An appealing evocative book of poems for children in Tamil has other fascinating stories behind it… S. Theodore Baskaran

T he field of children's' literature in Tamil had been quite arid except for a few sporadic works. V. Geetha in a recent article points out that even in this corpus, much of what we have is preachy and not oriented to developing a passion for reading among the young. Whether it is a short story or an essay meant for a child, writers tend to sermonise from a pedestal. So their work is unlikely to appeal to children.

Recently a book, by Bagyam Shankar, a school teacher, came into my hands and it has poems for children on sparrow, crow, lizard and other such creatures that they come across daily. When I was looking for the line drawings of M. Krishnan, a friend gave me this book which had been illustrated by Krishnan. Even as I thumbed through the thin book titled Pillai Mozhi (Language of the Child) I could realise that this indeed is a rare gift to the world of children's literature in Tamil. Published in 1945 in Chennai, it has 32 poems, each one illustrated with a line drawing. With a picture each on the front and back covers, it has a total of 34 drawings, all done in Indian ink in Krishnan's inimitable style. When I tried to learn about the author, her life story sounded amazing.

Early struggles

Born in 1910 in Sulamangalam, a village not far from Thanjavur, Bagyalakshmi lost her parents when she was barely 10. She was brought to Madras and admitted in the school run by social reformer Sister Subbulakshmi. Through the benevolence of a lady from a zamindar family in Andhra, she completed her school, joined Presidency College and graduated. In the college, Madhaviah's daughter M. Lakshmi was her teacher. Through her she got to know M. Krishnan, younger brother of Lakshmi, who was also studying in the college. Even as a student, Bagyalakshmi was deeply involved in the freedom struggle and was a volunteer for the National Congress meet held in Chennai in 1927. After getting a degree in teaching, she worked in Chennai and Nellore as a school teacher. In 1939, with the money collected by some friends she boarded a ship to go to London for higher studies. When the ship approached Suez, the news of the war breaking out reached her and she had to return to India.

The next year, while on a trip to Agra she met Shankar Ayyer, a chartered accountant and the acquaintance led to their marriage. They settled in Delhi and their children were studying in Doon school when Shankar Ayyer died in an air crash in 1953.When she found it a struggle to keep the children in school, the management appointed her a teacher and the children could continue their education. The eldest of their four children is Mani Shankar Ayyer, former Panchayat Minister in the Centre. The second son is the journalist-economist Swaminatha Ayyer. The third, daughter Tara Ramkumar, worked with the Tatas and lives in Mumbai. The fourth, Mukunthan, a medical doctor, died young.

Bagyalakshmi, after retirement, stayed in an ashram in Rishikesh and started writing. Based on her conversations with Swami Krishnananda, she has written two books in English. (I could not lay my hands on them). Towards the end of her life, she joined the order in the ashram and assumed the name Raamamayananda. On July 18, 1988 she passed away in her son Mani Shankar Ayyer's home in Delhi.

Filling a gap

When she began her career as a teacher in the south, she realised that there was really very little as children's literature in Tamil and the kids were fed on outlandish English nursery rhymes. This observation motivated her to write poems for children. Krishnan, her friend from college days, agreed to provide the illustrations. The result was a book of songs that are as appealing as they are evocative. Written tightly, with short verses, her rhymes are familiar and flowing. Tamil savant T.K. Chidamaranathan, based in Courtallam, was the sounding board for her songs. He once wrote to her, “Your poems hug the children and talk to them: so are endearing.” I could not find out if she had written any other books for children. There is a timelessness about these songs and they could be owned by any generation.