Vairamuthu on his political identity, being a poet in a film industry and working with Mani Ratnam

For four decades, Vairamuthu—as a lyricist—has held an unassailable sway over Tamil film industry. From Ilaiyaraja to AR Rahman, from Bharathiraja to Seenu Ramasamy, Vairamuthu has worked across the spectrum, and in the process has earned innumerable awards. Besides the Padmashri and Padmabhushan, he has won six State Awards and seven National Awards. His novel Kallikaatu Ithihaasam (The Saga of the Dry Land) won the Sahitya Akademi in 2003. Vairamuthu has written 7500 songs in Tamil besides publishing several poetry collections, short stories and novels. His works have sold over 2.4 million copies over four decades. When his paper on Andal became a controversy, he expressed regret but stood his ground on the views he had expressed. The controversy raged the state for a few days but detractors could not get him to apologise. More recently, Vairamuthu again hit headlines when he met the ailing M Karunanidhi–leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)–and recited a moving poem. In this conversation, Vairamuthu opens up on these subjects, as well as the question of his own identity.

Who is Vairamuthu really?

A poet who works closely with the society. I became a lyricist when I was 27, but I started writing poetry when I was 13. After travelling with poetry for 14 years, after publishing two poetry collections, I became a lyricist in 1980. The society sees me more as a lyricist than a poet. I think the flashlights of cinema overshadow everything else. In the Indian context, in the Tamil context, everything is forced to become cinematic. A poem is forced to become a lyric. The media wants Carnatic music to be given in film form. A form of art gets better recognition when it is in cinema, through an art director. It is a shame that society has not created sufficient economic opportunities for artists practicing fine arts.

 Vairamuthu on his political identity, being a poet in a film industry and working with Mani Ratnam


But you have also been credited with employing Tamil literature in your lyrics.

To an extent, yes. But I have not been able to do it as much as I really wanted to. In Ilaiyaraja's early films – such as Kaadhal Oviyam, Sindhu Bhairavi, Mudhal Mariyadhai, Poove Poochudavaa – there was an opportunity to bring in Tamil literature. My very first song had much imagery. When I entered Tamil cinema, it had already completed 50 years of existence. I wanted to explore a space that largely remained unexplored by my very stunning predecessors. I did that by marrying a traditional style with free verse; it has been my success. When AR Rahman arrived, I could bring more poetry into movies. I think Mani Ratnam had a great role to play. Between us – AR Rahman, Mani Ratnam and I – this is our 26th year of collaborations. We have been working together for over 25 years now, we have travelled together. I have written 85-90 percent of the Tamil songs for which Rahman has scored music.

We are keen to improve the quality of lyrics and wanted to see if it is possible to make songs poetic. This shared passion made songs like 'Narumugaiye' (Iruvar) happen. In the song, I used the Sangam language which is over 2000 years old. Mani Ratnam also started to experiment with my poetry, he would ask for my verses to be set to music. It happened in Kadal. In his next film, Chekka Sivantha Vaanam, three of my poems have been turned into lyrics. This is very rare in Tamil cinema, where the directors generally don’t want to deviate from time-tested formulae, and that is understandable. After all, cinema is an industry which demands a huge investment. But of course, there are directors who think it is possible to bring in literature into commercial cinema – like K Balachander, Bharathiraja and Mani Ratnam.

A still from Mani Ratnam's Iruvar. Facebook/@iruvar2

A still from Mani Ratnam's Iruvar. Facebook/@iruvar2

You have a political identity too. Did it make working in a film like Iruvar (on MGR and Karunanidhi) difficult?

I don’t belong to any political party, but I respect the Dravidian ideology. I am from a backward community. The Dravidian movement has played a role in our development as a community; I think it is very important, and I am eternally grateful for that. The movement has helped the backward communities, Dalits and Panchamars to carve out an identity of their own in terms of education and employment opportunities. I grew up with the Dravidian movement; the DMK was four when I was born. In a sense, we grew up together. As the Dravidian movement grew, the oppressed communities also developed.

Since I was so into the Dravidian movement, it was easier for me to work for a film like Iruvar. Mani Ratnam had researched extensively and was fascinated by the fact that two artists who later became chief ministers could still carry the fire of art in their souls. I told him that it is very complicated to make a film on them. After that, Mani Ratnam worked harder on his screenplay, Iruvar is the film that he has worked the hardest on. The songs I wrote for the film are the best I have ever written for Mani Ratnam. We didn't expect the film to do so badly, but it will always remain a document of Tamil socio-politics.

Isn’t there an inherent contradiction in your favourite list of writers? They belong to different schools altogether.

So? The list is huge. I love the poetry of Bharathiyar, Bharathidasan and Kannadasan. I love Kalaignar (Karunanidhi’s) film literature, Pudhumaipithan awes me. So do writers like T Janakiraman, Mouni, Jayakanthan and BS Ramaiah. They wrote only for literature, not the market. They were not concerned about the market. If I grow mangoes, does it imply that I don’t relish bananas?

I grew up in the Dravidian movement, but it will be a dishonest thing to deny that literature exists beyond the movement, too. If I think that only my pond has fish, am I not being dishonest? I belong to a particular pond, yes, but every pond has its own fish. I think Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is essentially what both the Dravidian movement and Marxism stand for. The misery of the have-nots is common to every country. Perhaps, the ideologies differ in their approach towards arriving at a solution. By reading Hugo in translation, I try to understand the same pain in different languages.

A statue of Andal (14th Century, Madurai) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

A statue of Andal (14th Century, Madurai) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

When the Andal controversy broke out, many faulted you for felicitating former Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Tarun Vijay. Did you regret it?

Not at all. I still feel it was the right thing to do so. Tarun Vijay’s BJP identity is only secondary to me. What matters most was that he loves Thiruvalluvar. Felicitating him for his love of Thirukkural does not mean that I accept his other beliefs. Why should I be chosen to release Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poetry in Tamil? After all, I am a known Dravidian supporter. For me, there is nothing political about this. It’s only about poetry. I had also released Vajpayee’s poetry in Delhi when he was the prime minister. I was not criticised then, because DMK and BJP were in alliance. As far as I am concerned, I would befriend anyone for the cause of the Tamil language.

Also read: Behind the storm over Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu's comments over poet-saint Andal

Did you expect your paper on Andal to kick up a controversy?

If at all, I had expected a literary controversy that would throw more light on this subject and give way to more research — certainly not a political controversy.

Do you think you can decide who Andal is?

I did not. I only wanted to celebrate Andal’s Tamil. Her language is different from the rest of the Alwars. While the other Alwars wrote to worship God, Andal tries to be one with God. A woman, oppressed for hundreds of years, expresses herself. The expression is the highest form of female emotion. Such a zenith can be attained only when someone believes that she is not under any human control. Her language is irrepressible. It is so completely free; abandoned to love. For a woman in this period, being a Devadasi is the highest form of freedom. She declares that she belongs to God, and is not answerable to anyone else. She demands the same respect accorded to a God. For women, in those days, freedom was only possible either by becoming a Devadasi or an ascetic. My text was based on a research; its intention was only to celebrate Andal. While examining her social status, I quote a scholar. There is nothing more to it.

Did you ever feel that those who kicked up a political controversy had actually read her? Or you?

I have that doubt. I wonder if they had actually read my text in entirety. Of course, you don’t have to read Andal to have faith in her, I respect that belief. I cannot challenge anybody’s right to worship Andal and I don’t want to. But if only you had read Andal and my text, and had juxtaposed it with your belief, it would have been complete.

Andal was part of a series of such research papers?

I call this Thamizh Aatrupadai. There is a literary form in Tamil called Aatrupadai. It means 'to offer guidance'. This literature is meant to guide a wayfarer either towards God or towards a patron. I firmly believe every race derives its culture from its mother tongue. In this era of technology, it is important to reinforce this, since I feel the younger generations are moving away from their roots. So I try to guide the youth towards the trendsetters of Tamil – Tholkaapiyar, Thiruvalluvar, Ilangovadival, Kambar, Appar, Andal, U Ve Saminatha Aiyer, Bharathiyar, Bharathithasan, Maraimalai adigal, Kannadasan, Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, Puthumai Pithan and Kalaignar among others.

Was your recent meeting with Karunanidhi different from all your previous meetings?

I meet him often, and spend at least an hour with him. Both of us are comfortable with each other. He cannot identify with some people, and is not comfortable with some. Very few people manage to bring a smile to his face. I am glad that I am among the few. He is definitely showing signs of improvement. This time when I met him, he looked very happy. He listened intently when I read my poem and tried to ask me when I wrote it. For 33 years, we have spent half hour every morning talking to each other over phone. Even when I go abroad, I make it a point not to miss our daily conversation. When he became voiceless, it was a deep personal loss. I do fervently hope he will recover soon.

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Updated Date: Mar 19, 2018 15:39:02 IST