As one sat beside him a year ago, there was the uncanny feeling of not being with an individual but with somebody, or even something, that simply is without making claims for itself or demands on others. Those around him refer to him as Muruga, the vocative form of Murugan mostly used by devotees to address the deity, adding to the feeling of a shift in vision that is reinforced by his own references to himself in the third person as ‘evan’ (this man).
‘Evan’ that the world knew by those unmistakable dark glasses that hid a lifelong odyssey with vision problems, saffron bandana, trimmed beard, and of course that magnetically melodious voice shimmering to the nuanced oscillations of the keys of the harmonium, has apparently set off on yet another voyage to the other shore quietly in his sleep. This culminates a marathon 97 years and wanderings twice over across the Indian sub continent and manifold sojourns across the globe.
He sang a single film song, appearing in the 1972 film Deivam with ‘Naadariyum Nooru Malai’ on his lips. The song was a hit, but he desisted from singing again in films as he believed he had transgressed and been punished for the transgression. Pride and egotism were qualities he was disallowed, and the success of his life was that despite all the adulation he received, the song and the deity to which it was addressed, and never the singer, took precedence in his mind.
As such, he was a cultural and religious phenomenon among the Tamils, especially in the Tamil diaspora communities in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Seychelles, Mauritius and later in Europe, US, Canada and Australia. No wonder, Nelson Mandela, who doted upon him during the World Hindu Conference in Durban in 1995, affectionately remarked that Murugadas was more popular than him in South Africa! MGR, who was an admirer Murugadas, took particular interest in conferring the Kalaimamani award on him in a special function in 1984. The Sangeet Natak Akademi award was conferred on him in 1997.
Born in 1918 in Coimbatore to C. S. Sundaram Iyer and Alamelu on a Thai Poosam day sacred to the deity Murugan, he was appropriately named Balasubramanian. A blinding wound in the left eye when he was seven, as well as a rejection by his father were traumatic childhoold events, but the meeting with a wandering saint, Brahmananda Paradesi, who branded him a ‘Pithukuli’ – divinely mad – proved life changing. The word which became his epithet sums up the script which he lived up to all his life – a singer inspiring god love through his song.
As a teenager, the freedom struggle inspired him into action that led to his incarceration. Soon, his restless spirit got the better of him and made him journey across the land with a song on his lips and an ektara in his hand. What ultimately turned out to be an episodic 18,000 mile criss-crossing of the land mostly on foot brought him into close contact with spiritual stalwarts like Swami Ramdas, Matha Krishnabai, Ramana Maharishi and Swami Sivananda. His journeys also gave him a tremendous physique. A close associate and singer, Delhi Prakash remarks on the resounding power of Murugadas’s whistle which the latter used while trekking through forests to keep wild animals at bay. Murugadas also practiced yoga and gave instructions in it from a centre in Ranganthan street.
Self-taught on the harmonium, Murugadas was a lyric writer and poet himself. He had learnt the Tiruppugazh from Vallimalai Swamigal. ‘Paada Vaaithaay Naan Paadugiraen’, ‘Kandasamiye Engal Sondha Saamiye‘, ‘Devi Kanyakumari’ are among the simple lyrics that he made famous himself. He also drew liberally on the compositions of Oothukaadu (Alaipaayudhe, Paalvadiyum Mugam, Swagatham Krishna) and Mahakavi Bharati (Kaakkai chiraginile, Om Shakti Om).
The footloose singer who lugged his heavy harmonium, his only constant companion, everywhere and sang with the instrument on his lap, finally acquired a permanent address when Devi Saroja, a 38-year-old younger sibling of G. K. Ponnamma, musician and harmonist, wooed him. It was not an easy decision for the 60-year-old peripatetic singer – even his admirers were more or less divided on the issue – but he eventually took Devi’s hand. There was only one visible change that came with the change of marital status. Devi joined Murugadas in his concerts and her entire family became his followers, but only after ensuring that he had vouchsafed his belongings to public causes.
Murugadas’s stirring song as well as his spiritual outlook which he put into action by routing the proceeds of his successful singing career to laudable causes, have touched others and transformed their lives. Those who came as admirers became followers. But Murugadas went on as before, hitching the one thing that he did best, singing, to the Supreme. His passing on a Kanda Shashti day marked by the Soora Samharam festival is bound to add to the mystique of the minstrel of Muruga.
In a state that is polarized between the classical Carnatic and the plebian cinematic, Murugadas was one of the few who with his unique voice and style practised the devotional music genre with remarkable success. His dedication in achieving his iconic status as a bhakti singer makes him a role model waiting to be emulated.
(Article appeared in edited form in Times of India, Chennai on Nov 25,2015)