Kannadasan would have completed 87 years today, and given life expectancies in our times he may well have been alive and ticking. However, he has been gone more than thirty years. But has he? Numerous TV channels which survive on Tamil film songs resound to Kannadasan’s evergreen hits – you can even see him on screen grandly proclaimin, ‘I am Eternal, I never die’ in his famous song, ‘Oru Koappaiyile En Kudiyiruppu’ ( I live in a wine glass, I sport with a beautiful lass)!
In our times, Director Mysskin celebrates Kannadasan’s famed love for the bottle in his catchy bar number ‘Kannadasan Karaikkudi, Perai Cholli Oothikudi’, and Ilayaraja’s music brackets Kannadasan with Kalidasa (Kalidasan Kannadasan). Leading lyricists aspire for Kannadasan’s colossal reputation as the people’s poet who sang for every situation in their lives. He is to the world of Tamil song writers what his friend and patron MGR is to the world of stars – the coveted peak!
When Kannadasan wrote his first song at Central Studios, Coimbatore in 1949 he was 22, a class 8 dropout who had no experience either in cinema or song writing. He made his debut more due to the kindness and magnanimity of director K. Ramnoth than his own competence. But the music of the early fifties showed less sympathy to lyric writers who had a frightful time fitting in words to wayward tunes. Kannadasan shrugged off the yoke by producing films himself so that he could write songs unfettered (Maalai Itta Mangai, Sivagangai Seemai and Kavalai Illaadha Manidhan). This pitched him into a sea of debt but opened the doors of endless opportunity.
Kannadasan penned all the songs for Paasa Malar, Paava Mannippu and Paalum Pazhamum, and changed the course of Tamil film music. With Sivaji Ganesan, Savithri, Saroja Devi, Devika and other such artistes at their emotive best, music composers Viswanathan Ramamurthy coming into their epoch-changing course and singers like TMS, P.Sushila and PBS in their heyday, the ‘Pa’ series brought an array of songs that has wowed fans all along. ‘Ponaal Pogattum Poadaa’ was a new kind of expression of bereavement, as if a King Lear was raging at Death. ‘Naan Pesa Ninaippadhellaam’ brought a new sensitivity and dimension to romance. ‘Athaan Ennathaan’ gave a new honeyed tone to a woman’s love. ‘Vandha Naal Mudhal’ , rather closely following Kavi Pradeep’s ‘Kitna Badal Gaya Insaan’ (Nasthik) but managing to retain its own stamp of individuality, was shot through with great idealism and humanism. ‘Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham’ effortlessly mirrored the exhilaration of falling in love. ‘Malarndhu Malaraadha’ framed the bonds between brother and sister in poignant notes of unforgettable melody.
Kannadasan’s lyrics created a new idiom for the Tamil song and paved way for the only time in Tamil film history that a lyric writer stood taller (at six feet plus!) than the number one music director. For Kannadasan was more than a lyricist. He was a popular personality with a wide appeal. He was an author with an engaging style ; his Vanavasam – a no-holds-barred account of his early years up to his exit from the DMK – has seen manifold re-prints. He was a delightful speaker with a great sense of humour. And after his switch from ‘rationalism’ to religion, he had a remarkable avatar in the seventies as a commentator on Hinduism (Arthamulla Hindu Madham), which did not prevent him from writing a commissioned ‘Yesu Kaviyam’. But though Kannadasan had many volumes of literary poems to his credit, he realized that the film song was his medium. When he combined with directors like Sridhar and K. Balachander, the result was magical. Who can forget the evergreen musical, Kaadhalikka Neramillai? Is there a film song that reflects both the angst of the human condition and the affirmation of hope as eloquently as ‘Yezhu Swarangalil’? And most of thespian Sivaji’s triumphant celluloid moments soar on the poet’s lyrics. When Kannadasan lay in Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago in a protracted coma towards the end of his life in 1981, it was film song composition that he was said to be incoherently acting out.
In their moments of diffidence, people lean on the numerous songs of encouragement penned by Kannadasan (Mayakkama Kalakkama, for example), while others see his songs as an invitation to literature because he effortlessly echoes Kamban, Andal, Pattinathar and Bharati in simple but stirring lines (Veedu Varai Uravu, for example). For others, he is one of the few lyricists who left his individual stamp on film songs – almost an impossible affair. Some marvel at the musicality of the limpid stream of verse and song that flowed from him and his capacity to follow an idea to its logical end in a single song, as in ‘Yaen Pirandhaai Magane’. For all of them, June 24 is not an anniversary to observe, but a birthday to celebrate.
(The author is a film music historian whose books include a volume on hundred lyricists of Tamil cinema from 1931 to 2000)