Southern Lights: Subramaniya Bharati’s Poetry In Tamil Cinema

September 11, 1921. The great Tamil poet, activist and social reformer died this day. Here are some of his songs that made it to the big screen
Southern Lights: Subramaniya Bharati’s Poetry In Tamil Cinema

Had this been a literary web site, I would have used this occasion to talk about AR Venkatachalapathy's Who Owns That Song: The Battle for Subramaniya Bharati's Copyright. The book comes with a provocative blurb: "Arundhati Roy received a million dollar advance for The God of Small Things. Amish Tripathi bagged a million-dollar advance for a trilogy he hadn't yet written. Why did the greatest modern Tamil poet die in poverty?" This is not – technically speaking – a valid comparison, for the publishing structures of the two eras are vastly different. (Maybe Tagore would have been a better reference?) But the point is well taken.

The book is a fascinatingly researched account of how the state, in 1955, acquired the rights to Bharati's work and placed it in the public domain – which makes a good segue to the fact that so many of his poems ended up in the movies, before and after. As with a lot of literary (or non-colloquial) Tamil, my exposure to Bharati's poetry began with the movies. Even in my school days, I could make out that this was something different – and not just because the syntax and flow and even the odd word was different from the way a Kannadhasan or Vaali would write a lyric. There was a mad passion even in the gentlest love lyric like Kaatru veliyidai kannamma, which was picturised as a duet between Gemini Ganesan and Savithri in Kappalottiya Thamizhan (1961).

The first stanza ends thus: indha vaiyathil yaanulla mattilum / enai vaetru ninaivindri thaetriyae / ingoar vinnavanaaga puriyumae. After praising the lover's lips (like a fountain of nectar), her eyes (filled with moonlight), her skin (glowing like gold), the poet/narrator says, "Until I am alive in this world, I will think of nothing/no one else, and I feel like a celestial being." Vinnavan (celestial being) appears to be a neologism, something Bharati coined – and it's a gorgeous word in this context, as though this mortal woman's presence has imbued him with immortality. Here are some of my favourite Bharati poems used in Tamil cinema.

Viduthalai, viduthalai, viduthalai (Naam Iruvar, 1947): The opening credits list "Mahakavi Subramaniya Bharatiyar" as the lyricist, and the first major scene is a commemorative  function for Bharati. It begins with Kumari Kamala's dance performance, set to DK Pattammal's now-legendary rendition of Aaduvome pallu paaduvome. (R Sudarsanam is the composer.) TR Mahalingam, the hero, takes the stage soon after, and sings this rousing song, in the year of India's independence, about equality for everyone.

Thoondil puzhuvinai pol (Vedhala Ulagam, 1948): Bharati songs seem an odd fit in a fantasy about a world of demons, but then, few films could resist adding a Kumari Kamala "item number" (the term carried a very different connotation then). Among the R Sudarsanam-composed gems sung in this film by DK Pattammal (Odi vilayaadu paapa, Theeradha vilayattu pillai), this sakhi-bhava song is an absolute heart-wringer. Like a worm writhing on a hook, my heart writhes for my loved one…

Mangiyathor nilavinile (Thirumanam, 1958 and Paavai Vilakku, 1960): What a difference the musical treatment makes. In a dim moonlit dream, a 16-year-old beauty, bright as the waxing moon, asked me to wake up and see her… I opened my eyes and, oh, it was the goddess of beauty. In the hands of KV Mahadevan, in CS Jayaraman's voice (in Paavai Vilakku), this poem sounds wistful – as though someone woke up from a dream and realised the image was gone. TM Soundararajan's rendition in Thirumanam – composed by SM Subbiah Naidu and TG Lingappa – is more exuberant. He's enjoyed the dream. Now, he wants us to enjoy it too.

Endru thaniyum indha (Kappalottiya Thamizhan, 1961): Gangai Amaran tuned a version of this poem for Ini Oru Sunthanthiram (1987). The tune is lovely, and Yesudas sings beautifully – but if you've heard the older song, that's the version you keep going back to. The fantastic composition by G Ramanathan brings out the pathos in this yearning for freedom, with its lovely internal rhymes (thaniyum/thaagam, madiyum/mogam), and the situation on screen makes it even more evocative. A patriot lies dying, and his last wish is to see an independent India.

Kaatru veliyidai kannamma (Kappalottiya Thamizhan, 1961): From the same film, the PB Srinivas-P Sushila beauty I spoke about earlier. When you read a poem, it seems to emanate in the poet's (male) voice, but here, the lines keep alternating between male and female – the passion is refreshingly two-sided. The nectar-filled lips, the moonlight-filled eyes, the golden skin – why should they only be womanly attributes, praised by a man? Here, she drinks in his beauty as much as he does hers.

Sindhu nadhiyin misai (Kai Kodutha Deivam, 1964): If you're old enough to remember Oliyum Oliyum, you'll recognise this ode to national integration, which even talks of a bridge to Sri Lanka. (The other, similar, song that kept getting telecast during national holidays was Indiya naadu en veedu, from Bharatha Vilas.) Sivaji Ganesan appears as Bharati, in a sort of reverie, and if there's a word for this Viswanathan-Ramamurthy tune, it's… serene.

Theertha karayinilae (Varumayin Niram Sivappu, 1980): At one point, if we heard the lines  beginning with "vaarthai thavarivittaal…" the next words that would pop up in the head were "C'mon clap." That song, of course, was Ennadi Meenatchi, the Ilayaraja chartbuster from Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu (1978), but it had just those two lines from the Bharati poem. The fuller text would make it to screen two years later, though again conveying the same emotion (the sense of abandonment, betrayal), from the same actor (Kamal Haasan). This version, by MS Viswanathan, is backed only by an acoustic guitar. It doesn't need anything more. Bharati's words and SP Balasubrahmanyam's voice are emotion enough.

Suttum vizhi chudar thaan (Malargale Malarungal, 1980): AR Rahman and Hariharan transformed these verses into a gauzy earworm in Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000). Gangai Amaran's take, in Malargale Malarungal, is far less "effects'"-heavy, but far stronger (and sweeter, to my ears, with P Sushila's vocals). The difference is day and night – quite, literally. The Hariharan version is something you'd soothe yourself to sleep with, while P Sushila's clarion call is a sign that morning has come.

Kakkai chiraginile (Ezhavadhu Manidhan, 1982): Bharati's words get a smashing pop-song treatment from L Vaidyanathan – this was probably the first Tamil film song I heard that was all-synth. A love song to Krishna is reimagined as a love song between humans (Raghuvaran looks so young), and it's used in the background over a montage of in-love visuals. Yesudas is in glorious form, especially when he peaks to "theekkull viralai vaithaal", and the whistling that concludes the song is something I can imagine Bharati doing on his way home, after writing this poem.

Manadhil urudhi vendum (Sindhu Bhairavi, 1985): To hear Yesudas sing the line "vaakkinilae inimai vendum" is certainly one definition of heaven – the sweetness in speech that the line talks about is couched in the sweetest of musical phrasings. A great Ilayaraja composition, and given that this is one of the simpler Bharati songs, the connect is instant. Pen viduthalai vendum, the poet says: I want freedom for women. In the midst of all the other "wants," it sounds less of a slogan than a simple fact. Most touching of all is the desire for not just a god but a big god – periya kadavul – to protect us. Put this way, with such childlike innocence, even an atheist would be tempted to believe.

Ninnaye Rathi endru (Kanne Kaniyamudhe, 1986): Yesudas, again – though the first stanza goes to BS Sasirekha (a voice I've never warmed up to). If the song is reminiscent of an earlier MS Viswanathan-Yesudas collaboration (Kanchi pattuduthi, from Vayasu Ponnu), it's the similarity of the raga: Kalyanavasantham. And if this song is also the least "Bharati-sounding," it's because its phrases like "Maaran ambugal," "kann paarayo" and "vandhu seraayo" had, by then, been completely appropriated by Tamil lyricists. But a fabulous song, nonetheless.

Ninnai charanadainthen (Bharati, 2000): Until then, the definitive on-screen Bharati was the bug-eyed SV Subbaiah. But with Bharati, something unthinkable happened. Sayaji Shinde, a Maharashtrian actor who did not know a word of Tamil, embodied the great poet with utter conviction. This song, by Ilayaraja, is a stunning marriage of verse and composition – the surrender inherent in the lyric is felt in the very first line, that falls through notes, as though dropping to someone's feet. I like the Bombay Jayashree version very much, but Ilayaraja's voice was made for emotions like these. It's some kind of divine communion.

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