite being extremely talented, he was a grounded person. A man of few words, simplicity was his uniqueness and his words often had deep interpretations.” Muthukumar was immersed in the nature around him. He adored even those elements that most poets in general shunned. While poets of his genre wrote about the rain and clouds and flowers and birds, he expressed his love for the sun under whose searing heat village urchins love to play. His song on the sun and its heat, “ Veyilodu vilayadi, veyilodu uravadi, veyilodu mallukatti attam pottomee” (Playing with sun, interacting with sun, fighting with sun, we danced), with lines such as “ puzhuthithan namma sattai” (the dust is our shirt), in the film Veyil (Sunlight) reflects the soul in the music of a simple and earthy people.

In “ Azhage, azhage”, he wrote: “ Mazhai mattuma azhagu, sudum veyil kooda oru azhagu” (Is rain alone beautiful? Even the hot sun has a beauty). The sun, its light and heat and the dusty village of his days as a young man were etched deeply in his mind, which he later transformed into rich metaphors of poetic exuberance.

Sun as metaphor

He used the sun as a metaphor in his earlier numbers too, notably in the song “ Suttum vizhi sudare” (borrowing the words of the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati) in the Tamil film Gajini, which went on to become a chartbuster. Bombay Jayashree’s mellifluous voice added a magical flavour to it: “ Mazhai azhaga? Veyil azhaga? Konjumbothu mazhai azhagu, kanne nee kovapattaal veyil azhagu” (Which is beautiful: the rain or sunshine? When you express love it is rain that is beautiful and, my dear, when you are angry the sun is beautiful).

At a time when lyrics in Tamil film songs were marked by poverty of imagination, in some cases, descending into depravity and decadence accompanied by loud music, Muthukumar’s rich content resurrected the richness of the language in Tamil cinema.

Muthukumar hailed from Kannikapuram village in Kancheepuram district and was intensely aware of his environment, but he did not confine his poetry to the rural settings. His lyrics carried the touch of the urban too, sophisticated pieces on the intricacies of human relationships and in city environments with liberal yet non-didactic doses of philosophy.

His lyrics are each a unique experience, an aural delight. Who could find beauty in a fallen leaf? Muthukumar could: “ Malar mattuma azhagu, vizhum ilai kooda oru azhagu” (Is the flower alone beautiful? Even a falling leaf is beautiful) in the song “ Azhage, azhage”. In the same number, he wrote that even the lies that are told for a good cause are beautiful (“ Nanmaikku sollidum poigalum azhagu”). He wondered in another song, in the film 7G Rainbow Colony, how a dewdrop broke a stem of thorns while describing the unresponsive and stubborn heart of the girl that negated a boy’s love.

Nissim Ezekiel pointed out once: “The best poets wait for words.” But words with spontaneous lucidity came to Muthukumar with remarkable frequency and fluency. His choice of words was simple and not burdened with irrelevant references. His rhymes and meters were made in his heart and rooted in his environment. As Ezekiel said, a poet could “do something for and in his environment by being fully what he is, by not withdrawing from it”. It is his language, his land and his people that inspired Muthukumar.

In one of her poems “The Freaks”, Kamala Das talks about “a grand, flamboyant lust”. Muthukumar exemplified this quality for anything that was beautiful. That is why he could achieve in less than two decades what Kannadasan, who had a huge influence on him, and Vaali, who lived during his time as a lyricist, achieved during their lifetime. His range was rich and varied. He had the innate ability to emphatically capture the highs and lows of the complex human disposition. The song “ Aval appadi ondrum azhagillai, avalukku yaarum inai illai” (She is not that beautiful, but no one is equal to her) in the film Angadi Theru describes the earthy beauty of a simple down-to-earth girl a boy is in love with. It does not glorify the woman as a divine beauty, as is the wont of poets.

The songs “ Ninaithu ninaithu parthal” (If you keep thinking) and “ Kan pesum varthaigal purivathillai” (The words of the eyes are not understood) in 7G Rainbow Colony were chart-toppers. The mirror as imagery in “ Kan pesum varthaigal” hauntingly expresses the turmoil of emotions of a love-lorn person: “ Oru mugam maraiya maru mugam theriya kannaadi idhayam illai, kadal kai moodi maraivathillai.” (To show up one face and make the other disappear, the heart is not a mirror. The palm cannot conceal the sea.)

Muthukumar’s poems were generally aphoristic. His lyrics were not explicitly social or political unlike the poems of Bharati and Bharathidasan or later Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram as Muthukumar was essentially a romanticist.

Although he entered the film industry with the ambition of becoming a director and was schooled by the celebrated director Balu Mahendra, it was his passion for the Tamil language that led him to songwriting. The noted writer Sujatha found him to be a promising poet and selected his poem “Thoor” for a magazine. Seeman’s Veera Nadai was his first film. He wrote dialogues for a few films, including Kireedom and Vaaranam Ayiram. His prose works include Anilaadum Mundril, which was serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, Newtonin Moondram Vidhi, Ennai Sandhikka Kanavil Varathe and Pattampoochi Virpavan, all of which attest to his creativity in different forms of literature. He also wrote an English novel titled Silk City.

Muthukumar worked with almost all music directors in the Tamil film industry. He penned all the songs for Ilayaraja’s compositions in Neethaaney Yenn Ponvasantham. At one stage, he was extremely busy: he recorded a staggering 103 songs for various films in 2012-13. His association with the composers Yuvan Shankar Raja and G.V. Prakash Kumar resulted in many chartbusters. His recent films include Ko 2, Theri, Kakka Muttai, Papanasam, Naan Mahan Alla and Amma Kanakku. And a 100-odd songs for which he penned the lyrics are waiting to be released.

As the lyricist Vairamuthu pointed out: “It is not the age to die. It is an age to achieve.” Yes. He did not live long enough to relish the rewards of his literary pursuit.

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