At Kodilingam’s house in Thiruvanmiyur, I’m transported back in time, listening to stories from the 12th Century. “During the reign of Raja Raja Chola, the king heard the Thevaram sung with great devotion. The king liked the tune and the words so much that he had the hymns traced to Chidambaram, where they were found in the corner of the temple, written on chuvadis. But there was a hitch — the caretakers wouldn’t hand them over. So, the images of the saints Appar, Sambandar, Sundarar and Manikavachagar — who lived between the 6th and 8th centuries and wrote the hymns — were taken out in a procession, and the hymns were recovered and compiled,” he narrates with enthusiasm.
Born into a Saivite family, Kodilingam, a Thevaram singer, learnt the hymns from his guru, musicologist P. Sundaresan. “For 17 years, I learnt both Thevaram and Carnatic music. After graduation from the Kumbakonam Government College, I got a job, and moved to Chennai in 1960. When I retired, friends asked me to teach them Thevaram, and now, over 50 people learn the hymns from me by pannmurai (the traditional way)”. Kodilingam conducts his classes in Kottivakkam and Ashoknagar, besides singing in many temples with his students. (Centuries ago, not all temples were big and grand, like we see them today, says Kodilingam; a Siva koil sometimes was just a lingam, under a tree). Every pradosham, he sings at the Marundeeshwarar temple. He recalls the area and the temple in the 1960s wearing a deserted look in the evenings, and all one heard was the sound of crickets! “But now?” he laughs.
Wearing a spotless white shirt, with sacred ash and kumkum on his forehead, Kodilingam sings thrice, during the one hour he spends talking to me. “There is a revival of interest in Thevaram. It’s not only sung in temples, but now, Carnatic musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers are learning it. All the songs are in praise of lord Siva, although you will find references to Ambal, Vigneshwarar and Muruga,” he says, singing a verse from Prahalada Charithram, his eyes closed in devotion, his fingers tracing the notes in the air, and his voice pouring steadily and sweetly, like honey. “Thevaram songs offer hope and peace for humanity. I don’t need to look far for examples, I’m the living proof!” he says.
But it’s not just Kodilingam, but his entire family that is interested in Thevaram. “My son and daughter sing the hymns, and my wife Parvati is always reading them,” he says, fetching a thick book from the bookshelf. I ask if he knows all the hymns. “No, no, I’ve probably read them all, but you need five lifetimes to learn everything!”
In this lifetime, Kodilingam has been busy. He’s travelled to Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait and the north of India to sing Thevaram. He has sung for Vyjayanthimala Bali’s Bharatanatyam concerts, and Dr. Nagaswami’s dance dramas. He shows me a thick album of awards (he’s getting another on May 1) and talks about Dr. Mahalingam (chairman, Sakthi Sugars), who encouraged him and paved the way for his journey.
“I’m 75 years old. Thevaram is what gives me a livelihood now. If I want money, I can’t simply tap it out of the wall, can I?” he asks.
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)