When music director A.R. Rahman wanted a preamble for the song Theendaay Meitheendaay in the film Yen Suvasakaatrey, lyricist Vairamuthu did not think twice about the choice. Thus, “Kanrum Unnaadhu Kalaththinum Padaadhu” a Sangam age poem from Velliveethiyar's “Kurunthogai” anthology embraced the digital age of music.

“It is perfect fusion. If my lines in modern verse express the feelings of an aroused woman, the poem penned by Velliveethiyar captures the intensity with beautiful imageries,” says Vairamuthu.

The interplay between tradition and modernity has always been a driving force behind great literary works. Tamils who take great pride in their tradition have also embraced modernity as a vehicle for exposition. After all it is youth icon A.R. Rahman who composed the music for the theme song for the World Classical Tamil Conference.

As a poet who has studied the Tamil classics and experimented with literary forms, Mr. Vairamuthu argues that though Tamil has lost many of its words like other languages, its roots are strong, enabling it to bloom a thousand flowers.

“That is why a poem of a second century effortlessly fits into the tune of A.R. Rahman in 21st century. It is here that I see myself as a continuity of the tradition,” he says adding that “brevity is the character that brings modern verse close to Sangam poetry.”

Being rooted in tradition allowed him to go for selective lines from Sangam poetry. For instance, in a song composed by Rahman for the film Iruvar, he borrows imageries from the poetry of that period - “Narumugayey” and “Chempulam cherntha” from Kurunthogai and “Attraithingal” from Purananuru.

This borrowing has been happening consciously or subconsciously. Bharthiyar's line “theekul viralai vaithaal” probably has its origin in Nammalwar's hymn “ariyum sentheeai thazhuvi atchuthan yennum.” Similarly, Kannadasan's song “aatuvithal yaroruvar”, will remind a reader the lines from Thirunavukarasar's Thevaram. Before him, Vallalar also has used the same lines.

Writer Jayamohan says like the branches of a tree, which continue to draw succour from the tree, all the great literary works thrive on the elements and forms of tradition. “If western literature has roots in Greek and Latin classics, in Tamil our roots run deep in the classic and folk tradition. It also manifests itself in the values and human relations of the subject matter of our literary works,” he says.

While attaching great importance to tradition, D. Ravikumar, noted Tamil writer and member of the Assembly, argues that it should manifest in the subconscious state after the process of assimilation.

According to him, great literary works could be brought within the conventional rules (Thinaikkotpadu) of conduct, place, region, situation and site laid down by Tholkappiyum.

“All the literary works that were born out of experiences have in them the elements of tradition. The experience can be personal or collective. The traces will be missing only in literary works attempting experimentation at the level of the language. Even if you want to reject the tradition, you have to first learn it,” he stresses.

Tradition is strength, agrees A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. Editor of the complete works of Tamil short story writer Pudumaipithan, he recalls the short story Kadavulum Kandasamy Pillaiyium to explain the concept of “deep traditional lore viewed from a critical modern perspective.”

“You cannot fully enjoy the story if you are not familiar with Saiva Siddantha. On the other hand a person who has no idea of modern literary concepts might not fully appreciate the satire on God,” he said.

After all it was his deep knowledge of Tamil literature that gave Kannadasan's film songs a classical touch. All the higher concepts of life, death and religion manifested in his lyrics, which became accessible to the layman.

“Besides Kamban and Bharathi whose works occupied the mainstream literary debates, Kannadasan's deep knowledge of Pattinathar, who sang about the human life and its complex dimensions, made his lyrics more appealing to the common man. A man on the street can pick a song, depending on the situation he is in and fully identify himself with it,” says Mr. Venkatachalapathy.

Is rejecting tradition possible? “Can one reject gravitational pull?,” asks Mr. Venkatchapathy. “Of course a rocket does. But it will fall somewhere,” he said.

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