Wednesday, April 29, 2009

He was much more than a poet

"CHITTAM EPPADIYO... Ayya... " As the vidwan sang in an emotive spirit, many in the audience were drawn into an introspective mood. More than the music, it was the purport of the lyrics that created this effect. Even more so, it was in a language they understood — Tamil. As they wondered who the composer of this thought provoking lyric was, the singer sang "Vedanayagane... "
Vedanayagam Pillai was indeed one of the remarkable Tamil poets of the febrile 19th century. One daily paying homage to this poet on his death on July 21, 1889, said, "Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai was the Oliver Goldsmith of our times." Vedanayagam Pillai was not just a master poet but also much more.
A renowned jurist, a social worker, Tamil's first novelist, Vedanayagam had in addition a sterling personal quality that made him stand head and shoulders above his fellowmen. He was humane. The same newspaper also added these words in its obituary — "Only a few men deserve the name of `Gentlemen' and if the word can with perfect propriety be applied, it is to this great man." The newspaper was not paying encomiums without reason. During the famine that shook Tamil Nadu during 1876-1880, Vedanayagam responded spontaneously and generously to the desperate hunger calls of humanity. He contributed all the physical and material resources that he could generate towards the rehabilitation of the victims. It was this trait in Pillai that led that master composer, Gopalakrishna Bharati, to compose a song — "Neeye purusha meru" — in Vedanayagam's praise. A tribute all the more significant for Gopalakrishna Bharati rarely sang in praise of a human being for any consideration.
The spontaneous appeal of the songs of Vedanayagam captivated even the orthodox and rigid connoisseurs of both Tamil and music. Vedanayagam Pillai was a Tamil Christian by birth. Story goes that on one occasion his parents — Savarimuthu Pillai and Arogya Mariammal — offered food and clothing to a mendicant in distress. The mendicant was touched by this kindness and blessed them that they would give birth to a worthy son and that he should be named Vedanayagam.
The mendicant's words came true. On October 11, 1826, at a village called Kolathur in Tiruchi district, Vedanayagam Pillai was born. In the world of letters, the father was his son's first tutor, but later on, Vedanayagam was brought under the tutelage of Tyagaraja Pillai, who taught him both English and Tamil. Learning English was a matter of great prestige and honour in those days. Vedanayagam must have certainly been a precocious child, for even at the age of ten, he started composing light, humorous verses for situations like a wedding or the arrival of a rare guest.
On completing his education, Vedanayagam joined the Tiruchi court as a record keeper and soon got promoted as a translator. A quick learner, he learnt Sanskrit, French and Latin and also used every opportunity to acquaint himself with the law books. In 1856, he wrote an examination to qualify as district Munsiff.
In 1860, he was appointed the District Munsiff of Mayuram and served there for 13 years and came to be known as Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai. However, his road to professional success was ridden with difficulties. Finally, he quit his job in 1963.
Notwithstanding his professional demands, Vedanayakam pursued his mission of writing songs and books. In 1858, he wrote a highly acclaimed ethical work called the Neethi Nool.
In all, he wrote 16 books. His hugely popular ``Pratapa Mudaliar Charitram" has also the distinction of being the first novel in Tamil. In addition, he also translated law books in Tamil.
Vedanayagam Pillai was proficient in music too. The great musicologist Abraham Pandian, a contemporary of Pillai paid him compliments. "Vedanayakam Pillai of Mayuram was a celebrated vidwan in Tamil and Sangeeta Sahityam and a good player on the veena. More than a thousand of his keerthanais have been printed and are in use... "
The great Tamil composer Gopalakrishna Bharati was charmed by the songs of Pillai. It is said that Vedanayagam sang every one of his compositions, as soon as it was created, in the presence of Bharati, to get his approval. Tamil poet and litterateur Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Vedanayagam Pillai had mutual admiration for each other. Ramalinga Vallalar found a like-minded soul in Pillai, the Mahasannidham of Tiruvavaduturai Math — Subramanya Desikar — held regular parleys with him on several topics. It was not surprising, for if Pillai knew his Bible he knew his Tirukkural equally well. For that matter, Vedanayagam Pillai was secular to the core. His songs were not addressed to any personal God and were aptly titled,`` Sarva Samaya Samarasa Kirtanaigal."
Each one of Vedanayagam Pillai's songs had a message to convey. He was a great champion of women's rights and education. He said that one should work hard for a living, lead a simple life and help others as much as they could. He also reacted against atheism — "if there be a poet for a poem, a potter for a pot, an artist for a picture then there should be a creator for the universe," he asserted.
On the lines of Tyagaraja's "Nidhichala sukhama" he wrote "Manam Peridha, Varumanam Peridha?" Some of the popular songs of Pillai are ``Naale Nalla Nall," ``Nee Malaikkade Nenje," ``Tharunam, tharunam... " One can find a profusion of Sanskrit words and proverbs in his Tamil compositions.
Vedanayagam Pillai's domestic life was far from happy. He married five times as each of his wives lived only for a short time.
The peace loving man that Pillai was, his journey through life also had a smooth ending. He died peacefully with all his loved ones around him.