Rasavellar Shenbaga Tamil Arangu has been meticulous in promoting Tamil and global literary works

Among the many organisations beavering away at bringing literary appreciation to the common man in Tiruchi, few could be more diligent or remarkable than Srirangam-based Rasavellar Shenbaga Tamil Arangu.

The completely voluntary club has been hosting literary events since January 18, 1992, and judging its May schedule, the Arangu will continue to keep its date with lovers of Tamil fine arts.

“I have nothing to say about myself. I am known more by my father’s work,” says Raja Ilangovan, the son of the Arangu’s founder, the late K. Rasavelu Senbagavalli.

“My father was interested in the arts, literature, philosophy and politics from a very young age,” says Ilangovan looking at the portrait of his parents that hangs in the drawing hall of the family’s ancestral home where the Arangu holds its meetings every Saturday.

The Arangu was originally named after Ilangovan’s mother Shenbagavalli. The new name was adopted after the Rasavelu’s death last year.

Coming from a privileged family of municipal contractors in Srirangam, K. Rasavelu, born in 1936, made his name as a lawyer while nurturing his interest in the arts and politics.

“My father wrote and staged five plays soon after graduating from college – Ilango Thuravu, Nanbar Kanda Kanavu, Iru Vizhigal, Orey Neethi and Veerapandiya Kattabomman – and also played the lead roles in them,” says Ilangovan.

He staged these plays through his Tholkappiya Kalai Kuzhu troupe.

Lover of the arts

Around 40 years ago, he had founded a small Tamil Arangu which had hosted speakers like Kee Paa Ja, Nedunchezhian, Keeran and others.

The Shenbaga Tamil Arangu was a revival of sorts for the lawyer-cum-literature lover’s burning desire to make literary appreciation more accessible to the masses. “We have been holding these events totally on our own initiative,” says Ilangovan, who works as a Tamil teacher at a private school in Sirugambur. “Each Saturday meeting attracts around 30-45 people from various walks of life, and costs around a thousand rupees to host. A bigger event such as an annual anniversary function, costs up to Rs. 25,000 and we have to hire a separate venue. We have never asked for financial help, and even though we cannot afford to pay speakers, all of them oblige us with an appearance whenever we request them.”

As to the founder’s muse, Ilangovan says, “my father was deeply in love with my mother, even though she was an unlettered woman and came from a very different background to his. She passed away at the age of 46 due to cancer, so the five of us (four sons and a daughter) were brought up by our extended family.”

Rasavelu’s affection for his wife was so great that he wrote over 50,000 poems on her, 18 collections of which have been published so far. The poems came after Shenbagam’s death in 1989, even though Rasavelu had declared himself to be a ‘hater of poetry’ at first, says Ilangovan. Quite fittingly, the title of one his anthologies is Aval Kavignan Akkinaal Ennai (She Made a Poet out of Me).

Traditions revived

In 1969, after losing the municipal elections as a Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam candidate, K. Rasavelu was appointed as the chairman of the board of trustees of the Sri Ranganatha Swami temple. “My father was an atheist, but he was mindful of the spiritual and literary importance of the temple,” says Ilangovan.

“He reopened the temple’s library to the public and also started a series of lectures on Kamba Ramayanam, at the same mandapam where Kamban premiered the epic,” adds Ilangovan.

He was also against overt nationalism, and kept the Arangu open to literature from other Indian languages while allowing scholars to explore canons of Western writing by William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw.

By the age of 60, K. Rasavelu had lost his sight as a side-effect of the strong medication prescribed for a skin disorder.

“I was his eyes outside the home,” recalls Ilangovan, “and he’d be waiting for me to return from school everyday in this very hall, so that he could teach me how to organise the Arangu’s events.”

A wide platform

The Arangu is a forum for all points of view and also maintains a library and youth wing.

K. Rasavelu’s speeches were well-structured extempore renditions on a variety of topics.

“He often used to say that ‘maybe I lost my sight because God was afraid I’d read up everything in the world. And perhaps if I had still got sight, you may not have developed such an interest in literature,’” says an emotional Ilangovan.

The Arangu was closed for just one month after the founder’s death last year. “Many people thought we’d shut down permanently, but we have managed to keep the association alive,” says Ilangovan.

“Appa was so well-organised that he had already finalised our list of Tamil Maamani awardees for the next five years.”

Also on the cards is the 71st birth anniversary event (the Arangu’s 1173rd meeting) for Shenbagavalli on May 31, where Ilangovan’s daughter Shenbaga Devi (named after her grandmother) will debut as a public speaker.

What made K.Rasavelu’s last speech, on June 29, 2013, even more poignant was that it was meant to be the first of a series on his own life.

“We had never got the time or opportunity to put down his story in writing, so he thought it would be better preserved in the form of speeches. But even this had to be given up after his sudden demise,” says Ilangovan.