Kothamangalam Viswanathan has inherited a rare talent from his illustrious father. Viswanathan used to accompany his father when he gave performances, and later gave solos.

While most people know that Kothamangalam Subbu was the author of ‘Thillana Mohanambal,’ which was later made into a successful movie starring Sivaji Ganesan, not many of them would know that Subbu’s talents lay in many directions, villupaattu being one of them. While none of his children took up writing as a profession, his son Kothamangalam Viswanathan has taken up villupaattu, at which his father was adept.

Viswanathan used to accompany his father when he gave performances, and later gave solos. At one time he was so popular that he had 15 programmes a month. Subbu, afraid that his son might choose villupaattu as a profession, and that it might not be remunerative, frowned upon his son’s obsession with the art. Thus Viswanathan concentrated on his studies, graduated and even took a degree in law. He joined Madras Cements as a Public Relations officer.

Passion for villupaatu

But the passion for villupaatu remained. Whenever there were functions at the office, Viswanathan would volunteer to sing a couple of songs.

Once during Founder’s Day at the office, the then Chief Minister Kamaraj was the Chief Guest. Viswanathan composed a song the first line of which was ‘Our Chief Minister Kamaraj knows nothing.’ And then before the stunned audience could recover, he continued with the rest of the song: ‘Kamarajar does not know how to make money; he does not know how to live for himself; he does not know how to discriminate between people. What he does know is to walk in the path Gandhiji showed; what he does know is to have Truth as his guide.’

“I would keep my dhoti in my brief case when I went to office, and when my work at the office was done, I would dash off to give a villupaattu programme,” Viswanathan says. Official trips to Bombay and Delhi also included villupaattu in the evenings, programmes that drew all the Tamil speaking bureaucrats living there.

But how could he carry the villu with him when he went to office? “I don’t use the conventional villu. I use a villu designed by my father.” It is a small bow that looks like something children might use in a school play based on the Ramayana or Mahabharata. Just a little over a foot long, it rests on a stand.

Once Subbu asked his son, “How much were you paid by the organisers at Rameswaram?” Viswanathan replied that he had been paid 450 rupees. “That’s twice what I was paid by them,” said Subbu. Viswanathan was quick to reply, “Half the remuneration was for me. The rest was for my lineage — the son of Kothamangalam Subbu.” Subbu shed copious tears at his son’s words of affection.

When Viswanathan left the corporate world, to set up practice as a lawyer, he was coming back to a profession he had left 25 years earlier. It was a difficult time for him. His wife had given up her job, and there were two children to look after. It was Villupaattu that came to his rescue. “N.H. Atreya of Air India, asked me to give a month long villupaattu programme for employees of the cargo division of Air India, Madras. I spoke on subjects such as time management, customer care, office discipline etc.” Ironically the art that his father feared would not be beneficial monetarily, was the one that helped Viswanathan in his hour of need!

Viswanathan has composed more than 50,000 lines of verse which he uses in his performances. He has written verses on Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, Raghavaendra, Kannappa Nayanar, to name a few. He is now engaged in translating the Bhagavad Gita into verse form in Tamil.

Interesting ideas

On September 1, Viswanathan presented a villupaattu programme on ‘Arjuna’ as part of Natyarangam’s ‘Bharatham Mahabhaaratham,’ at the Narada Gana Sabha.

“The Bhagavad Gita was the result of some clever play acting on the part of Krishna and Arjuna,” Viswanathan theorises. “Arjuna asks provocative questions, to which Krishna gives answers. The questions and answers are for our edification.”

Some of the ideas of Viswanathan were quite interesting; but he should not consult his notes so often. And if he must, he should do it without a break in the narrative. The success of a villupaattu depends on the impression of spontaneity, even if it has been rehearsed.