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For better or verse

"Kavidaye Padalaga," presented by poet and film lyricist Vairamuthu, this evening, will transform poetry into song

I want even the silence of soul to be translated into the sound of language - Vairamuthu

EYES GLEAMING, voice excited, the man is unmistakeably on a high. Why not? Poet and film lyricist Vairamuthu has challenged himself into visualising a live performance of recitative and melodic poetry. "Nothing like this has been done before in India, perhaps not anywhere in the world," he assures you.

"Kavidaye Padalaga" (Kamarajar Arangam, July 27) will bring together poet, music composer and singer to show such a transformation of poetry into song. Vairamuthu will first recite every chosen poem, which will then be musically rendered by S. Janaki and S. P. Balasubramaniam, with music composer Iniyavan conducting.

So what is new about setting verse to music, a common practice the world over in classical, folk and film genres? "This is different," explains Vairamuthu. "The poems were not written for music, or with music in mind." The content too is not the sort found in mainstream cinema. Different departments In the far past, Papanasam Sivan himself composed both music and verse for his films. But succeeding decades saw them split into different departments. Initially, the lyrics were composed first and then set to music. In more modern times, the lyricist has been compelled to write his verses to preset rhythm patterns, fitting them into readymade melodic moulds. Says Vairamuthu, "In my long career, only ten out of 5,500 lyrics were composed first, and later set to music. All the others had to be fitted into tunes."

The film lyricist has to tailor his creativity to the needs of the situation, character, actor's image and director's tastes. "When instruments flooded the scene, they habituated viewers to respond only to the beats. No scope for imbuing verse with sweep or power." The de-linking of cinema from literature has limited creativity in the lyricist, actor, screenwriter and director.

Choice of poems

But why underestimate public taste in a nation that values language and music? This thought generated the idea of choosing 12 poems varied in form and content, covering a gamut of voices, experiences and feelings. Vairamuthu decided to present them on stage live as songs.

The choice includes his first poem about his mother, the anguish of a stepmother and a lament for the destruction of a hut. There are also celebrations in recounting the history of Madurai, or describing the grandeur of a tree. A short story is converted into lyric about the images of a man returning to his village after 20 years, to glimpse the woman he had loved and lost. Some poems draw inspiration from folk traditions. One spins words with a staccato pattern that demands western music. All the poems have one thing in common. None has been composed with song rhythms.

Since most modern verse is resistant to music, did composer Iniyavan face any problems in setting the chosen verses to music? "We worked for two months to get it right," he explains. The tunes were composed in romantic surroundings — in the lyricist's native village, in palm groves, by the riverside, meadow and pond. Though Vairamuthu admits that none of these poems was conceived with any music in mind, he did not make them intractable to oral rendering. "I want even the silence of soul to be translated into the sound of language," he laughs. Poetry gains dimensions in the auditory experience. So why exclude the sounds of music?

"It is not that these poems don't have rhythms, though they differ from the familiar beats. More important, my music had to follow the word and preserve the meaning intact. Breaks and pauses had to coincide with patterns of thought. I had the poet's guidance right through. Made things easy."

Vairamuthu believes that Telugu-born S. Janaki and S. P. Balasubramaniam can bring out the best in his Tamil verse, as they are both imbued with poetic sensibility. Among younger participants are Kartik, Krishnaraj, Chinmay and Mahati.

Says Janaki, "I am really enjoying these songs. They are different musically and have striking themes. Film songs are always with us. But songs with density of thought and feeling should also be presented to the public. I am sure they will have their own appeal."

SPB says, "What a wide canvas, what colours, what moods! Naturally. Vairamuthu has created these verses freely and purely as poetry, not for a cinematic situation or character. They are set to heart beats, not drum beats. The poet's influence is uppermost here." SPB delights in Vairamuthu's original and novel images. "He is relentless about right enunciation," he laughs.

Music, soul of poetry

Both veterans are full of praise for Iniyavan's balance of swara and sahitya.

If the show strikes the right chords, the poet plans to take it to Tamils all over the world. But is it necessary at all to clothe poetry in music? "Poetry has its own power," says Vairamuthu. "Music can add wings to enhance its reach."

His words awake to a startled sense when he joins Iniyavan in song. Vairamuthu is well known for his eloquence. But never has his voice quivered in yearning, trembled in pain, and sighed in resignation, as now when he follows the criss-crossing moods of long lost love in this plaintive, pause-charged tune. If music is the soul of poetry, sing on...


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