The genius of Subramanya Bharathi

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(Image courtesy – The Hindu)

Growing up as a student of Tamizh, I was often flummoxed by the complexity of the language. The grammar was elaborate and took forever to figure out. And the classes thrust a ton of material on you. I was blessed to have a fantastic Tamizh teacher, Ms.Kausalya for whom I have the utmost respect even today. She loved the language in a way that was infectious. And she took great interest in her students- as rowdy as they were like me. And over time, she started winning us over on the sheer joy of appreciating the wonders of Tamizh. And no greater was it felt beyond her handling of the epic “Panchali Sabadham”.

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The brilliant rendition of the episode of the game of dice from Mahabharata where Draupadi (Panchali) is disrobed in the Royal Court and her brothers and her swear revenge by the immortal poet and freedom fighter, Subramanya Bharathi opened the flood gates for me. It made me realize what I had learned by rote but never forced myself to appreciate was a joy to behold. Today, December 11th is Bharathiar’s birthday. I wanted to take this brief moment to write a few words about his sheer body of work. It would take a dozen posts to truly cover the breadth of work that Bharathiyaar produced in his short life- from his call for freedom to a remarkable vision of the future to his championing of women’s rights and his devotional songs. His command of the language was peerless. Here is a very very small sampling of some of his work in musical form that has inspired me all these years. 

In absolutely no particular order:

1. Velli Panimalai (featured in Kappalottiya Tamizhan):

This song inspires me a lot. Bharathiyaar foresaw a future where communication lines were blurred and global trade was the norm. Today, it is easy for us to take all this for granted. But when it was written, this song was remarkably prescient. In the movie, it features an actor playing Bharathiar and singing the song. On a side note, this movie is truly worth a watch if you have not seen it. 

2. Nalladhor Veenai Seithe (featured in Varumayin Niram Sivappu):

The sheer depth in the words in this song blows me away to this day. It features an introspective and almost frustrated Bharathiyaar. The poet who was known to be a drug addict in his time almost begs Goddess Sakthi for help. Feels at once immediate and earnest. Set to tune by MSV and acted to perfection by KamalHassan and Sridevi in the movie, this song is a keeper.

3. Manadhil Urudhi Vendum (featured in Sindhu Bhairavi):

Bharathiyaar’s speciality was words of inspiration. And this song epitomizes that. Set to Thilang ragam by Ilayaraja for the movie Sindhu Bhairavi, this brief song packs a big punch. 

4. Theertha Karaiyinile (featured in Varumayin Niram Sirappu):

Bharathiyaar created an entire category of songs for women- titled “Kannamma” songs. These songs ranging from inspirational to romantic, they captured the writer’s emotions at various times in his life with respect to women. This song’s lyrics are complex and rich and powerful that you are pressed to hear it over and over again to get the full experience. 

5. Kakkai Siraginile (featured in Ezhavadhu Manidhan):

Yet another genre that Bharathiyaar enlivened was that of devotional music. He focused much of his pieces on his favorite Goddess Shakthi and on Krishna in the form of Nandalala. This song belongs to that category of Nandalala songs. The movie Ezhavadhu Manidhan features some fantastic Bharathiyaar pieces including this one, rendered wonderfully by Yesudas and set to tune by L.Vaidhyanathan. 

6. Sindhu Nadhi (featured in Kai Koduthu Deivam):

There are songs which brilliant as they are, get elevated by an equally fantastic screen performance and delivery. This is one such. A wonderful piece that features a prescient Bharathiyaar ruminating on a free and connected nation that brings people together through trade, music and culture. If only…

7. Aduvome (featured in Naam Iruvar):

D.K.Pattamal had a great run rendering some of Bharathiyaar’s classic pieces. One such was this song from Naam Iruvar, “Aduvome”. The original piece written by Bharathiyaar on the joy of being independent and free features simple lyrics that talks of a young nation that needs to get to work in becoming truly great. 

8. Aasai Mugham (sung by D.K.Jayaraman):

Romance was one of Bharathiyaar’s favorite genres. He wrote lyrics that made that special one, loved and appreciated. One such piece is this gorgeous piece “Aasai Mugham”. This version set to Ragam Jyonpuri and sung by the inimitable late D.K.Jayaraman is a sheer joy to listen to. 

9. Chinnanjiru Kiliye (sung by Maharajapuram Santhanam):

Another classic Kannamma piece by Bharathiyaar is Chinnanjiru Kiliye Kannamma. One of the most popular pieces rendered by many classical artists, this song has Bharatiyaar writing to a small child but with words suitable for every adult. This particular Raagamalika version by the late Maharajapuram Santhanam does great justice to the song.

10. Odi vilayadu Pappa (featured in Kappalottiya Thamizhan):

One of the most popular kid songs growing up, this was the song you refered to when you wanted your parents to allow you to play a little more. A great set of instructions to the child and to the parent, this song is why Bharathiyaar is so revered. He knew how to capture the right emotions and thoughts in the simplest and most impactful of words. In an age when most kids are hunched over smart devices, the poet asks kids to just go out and play with other kids. This particular rendition in gorgeous Sahana by TMS for the movie “Kappalottiya Thamizhan” is just the perfect vehicle for such a gorgeous piece.

11: Dhikku Theriyadha Kattil (sung by G.N.Balasubramaniam):

Bharathiyaar’s words in this song capture the feelings of a young and newly married girl in search of liberation from harmful distractions. The parallel context is of the poet looking for his own freedom of thought and from his inner demons. This particular rendition by the great GNB is a Ragamaalika which immensely pleases the listener. In this case, me. 

12. Theeradha Vilayattu Pillai (featured in Vedhala Ulagam):

I wanted to reserve something special for the final selection. This song has a special place in my heart. My mother used to be a Bharathnatyam dancer in her younger days and this was one of the songs I have seen her dance. And what a song. It captures everything about Lord Krishna that makes his appealing to one and all. Bharathiyaar teases, tantalizes and delivers in spades with this wonderful piece.  Featuring the voice of the one and only D.K.Pattamal and the wonderful Kamala Lakshman’s moves, this song is perfection. Bliss.

I will end this post with three lines that I strive to live to. I have not succeeded yet but someday hope to. To the great poet who has been a source of inspiration to millions, hats off.

Achamillai, achamillai, acham enpathu illaye,

Icckathulorellam yethirthu nindra  pothilum,

Achamillai, achamillai, acham enpathu illaye.

Youtube playlist of songs featured in this post.

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