Of Rasikas, Goddesses, and Gentlemen: The Lyrical World of Thamarai

With creative freedom that’s been hard won over the course of her 25 years in the industry, Thamarai’s lyrics present women and men as complex, layered characters, rather than clichés
Of Rasikas, Goddesses, and Gentlemen: The Lyrical World of Thamarai

It’s the end of a long day. The spare room — stained walls with posters of scantily-dressed women and hooks from which hang rag-like items of clothing; the shelves are crowded with everyday clutter — is crammed with tired men. One of them video calls his wife and asks her to sing him a song. She sings, “Hey mallipoo vachu vachu vadudhae (the jasmine I wear keep withering)” and later in the song asks: 

“Hey epo vara pora, 

Machan epo vara pora, 

Pathumada paayil, 

Vandhu sokki vilapora?” 

(When will you get here, my love? When will you come and swoon on my woven mat?)

Although it’s picturised on men, Thamarai’s lyrics for this song from Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (2022) speak about desire from a woman’s perspective. The mallipoo, or jasmine, has traditionally been used as a symbol of love and romance. Its scent is considered an aphrodisiac. When the woman in the song speaks of the flower withering, she’s speaking about herself and her yearning, which is expressed in terms that are coy yet carnal. When the meaning finally hits you, it hits you hard — a trademark of Thamarai’s lyrics. 

A still from Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu
A still from Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu

Born in 1975, in Coimbatore, Thamarai — her name means lotus — is not only among Tamil cinema’s talented lyricists, but also the first female lyricist to have worked consistently in this film industry since making her debut in Iniyavale (1998). Outspoken, frank and erudite, this engineer-turned-lyricist radiates idealism. “I am a citizen before I am an artist. An artist has to be political. How can I not be involved?” she told Film Companion in 2017. Thamarai’s breakout song was ‘Vaseegara’, from Minnale (2001), sung by Bombay Jayashree. The lyrics are rich with desire without ever seeming graphic. “There is a difference between sensuousness, vulgarity and eroticism. Thamarai's lyrics could be sensuous but never vulgar,” said lyricist Parvathy Meera. “When she sings ‘vilayaatai un aadaikulle naan vendum (playfully sometimes, I want to be inside your clothes)’, it is highly romantic and playful, but back in the day, you could sing it even in front of your family. It was a time when we were hesitant to sing any love songs, but idhelaam azagha paadiralam [these can be sung gleefully]. Her lyrics are romantic but stay away from bad taste. That is why she is Thamarai.”  

The Female Gaze in Words

Often, the way Thamarai uses everyday words and phrases feels layered and novel. For example, the porvai (blanket), in ‘Vaseegara’, brings in a playful element in the way the song depicts a woman’s desire as she talks about sharing the blanket. In ‘Maruvaarthai Pesadhey’ from Enai Noki Paayum Thota (2019), the two lovers reconnect after several years and put their differences to rest. The porvai shows up again, but this time it’s symbolic of an earnest wish to never be separated again (“piriyaadha porvai nodigal”). The “porvaigal porththi” in ‘Kannana Kanney’, from Viswasam (2019), speaks of a completely different kind of love, as Thamarai writes about how a father wants to cover his little girl with a blanket to protect her.

Parvathy has even found herself discovering words through Thamarai’s songs. “There is a line in ‘Azhagiya Asura’ — she says, ‘Uchcham thalaiyil ulla en Arjuna matcham sollum (the Arjuna mole on the highest point in my head would tell how lucky you are)”. I didn’t know there were names for moles until then. With Thamarai, she blends in some uncommon words seamlessly into her lyrics, that uniqueness of hers continues to inspire me," she said. Parvathy also pointed to Thamarai’s use of the word “vaseegara”, which is seen in literature, but not in film songs. “The very word, vaseegara, was new and unheard of until then. There was a freshness and it made us sit up and take note of her,” Parvathy said. 

Madhavan in Minnale
Madhavan in Minnale

Incidentally, the Hindi version of the song “Zara Zara” has lyrics by Sameer and while they also speak of desire, what they lack is the unmistakably feminine perspective that imbues Thamarai’s version. For instance, In ‘Zara Zara’, the song unwittingly becomes all about the woman’s lover, rather than her own desires. In addition to her passivity, the Hindi version of the song adds a hint of pathos to the woman when she sings, “Jhootha hi sahi pyar toh kar” (Give me your love, even if it's just for show). In contrast, the Tamil version goes like this:

“Kulu kulu poigal solli enai velvaaye, 

Athu therinthum kooda anbe, 

Manam athaiyethan ethirparkkum.” 

(You will tell many lies and win me, but despite knowing this, my dear, my heart desires for that only). 

Thamarai writes of a woman who articulates her desire unabashedly, and who is an active and equal partner in the games that the couple play in the song. She does sow seeds of melancholy in her lyrics, but you only notice this later. For instance, look past the seductive playfulness in ‘Vaseegara’, and the lyrics hint at unfulfilled desire. The everyday nature of her fantasies — getting wet in the rain, sharing a blanket — can also be seen to speak of how difficult it is for a woman to experience even these small pleasures. The banal becomes the stuff of fantasies.   

Reema Sen in Minnale
Reema Sen in Minnale

More than a Mother Goddess 

Thamarai's filmography, like that of most female lyricists, teems with romantic songs though she does have a rare credit for a female lyricist: She wrote the hero introduction number ‘Karka Karka’ for Kamal Hassan in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (2006).  

“Adhigaaramo aarpaatamo

Ivan pechil illai

Mun aaivadhil pin paaivadhil

Ivan pulyin pillai”

The macho hero she describes — he’s a police officer — is not the authoritative alpha and neither does he show off. Instead, he is a thinking hero, someone who analyses situations and waits to nab the criminals. “He is a tiger’s son,” writes Thamarai. The lyrics later talk about the dangers of his job, mentioning that "he keeps his death in his shirt pocket”. Thamarai speaks about a man's masculinity and braveness through his feelings and passion, and in metaphors of love. She writes beautifully about how even while he has authority, he is never authoritative. She talks about his honesty as a police officer in terms of “karpu” (purity/chastity) and also brings in metaphors of how his true love is his guns but he is married to his duty as a police officer, and how he emerges as a result of wick and fire falling in love.

In an interview with Baradwaj Rangan, Thamarai said she’d written ‘Karka Karka’ with her husband Thyagu in mind. Thyagu was a leading figure in the political movement Thamizh Thesiya Viduthalai Iyakkam (aimed at retrieving the lost rights of Tamil people, including those in Eelam), and the two have had a tempestuous relationship. In  2015, Thamarai took the unprecedented decision to speak out against her husband publicly, accusing him of infidelity. While all this unspooled around her, she kept writing. Her songs in Yennai Arindhal, ‘Thoovaanam’ in Romeo Juliet (2015) and ‘Neeyum Naanum’ in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015)which soulfully speak of falling in love, the beauty of a single father taking care of his daughter and how love adds colour to their lives — are all from this period. The songs from this time almost feel like an escape from her reality, hinting at how she turned to poetry to write about the respect, love and affection she yearned for in real life. 

Ajith and Anushka in Yennai Arindhal
Ajith and Anushka in Yennai Arindhal

The struggles of a woman when she becomes a wife or a mother are beautifully articulated in ‘Ghandhari Yaaro’, from Magalir Mattum (2017): 

Manaiviyaai peyar tharum

Thirumanam thanpeyar

Tholaithidum dhinam

Mazhalaiyai yendhiya maruganam

Thaaiyena thalaiyilae ganam”

(“Marriage gives a woman the name: Wife. But she loses her identity every day. The moment you hold your baby in your hands, you are expected to bear the weight of being a mother on your head.”)

Thamarai, who has a son, also cites the examples of Gandhari from Mahabharata and Seethai (or Sita) from Ramayana, questioning how they are framed in the traditional narratives. “Who are the Seethas?” Thamarai asks. “Is she the one who didn’t escape the prison? But isn’t she also the one who lit the fire during the protest?” When Thamarai writes about women in ‘Ghandhari Yaaro’, they are no longer praised for being self-sacrificing goddesses. Of course, she is a mother and a wife and she is happy about it, but as Thamarai imagines these women, their duties are more than ornaments or garlands that celebrate womanhood; they can be a burden that these women carry forever. 

A still from Bramma's Magalir Mattum (2017)
A still from Bramma's Magalir Mattum (2017)

The Rules of the Lotus 

The lyricist has some self-imposed rules for songwriting — she will refrain from adding unnecessary English terms; no obscene words; and no vulgar innuendos. She’s also said in past interviews that she won’t write an anti-Eelam song or lyrics that celebrate alcohol consumption.  What Thamarai brought to Tamil film songs is openness. No longer were romantic songs restricted to women singing about fulfilling men's desires or men talking about women's bodies. Her songs reflect poetically upon love and life while feeling rooted in the world of the film. Thamarai is one of those lyricists who makes it a point to listen to the narration or read the scripts where available. The world of the film is important to her lyrics. For example, when Jyothika in ‘Kaakha Kaakha’ passionately sings, “Ondra renda aasaigal ellaam sollavae orr naal podhumaa” (I’ve uncountable wishes. Will a day be enough to express them?) during her first night, it doesn’t add up — until you realise that in the film, one day is all that she’ll get to spend with the man she loves.  

Suriya and Jyothika in Kaakha Kaakha
Suriya and Jyothika in Kaakha Kaakha

In ‘Naan Pogiren Mele Mele’ from Naanayam (2010), Thamarai writes with all the maximalism that you’d associate with director Shankar's depiction of love and its feels: 

"Naan pogiren mele mele, 

Boologame kaalin keele, 

Vinmeengalin kootam en mele…

Naan pookiren paneer poo pole. 

(As I keep flying higher, the whole world is below my feet and a constellation of stars is above me… I bloom like a spring flower).

In ‘Ennai Konjam Maatri’ from Kaakha Kaakha (2003), Thamarai writes in the voice of a man who speaks about how love has made him pause and notice the flowers during his usual commute. She turns the listener’s attention to the simplest of human wishes and emotions, details that slip past us as we go through the daily hustle and bustle. “A lot of people struggle to put what they think in words. Adhunaala thaan palar kadan vaangi kavidhai tharuvaanga (they borrow poetry from friends and books). But with her lyrics, all were thrilled to know how a woman would probably think. Thamarai's lyrics have allowed men to feel and understand how women think and what they’d like to hear," Parvathy said. 

For example, in 'Idhuthaana Idhuthaana', a newly-married woman sings to her husband, 

“Naayiru madhiyam samayal unadhu

Virumbi nee samaithiduvaai

Vedikkai paar ena yennai amarthi

Thunigalum thuvaithiduvaai.” 

(The Sunday cooking is yours, and you would do it willfully. You will ask me to sit and watch as you also do the laundry). 

‘Onda Renda’, from Kaakha Kaakha, plays on the clichés that dominate how love is depicted in films, but they express romance from the perspective of a woman, which was a rarity back then: 

“Dhoorathil nee vandhaale en manasil mazhai adikum, 

miga piditha paadal ondrai en udhadugalam munumunukum'.'

(When I see you in the distance, it starts raining in my heart and unconsciously, my lips hum my favourite song). 

Vikram and Trisha in Saamy
Vikram and Trisha in Saamy

Redefining the Hero

In sharp contrast to the aanmai (masculinity) that’s usually glorified through songs for heroes, Thamarai’s lyrics privilege gentler masculinity. Nivedita, who writes about the representation of women in cinema on Instagram through her page “The Women of Cinema”, said, "Even if a man sings the song, Thamarai gives a nice perspective of the man falling in love. Besides just the looks or external features, she talks about the feelings the woman incited inside the man. In ‘Thotti Jaya’, her lyrics lend a soft and soothing feel to a rowdy falling in love.” Parvathy added that the lovers in Thamarai’s worlds often show a philosophical bent, and gave as an example these lines from ‘Mundhinam Parthene’ from Vaaranam Aayiram (2008): 

“Nizhal poley vidamal unnai thodarvenadi, 

Pugai pola padamal pattu nagarvenadi”

(I shall follow you like your shadow. Like a cloud, I’ll hover around you) 

In Thamarai’s songs, men describe how they fall in love with the woman's actions, her small gestures and what love does to them. In ‘Paartha Mudhal Naale’, Kamal Haasan sings:

"Enai pattri enakkae theriyaadha palavum

Nee arindhu nadappadhai viyappen

Unai yedhum ketkaamal unadhaasai anaithum

Niraivetra vendum endru thavippen"

(It amuses me that you know a lot about me that I myself did not know. And I yearn to fulfil your wishes even without asking you about them.)

Kamal Haasan and Kamalinee Mukherjee in Vettaiyadu Vilaiyaadu
Kamal Haasan and Kamalinee Mukherjee in Vettaiyadu Vilaiyaadu

It took Thamarai’s lyrics for many of us to notice how little heroes really saw of the women they professed to love and how even the emotions that men were allowed to feel were limited by conventions of masculinity. 

Vetkam and naanam (shyness) are emotions that show up frequently in Thamarai’s lyrics, but not just for women. For instance, in 'Oru Vetkam Varudhe', while the woman sings of the new kind of shyness she’s feeling, her male lover says, “Aanin manadhilum penmai irukiradhe (There is femininity in men's heart as well)”. Similarly, in ‘Paartha Mudhal Naale’, the man sings, "Kan paarthu kadhaikka mudiyaamal naanum Thavikindra oru pennum nee thaan (You are the only woman whom I am not able to see eye to eye and talk).” 

In many other songs, Thamarai writes how love makes you kinder, that you feel like forgiving one’s mistakes or how you pause and enjoy nature in a way you have never done before. She romanticises the notion of changing for your loved one as she writes, "Unaketra aanaga ennai maatri kondenae. (I have changed myself to be the man who suits you)."

Except for ‘Engae Endru Povathu’ in Thaana Serndha Kootam (2018) and AR Rahman’s ‘Moopilla Thamizhe Thaaye’, Thamarai hasn’t been given the opportunity to pen many philosophical or political songs. Yet her lyrics always convey something of the philosophical. Love doesn’t see face or race, she tells us in ‘Engeyum Kadhal’. In ‘Mannipaaya’, she blends the classic Tamil text Thirukkural (penned by Thiruvalluvar) into her lyrics to beautifully explain the power of unconditional love: 

“Anbirkum unndo adaikum thazh? 

Aarvalar pun kaneer pusal tharum”

(Is there even a bar that can restrain love/affection? The tiny tear shall make the lover's secret plain).

Trisha in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya
Trisha in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya

She follows it up with two other couplets from Thirukkural. Thiruvalluvar writes that a person who isn’t affectionate will keep all things to oneself, but someone who is affectionate will give everything to others. Thamarai uses these very words for Karthik to tell Jessy that whatever he has is hers and then goes on to use a couplet from the section Kamathupal (love, desire and lust) to explain Jessy’s wavering mind. “I meet you every day with a plan to fight,” writes Thamarai, “but as soon as I see you, my heart goes to you, and I instantly let go of my stubbornness and embrace you.”

In the song ‘Unakenna Venum Sollu’ from Yennai Arindhal, which shows a father explaining life’s ups and downs to his daughter, Thamarai uses the metaphor of a game of snakes and ladders: 

“Ulagennum paramapadham, 

Vilundha pin uyarvu varum.”

(The world is a snakes and ladders game. Once you fall, you will rise).

For decades, Kollywood did not have a female lyricist, and even today, barring a handful, the industry standard is male lyricists. While some male lyricists have penned songs that reflect a woman’s feelings beautifully, there’s a nuanced perspective that comes from the lived experience of women as well as the promise of diversity if more women become active in the creative side of the industry. Thamarai’s work is a shining example of the richness that a feminine perspective brings to creativity and storytelling. 

Ajith and Anikha Surendran in Yennai Arinthal
Ajith and Anikha Surendran in Yennai Arinthal

With creative freedom that’s been hard won over the course of her 25 years in the industry, Thamarai’s lyrics present women (and men) as complex, layered characters, rather than stereotypes and clichés. She brings in emotional turmoil and makes space for vulnerability in unusual ways. The men of her lyrics wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are gentle, vulnerable and express what they feel when in love. The women she imagines don’t simply wait for prince charming but sing about their lives, dreams and desires. 

As we wait to see more of the world as Thamarai imagines it — party songs, break-up numbers, songs about the politics of life — there are these lines from “Yaar Alaipathu” in Maara that perhaps we can all hold close to our hearts in the present:

“Saerum varai pogum idam theriyaathanil

Bodhai tharum perinbam verulladhaa?” 

(Until you reach a place, if there is an anticipation of not knowing your destination, is there any other bliss that is more intoxicating than this?)

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