As a ten-year-old child, Uma Devi remembers re-enacting scenes from the local theatre performances, directed by her grandfather Mayakrishnan. “He is my mother’s uncle—kind of a maverick”, she recalls. “He had read B.A history and was sort of a revolutionary in our village—Athipaakkam near Vandavasi in Tiruvannamalai. If people were not allowed inside temples, he would ask them not to go. ‘Build your temples instead’, he would tell them. He introduced Christianity to the village. Every day, he would gather children in the village and teach them English.”
Uma believes her passion for art came from him. “He had a keen interest in theatre and would put up several theatre performances that were revolutionary. Villagers would compete with each other to be featured in them.” As a child, Uma Devi attended performance rehearsals with her mother. “The performances were mostly based on films of the 1950s and 60s. You can imagine how fiery they could have been. In the 1990s, I grew up watching such performances.”
After the performances, she would come back home and re-enact the characters with much fervour. Her family perhaps thought she would grow up to become an actor, but the future had different plans. “I guess I picked up a love for Tamil from the scripts my grandfather left behind”, she says.
As a 13-year-old, Uma Devi wrote her first poem. “I knew it was childish, but I realised I could write.” When pursuing her undergraduate degree in Tamil literature at the government arts college in Cheyyaru, Uma won a prize for her poem—a prize that showed her a way to the future. “Every person has a turning point in her life. It could be a journey, a human being, a moment, or a word. For me, it was a word.” Or rather, a drawing. Her professor Amaithi Arasu sat her in front of him and drew three circles and a dot inside them. “You are this dot. The first circle is your environment, your home, the Cheri you live in, and your village. You need to cross them.” The second circle was the restrictions imposed on her by society. “You need to cross these two to arrive at the third circle, that which will help you become a personality of your own.”
Uma Devi reached the third circle in 2005–when she shifted to Chennai to pursue her post-graduation in Tamil literature. In a year, her first poetry collection Thisaigalai Parugiyaval (The woman who drank her directions) was published by Panikudam – a feminist publishing house. In 2016, her second poetry collection Thaen Inippathu Ellorukkum Theriyathu (Not everybody knows that honey is sweet) was published by Kalachuvadu publications. Her poetry draws its influence from Buddhist feminism which Uma Devi considers more ‘progressive and ancient’ than western feminism.
Cinema happened between both collections, rather unexpectedly. “Director Ranjith read my first poetry collection—through director Athiyan Adhirai who is also a poet—and was impressed by its language and text. After Attakathi released, I met him at an event. Two months later, Athiyan called up and said they were looking for new lyricists for Madras. Till then, I didn’t have an iota of an idea to enter cinema or write lyrics.”
When she met Ranjith, he asked her if she would like to hear the tune or know the situation. “I said anything is fine because honestly, I didn’t know what tune or situation meant.” A tune was played to her – and Uma says she gave three pallavis and four charanams. ‘Naan, Nee, Naam Vaazhave’ song was thus born. The song fused the experiences of her own life and her rich knowledge of Tamil literature. When she wrote “Uyir vaazha mul kooda oruparavaiyin veedaai maaridume” (For a bird to survive, even a thorn would become its abode), or “anal kaayum paraiyosai oru vaazhvin geetham aagidume” (the sounds of Parai burnt in fire will become a song for a life), she was speaking about a life experience that many had, when growing up in villages. But it was particularly the coinage of the term “Thaapa poo” (flower of desire) in the song that left many intrigued. “People asked me if there was a such flower, but you do such things in poetry, don’t you? I tried it in a song, and it was a hit,” she smiles.
Also, it was a woman who called herself a flower of lust and addressed the man as the ‘thirst of the flower.’ “Even before Aandal, there was a theri (Buddhist nun) who spoke of love. It is nothing new in our Tamil literature. The fact that in entire Sangam literature there are more agam poems (poems of internal) than puram shows us that poets want Tamil society to be built on love.”
After the intense love song, Uma had an opportunity to write a lullaby for Nayanthara’s Maya. “I think I have written close to a hundred songs since my first one and each has been different.” So, ‘Adi Vaadi Thimira’ from Magalir Mattum was at ‘personal level a lyric on women’s liberation, ‘Maya Nadhi’ from Kabali and ‘Kannamma’ in Kaala spoke of the vulnerability of a man in love, the richly poetic ‘Anbae Peranbe’ in Selvaraghavan’s NGK and ‘Puthu Varalaare’ (Gopi Nainar’s Aramm) on Nayanthara’s assertive leadership as a District Collector are testimonies to the variety that Uma Devi is capable of.
That she could imagine a sensitive line like ‘Ootaatha thaayin ganakkindra paal pol en kaadhal kidakkindrathe’ (My love lies like the heaviness of the milk that couldn’t be fed by a mother) for a superstar like Rajinikanth speaks of the richness in diversity of her language. “My songs speak for themselves. They couldn’t be boxed into a particular genre. I consider it a gift that I have been presented with such opportunities to write these lyrics. I have had a great working relationship with every director and music director that I have worked with, and they have been very receptive to my ideas,” Uma Devi says.
She points out that in the 1980s, Tamil film songs were both political and literary. “The lyricists have drawn from the language of the people and had used it in their lyrics. They have also drawn from the language of Tamil classical literature. We have had names of Tamil films after literary works – Gundalakesi, Poompuhar, etc. They took Tamil literature out of the hands of Tamil literati and those who studied Tamil and took it to ordinary people. I am also keen to bring Tamil literature to a point where it will be celebrated in cinema.”
Natchathiram Nagarkirathu brought her that opportunity. “Ranjith suggested a song purely based on Sangam literature and you can imagine how excited that made me. The possibility of bringing the poems I so overwhelmingly enjoyed and loved reading, into a song in a film, was an amazing opportunity.” So, the song had lines largely from Kurunthogaiand Natrinai, as well as from Thirukkural, and Uma Devi ensured she got some fine ones.
From Natrinai she also used this line: “Annaanthu Yenthiya Vanamulai Thalarinum, Nannedum Koonthal Naraiyodu Mudippinum Neetham Ombumathi (Even when her firm breasts begin to sag and even when her long hair turns grey you shouldn’t leave her – Thozhi (friend) telling the Thalaivan (The hero of the song) about thalaivi (the heroine of the song) when sending them away without the knowledge of the family).
“This was something that a writer like Kannadasan had already done, but then we had a break, and I wanted to do it now. I quit teaching to be in cinema full time.”Through the course of her journey, Uma Devi hopes to work with a lot of debut directors and music directors. “When I came in, I had a support system. Now I want to offer that support to people who come in. Do you remember the last Facebook post of director Thamira before he died of Covid? That there is no better strategy than love to win over this world. I want to do exactly that; I enjoy being in a place where my directors and music directors think I should be, without compromising on my values. Cinema might take me to places, but at the core, I remain this woman from a small village.”