Article Tamil

10 lyrical classics from the pen of Kannadasan – Anniversary special

Kannadasan was the first lyricist to win a National award and his work in Tamil cinema paved the way for deep philosophy and political ideas to enter a medium of mass entertainment. A look at 10 iconic songs that capture the synergy of the poet's philosophy and ideas.

Shriram Iyengar

Tamil cinema has been fortunate to rise on the shoulders of giants of literature, none greater than lyricist Kannadasan. Called 'Kaviarasu' or king of poets, he remains the tallest name among Tamil lyricists. His work stood out for its deep philosophy, colourful imagery and impeccable placement in situ with the film. His lyrics bolstered the image of MG Ramachandran as a hero of the people and deepened the colour of tragedy in many of Sivaji Ganesan's films.

Initially drawn by the Dravidian movement, the poet soon found himself attracted in a different direction. His love for the Tamil language led him into a study of classic Tamil poetry, including the Thiruppavai of the saint Andal. The pastoral poetry, steeped in the praise of the god Krishna, inspired him to take on the name Kannadasan, meaning Servant of Krishna, as a pseudonym. He won the first National award for lyricist for the film Kuzhanthaikaga (1968), which, sadly, remained his only National award. Yet, the writer also won the Sahitya Akademi award for his work Cheraman Kadhali in 1980.

On Kannadasan's 40th death anniversary (he died on 17 October 1981), a look at 10 iconic works that symbolize the merger of poetry and philosophy.

1. 'Vantha Naal Muthal' — Pavamanippu (1961)

Steeped in melodrama and secularism, Pavamanippu was an A Bhimsingh classic which represented the secular notions of its times. It won the National award for Second Best Film for the year. One of the high points of the film was its soundtrack. Crafted by the legendary duo of MS Vishwanathan and TK Ramamoorthy, it had lyrics by Kannadasan. This one, in particular, stands out for the poet's world view, humanism and impeccable understanding of the song situation.

Picturized on a bicycle-riding Sivaji, the poet paints a picture of a constant world surrounding the fickle nature of man. The imagery contrasts the radical modernization and insular nature of man's needs while visualizing the expanding world of nature. The lyrics also reflect Kannadasan's Dravidian influences in the lines that translate as 'He saw birds and created planes / He saw boats in diving fishes / He heard an echo and created airwaves / What inspired him to create money (capitalism)?'

2. 'Ninaipathellam Nadanthuvittaal' — Nenjil Oru Alayam (1962)

Another classic addition to Kannadasan's melodramatic oeuvre, Nenjil Oru Alayam was remade in Hindi as the classic Dil Ek Mandir (1963). The soundtrack is still considered a classic in Tamil cinema with influences of Carnatic and Hindustani music decorating the wonderfully evocative lyrics. This song portrays a heartbreaking moment in the film's story with an almost stoic philosophy. With suspicion lingering of his wife's past, the soon-to-die husband sings about letting things go.

As the poet says, 'If every wish were to come true / there would be no need for god / If we only thought of what happened / There would be no peace'. Sung by PB Sreenivas, the song flows with empathy, pathos and enriching thought which were the lyricist's strengths.

3. 'Unnai Arindhal' — Vettaikaran (1964)

This song remains an iconic moment for the late MG Ramachandran's image as a people's leader. So important was the song to his image that till date it remains associated with him than with the composer, lyricist or singer.

Kannadasan's lyrics turn to the old Socratic philosophy of 'know thyself' and transform it with Nietzschean zeal. The song talks about how knowing oneself can elevate a person, emboldening him to face obstacles and take on the world.

KV Mahadevan's composition is upbeat and rhythmic, and ocassionally belies the depth of its lyrics. Add to this the cringey cowboy outfit on MGR and you might think this song has outlived its time. However, Kannadasan's lyrics continue to carry the flag for individual courage in a changing world.

4. 'Kelvi Pirandadhu Andru' — Pachai Vilakku (1964)

Released just a few weeks after Vettaikaran, Pachai Vilakku was a musical melodrama that deserves mention solely for the quality of MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamoorthy's compositions. The film ran for 100 days and achieved mass popularity due to its songs. The composers turned to their favourite, Kannadasan, to create an album for the times.

This song captured the optimism and hope for the future like no other in the lyricist's repertoire. Kannadasan's lyrics mirror a nation's hope and optimism in a brother's dreams for his sister's future.

In the lines 'Master-slave, upper-lower class / Would this not change? / A land ruled by a king / Will a time come for it to be ruled by its people? / We craved for these once / Now an answer has arrived'. A product of the optimistic 1960s, the song continues to signify hope in every generation.

5. 'Adho Andha Paravai' — Ayirathil Oruvan (1965)

BR Panthulu's pirate adventure was the last collaboration of the composer duo MS Viswanathan and TK Ramamoorthy. As a send-off, they delivered an iconic soundtrack which catapulted MG Ramachandran's image as a saviour of the land. The song is almost revolutionary in its approach and anthemic in its composition.

Kannadasan captured the rising political ambition of MGR with this number. The presence of J Jayalalithaa, who followed MGR into politics and became his understudy and successor as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, only adds to the subtext. She reportedly went so far as to credit the film for her entry into politics. The lyricist speaks of building a new country, a new land of hope and equal rights, quite like what the Dravidian movement promised. He says, 'We shall live like the birds / Dance like the waves / Under one sky / On one land / We shall sing the song of rights.' Enough said!

6. 'Paatum Naane' — Thiruvillaiyadal (1965)

A famed mythological classic with Sivaji Ganesan taking on the role of the god Siva, Thiruvilaiyadal (The Divine Game) revolved around mythical stories of the god's playful nature. This portion stands out for the musical emphasis. To break the ego of a proud musician, the god takes the form of a lowly woodcutter and sings Kannadasan's verses.

The verses are outstanding. If one removes the mythology around it, and the music, it is the poet standing supreme and declaring: 'I am the song / I am the expression / I am the one making you sing.' For cinematic music, which depends heavily on lyrics to act as a message board, it seems apt that the lyricist declares, 'I am the music within every movement / I am the one directing the movement.'

KV Mahadevan's classical composition is lifted by the swagger and expression of Sivaji who shows off his full repertoire in one song. The ease with which he lip-synchs to TM Sunderrajan's classical solos only adds to the enjoyment of Kannadasan's poetic expression.

7. 'Paramasivan Kazhutthil' — Suryagandhi (1973)

Having started off playing a small role in Parasakthi (1952), the lyricist never lost his penchant for appearing on screen. While he did not do it frequently, the few occasions he did so were deserving of mention. This one, from the morality play of Suryagandhi, is special. The poet takes the stage as a singer delivering a lesson to a squabbling couple. The film revolved around a clash of egos between the husband and wife played by Muthuraman and Jayalalithaa.

While the lesson might irk a woke generation, it fit in with the mores of the time. Yet, it is the playful irreverence of the lyrics which catch your ears. Using the metaphors of Siva's snake and Vishnu's eagle (enemies in nature, but friends in mythology), the lyricist builds a wonderful message. It is these contrasting metaphors of a waning moon-expanding sky and an automobile with asymmetric wheels that leave a lasting mark in the end.

8. 'Deivam Thandha Veedu' — Aval Oru Thodarkathai (1974)

K Balachander's heyday coincided with that of MS Viswanathan, resulting in some iconic compositions. One of them is this classic tragedy of a woman trapped in a dysfunctional family. The film was far ahead of its time and won for Balachander the Filmfare award for Best Director. A wonderfully melodramatic composition, this song flows with pathos and philosophy. From his spiritual highs, the lyricist descends into existentialism with this work. A drunkard brother, denied his alcohol, sings of the futility of life.

Kannadasan's lyrics might feel a touch patriarchal as the song throws a shadow on the working-class heroine of the title. Yet, there is deep pathos within a situational number. 'What is clear is philosophy', he says, 'If obscure / It becomes spirituality / Sister, you seek tears by digging earth / I buried myself and found knowledge'. It was this quality of sowing gems into simple situational songs that set the great lyricist apart.

9. 'Poongatru Pudhithanathu' — Moondram Pirai (1982)

Moondram Pirai, which boasted of fine performances by Sridevi and Kamal Haasan, was the last cinematic work for Kannadasan. It was also a rare collaboration for the lyricist with the great composer Ilaiyaraaja. The soundtrack had only two songs by Kannadasan, one of them this jazzy melody.

The song captures the innocence and uniqueness of the relationship between the two lead characters. It is also a sign of the innate understanding of cinema that the lyricist possessed. The use of metaphors such as flowing wind, river and flowers fit perfectly with the visuals of Balu Mahendra.

Ilayaraaja did justice to the poetry with a wonderful composition filled with life and melody.

10. 'Kanne Kalaimaane' — Moondram Pirai

The greats usually leave on a high and so did Kannadasan. The last work recorded before his death is this moving lullaby for Balu Mahendra's classic. Perhaps the lyricist could sense the future. Although the song is a lullaby, in postscript, it reads differently. In the third stanza, the poet signs off, saying, 'I felt love / I nurtured it in my dreams / I gave my life for you / Don't forget that / I have no peace without you / You are my respite.'

There could not be a more moving tribute to his work and his muse. The song remains one of Ilaiyaraaja's best in the voice of the great KJ Yesudas, a number adorned by a fantastic pen.

Kannadasan's legacy might be filled with more than 300 songs, but this one shall forever hold pride of place as the last to be recorded while he was still alive.