Yugabharathi distinctly remembers his ammamma’s (grandmother) reaction to his first flight journey to a foreign country. “Did you see the skies close enough?” “Could you catch the clouds?” she had asked. Sensing her excitement, the lyricist decided to get her on a plane and take her to a foreign country as soon as possible. “She has never moved out of Thanjavur, not even to Chennai. I told her she would have to give me a proof of address and I would arrange for a passport.” Three months later, his grandmother passed away. Years later, Yugabharathi gave her childlike excitement a certain kind of immortality. In Soorarai Potru (2020), the aching climax song ‘Kaiyile Aagasam’, that summarised the joys of the first flight, was inspired by her. “The charanam in the lyrics were about people close to us, I also used the word Thandatti (a type of earring worn by elderly women), my grandmother wore one.”
The song almost didn’t happen. Or had happened as an afterthought. “It was a sort of rerecording song. G V Prakash called up and explained the fifteen-minute sequence. He felt the sequence was somewhat dull, lacked emotion and wanted me to write a song there. In fact, I didn’t meet director Sudha Kongara. The song happened between me and Prakash.”
‘Kaiyile Aagasam’ was not the only climax song that almost didn’t happen. The haunting ‘Ellu vaya pookalaiye’ (2019) in Asuran was again a last-minute addition. “Originally, ‘Polladha Boomiyile' was featured in the sequence, but somehow, I was apprehensive. I told director Vetri Maaran about how Dhanush was not central to the song. Here was the hero grieving his son’s death, but the song was not about him. After some discussions, I wrote Ellu vaya pookalaiye, an oppari song where I had inserted our beliefs too. I realised much later the significance of using Ellu (sesame) which is considered almost a taboo in our households. So much that we call sesame oil as nallennai in Tamil and not ‘Ellu’ ennai. The song takes cue from the cultural space held by ellu in Tamil society, but honestly, I didn’t think of it when writing it. I think it was a very subconscious thing, to use ellu in a neethar song (song on the deceased).”
With Mannile Eeramundu in Jai Bhim, Yugabharathi could arguably be called the best climax song writer in Tamil cinema – in singer Vaikkom Vijayalakshmi’s powerful rendition, the song evoked a compelling sense of hope with a tinge of melancholy.
For someone who has unassailably established himself as a lyricist excelling in all genres, cinema was not Yugabharathi’s choice.
Born in Thanjavur to a Communist father and a spiritual mother, Yugabharathi took to writing in his teens. “My first poem was published when I was thirteen. I was popular in my area because I would get money orders frequently from publications that published my poems. At one point, my mother saved up all the money and used it to pay my fees.”
An activist with CPI(M), Yugabharathi’s father T K Paramasivam led a busy political life. “You will never find the stove turned off in my house. Amma will always be cooking or making tea for some visitor or the other.” At a young, impressionist age, the sight deeply affected Yugabharathi and he wrote the poem ‘Vanakkam Comrade.’ The poem spoke about the hardships of a woman who had to make coffee after coffee, and pledge her jewels for her husband to attend party meetings.
//Appa uruthiyodu irunthaar
Ithu pondroru kanavodu
Sollik kondu irunthaar
(Appa was convinced
That the revolution will come.
An elderly Christian neighbour,
With similar dream
For over fifty years
Would often say
Jesus will come
Jesus will come
Just now, just now)
“My father was naturally upset, but he never spoke to me about it. In fact, when my first poetry collection Manapathaayam was published, he insisted that the poem be included in the collection.”
It took another few years for him to realise the value and importance of his father’s field work. “I moved to Chennai in 1998 and became a journalist with a Tamil magazine. I wrote about CPI(M) councillor Leelavathi who was murdered in line of her duty for the magazine. I realised the importance of my father’s work when I started collecting material on her. After that, I re-read everything, unlearning everything I had learnt till then.”
Soon after his second poetry collection Pancharam was released, a member of director N Lingusamy’s team reached out. “They insisted that I write a song for their film. I was working with literary magazine Kanaiyaazhi at that point of time, and had somewhat of a contempt for film-writing. But Lingusamy said I could reach more readers by writing for films. I realised he wouldn’t let me go and wrote ‘Pallanguzhiyil vattam parthen’ for Anandam (2001). “I didn’t know what to write about a coin in the context of lovers, but managed to write some lines. When the team saw the lyrics, they were not happy. I was not interested either so I told them to drop the lyrics and came back.”
Three months later, Yugabharathi got a call from Lingusamy’s office saying the lines he wrote had been composed and that he needed to finish the lyrics. “Music director S A Rajkumar wanted some lyrics to work the tune on, and they gave him mine as dummy lyrics. But he suggested that it be used as the original song.”
Yugabharathi’s second song came six months later – again in Lingusamy’s film. “For ‘Kadhal Pisaase’ in Run (2002), I drew inspiration from the poems of the Siddhars, and developed the song. By now, I have learnt the nuances in songwriting and to use Tamil grammar Yaapu to write songs.” With music director Vidya Sagar, Yugabharathi went on to write at least 300 songs.
Two decades and two thousand songs later, Yugabharathi doesn’t hold any contempt for films, in fact he is happy about the way things have turned out but it has not been easy. “Through the 1990s, there were two great legends in the Tamil film music space – Ilaiyaraaja and A R Rahman. But we – Na Muthukumar, Thamarai, Kabilan, Pa Vijay and I – were not introduced by them. It was when S A Rajkumar, Deva, Sirpi and Vidyasagar started making music that we got our breaks.”
The five lyricists, Yugabharathi says, struggled hard to find their own forms. “We wrote differently. Yes, there were songs like ‘Un Samaiyalaraiyil naan uppa sarkaraiyaa’ (from 2001 film Dhill) or ‘Perunthil Nee Enakku Jannal Oram' (from 2006 film Pori), which caught the imagination of the audiences but never translated into recognition for us. I have written songs for Ajith and Vijay, but they were not opening songs. The stoves continued to burn in our homes, we were able to make ends meet but recognition was elusive.”
With the advent of music directors like G V Prakash Kumar and D Imman, this scenario changed a bit. “Now we were sort of seniors, we were able to write songs that helped us gain recognition. I wrote for films like Kumki (2012) and Myna (2010), that finally sort of helped me arrive.” With Imman, Yugabharathi had a partnership of about 600 songs.
From romantic to grieving, from intensely personal to blatantly political, from mellifluous to peppy numbers, there is perhaps no genre that Yugabharathi couldn’t handle. But it is in songs like ‘Manjanathi Puranam’ (Karnan) and ‘Sevakkatu Seemaiyellam’ (Nenjukku Needhi) – both deeply influenced by folklore – that Yugabharathi perhaps delivers his best, with some powerful writing that gives historical context to everyday sufferings of ordinary people. ‘Manjanathi Puranam’, Yugabharathi says, was inspired by Paichalur Pathigam (Pathigam is a literary text comprising ten songs). A fifteenth century text written by Uthiranallur Nangai, Paichalur Pathigam remains a damning indictment of caste structure in the society. “The entire work is about an honour killing, it’s the voice of a rebellious woman against honour killing and caste atrocities. To write such a text in 15th century is perhaps the most radical thing I have come across.”
It was at this stage that Yugabharathi decided to make his lyrics political. “It is hard to be political when you are an also-ran. We didn’t have the space. But now we do, and I want to put it into good use. Also, there are directors like Raju Murugan, Pa Ranjith, Mari Selvaraj who make political films. They know that real success is an understanding of people’s politics, of people’s issues. If I have to write a song like ‘Ennanga Sir unga sattam’ (Joker, 2016), I need that kind of space. Raju Murugan as a director helped create it. But yeah, it has taken twenty years to reach this place.”
In his stunning oeuvre of Tamil film songs, was ‘Manmadha Rasa’ from Thiruda Thirudi (2003) out of sync? I ask. Yugabharathi had earlier mentioned the song as something that helped people remember his name for ‘six months’. “The inspiration was manmadha leelaiyai vendraar undo from the film Haridas in 1944. Manmadhan [god of lust] has been a recurring theme in Tamil romantic songs, even if not so frequently. I merely translated the idea into people’s language, into a form of people’s music. If you appreciate ‘Manmadha leelai’ and look down upon ‘Manmadha rasa’, the problem is not mine.” It is perhaps this ability to bring the people’s language into the idiom of film music that makes Yugabharathi easily among the best. But film lyrics do not sufficiently define his love for language or passion for writing.
With nine poetry collections and several research-oriented works on Tamil film music and lyricists, Yugabharathi has established himself as a film music historian of sorts even while continuing to be a sought-after songwriter. “I also write about my own songs; I believe these need to be written and read about. People need to know what they are listening to – the idea and politics behind it, whether it is mine or Udumalai Narayana Kavi’s [who wrote the first songs of both MGR and Sivaji Ganesan].”