Birth centenary Tracking the contribution of lyricist Abhayadev to Malayalam cinema. K. Pradeep

There was a time when Malayalam film music simply made carbon copies of Tamil and Hindi tunes. The change came with the advent of Abhayadev. His lyrics gave that Malayali touch to the songs. For the first time Malayali characters on screen began to croon in their own language, in their typical style. This was perhaps Abhayadev’s signal contribution to Malayalam cinema. The birth centenary of this pioneering lyricist is being celebrated this year.

Abhayadev (1913-2000), whose given name was Ayyappan Pillai, had an eventful childhood. His father, Karimalil Kesava Pillai was a well-known poet who had many of his works published in the popular regional publications of the time. The young Abhayadev took to writing poems quite naturally. While at school he was drawn to the Freedom Struggle. He quit studies, wore khadi, which he did till the end of his life, and began learning Hindi. He then travelled throughout the South propagating Gandhi’s ideals, especially the need to learn Hindi.

The change of name happened when he joined the Arya Samaj. “By then he had married. But all that travel must have been one reason why he joined Arya Samaj. He travelled across the country with this organisation. This was for a short while. He returned to his ancestral home at Pallam, near Kottayam,” says Aravindan, Abhayadev’s eldest son.

All the while Abhayadev used to write poems for some of the regional publications. A local drama troupe requested him to write songs for one of their plays and he wrote five songs and was paid for them. That was when he realised that he could try and turn his writing skills into a profession. Soon he was writing songs for the most popular drama troupes of the time. Once he fell into the track he tried his hand at writing plays, most of them were performed on stage but remain unpublished. “‘Navayugam’ was one such play. It was written against CP’s (C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer) draconian laws, was staged and banned. He must have written around 40 plays,” says Aravindan.

Making his debut

It was Sebastian Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, one of the most famous theatre actors of the time, who introduced Abhayadev to Kunchacko. And in 1949 Abhayadev made his debut as lyricist in the film Vellinakshatram . His lines were set to tune by Paramudas and B. A. Chidambaranath, who was also making his debut in Malayalam. This film had 10 songs rendered by Gayaka Peethambaram, Cherai Ambujam and Savithri Alappuzha.

The next year saw the emergence of the first successful music team in Malayalam. Abhayadev joined debutant V. Dakshinamurthy in the film Nalla Thanka . The duo went on to make some memorable songs in the language. “I have heard from my father (Augustine Joseph) how he and Abhayadev Sir went to Vaikom in search of Dakshinamurthy. They found him lying on a bench, the tall frame, bent to fit the narrow bench. At first Swami was hesitant but when Abhayadev Sir and father assured him he agreed. The three of them were fast friends and addressed each other fondly as aliya ,” remembers K. J. Yesudas.

For Dakshinamurthy this was the beginning of a long, fruitful career and a life-long friendship with Abhayadev. “From that moment in 1949 till he passed away Abhayadev was an intimate friend. That relationship extends to our families too. I even composed for Aravindan. As a lyricist he transformed Malayalam film music with his simple, meaningful lines,” says the veteran composer.

Abhayadev must have written for around 50 films before he gave way to a young group of talented lyricists such as P. Bhaskaran, Vayalar Rama Varma, ONV Kurup and Sreekumaran Thampi. But he was certainly the man who set the trend, opened up a new path. Many music directors and singers made their debut singing his lovely lines. Abhayadev was unmatched in his lullabies, a genre he mastered. But more than all that he was an honest, gentle human being ever ready to offer assistance to those who needed it.

“It was Abhayadev Sir who gave me support at a time when I needed it most. He called me to sing a song in the film Shanti Nivas , a dubbed film. When I reached Arunachalam Studio, Madras [Chennai] I sensed that there was something wrong. The music director taught me the song and I was ready to record. Then the sound recordist kept confusing me,asking me to move closer to the microphone, then ordering me to go back. I was new to all this. The music director told Abhayadev Sir that I was not good. But Abhayadev Sir made it clear that no one else but I should sing it.That was the kind of support I needed to grow,” reminisces Yesudas.

The veteran singer also remembers how Abhayadev wrote a Malayalam song, a literal translation of the famous ‘O duniya ke rakhwale…’ from Baiju Bawra , set in the same tune, for his father. “It was left to me to sing it out for my father, teaching him. In fact, I became a guru to my father because of Abhayadev Sir,” the singer says, even as he sings snatches of that song.

Writing the dialogues and lyrics for other language films dubbed into Malayalam was another significant contribution of Abhayadev. “He must have worked in nearly 100 of such films. The most famous of them was of course Sankarabharanam . For the 50th day celebrations of this film at Kochi director K. Viswanath told me that the Malayalam dialogues were perhaps more beautiful than the original. His was not simply translating word by word, it was rewriting at its best,” recounts Aravindan.

A multi-linguist, Abhayadev’s translation of numerous classics into various languages and his Hindi-Malayalam dictionary, which is into its eighth edition, are some of his landmark literary achievements.

Till his death in 2000, Abhayadev was actively involved in the activities of Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society (SPCS), Hindi Prachar Sabha, and numerous other social and cultural organisations. Abhayadev was awarded the J. C. Daniel Award in 1995.

Best of Abhayadev

‘Akaale aarum kaividum…’ Jeevitha Nauka

‘Kanna nee urangu…’ Lokaneethi

‘Kanivolum kamaneeya…’ Snehaseema

‘Paatupadi urakkaam njaan…’ Seetha

‘Swargam kaninjoo...’ Sabarimala Ayyappan

‘Mindathathenthanu thathe…’ Jnanasundari

‘Mannavanaayalum…’ Sathyabhama

‘Priyamanasa nee…’ Chilamboli

‘Radha Madhava Gopala…’ Sree Guruvayurappan

‘Veedinu ponmani...’ Kudumbini