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Suradha: The poet of similes

Subburathinam, a young poet from Pondicherry, chose as his nom de plume Bharatidasan (Bharati’s disciple), but would have scarce imagined that a young poet would go on to adopt his name.

T. Rajagopal, born a century ago in Pazhaiyanur, in present-day Tiruvarur district, called himself Subbu-Rathina-Dasan — in short, Suradha.

It was 1938 and Pondicherry was still a French enclave when Bharatidasan’s first collection of poems appeared. A landmark book, it was arranged in terms of narrative poems, poems on nature, language, women’s rights, love, etc., a template that proved inspirational. Suradha was 20 when he decided he wanted to meet his hero but with no money to travel, he spent a week whitewashing the walls of the famous Keevalur temple, the dripping limewash blistering his forearms. He earned a rupee and a half for his efforts and immediately jumped on a train to Pondicherry. Meeting Bharatidasan and working as his assistant proved a turning point.

In 1947, the literary journal Ponni lined up 47 young poets belonging to the Bharatidasan paramparai or poetic dynasty, and Suradha topped the list. Over the years, as many others slipped by the wayside, he continued to stand tall. Thaenmazhai (‘A Shower of Honey’) published in 1965 confirmed Suradha’s status as a poet of note.

The decade following the first anti-Hindi agitation (1937-39) and the rise of the Dravidian movement were heady days for aspiring writers. The lure of celluloid was irresistible. As early as 1944, the star singer-actor P.U. Chinnappa chose Suradha to script Mangaiyarkarasi. M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar commissioned Suradha to write lyrics for his Amarakavi. In 1953, it was MGR’s turn: Suradha wrote the dialogues for Genoa (1953) and a few lyrics (‘Kannil vanthu minnal pol’) for the blockbuster Nadodi Mannan (1958). Never fully entering cinema, Suradha penned lyrics off and on over the next two decades. Some of them became classics — ‘Amudhum thenum edharkku’ (Thai Piranthal Vazhi Pirakkum, 1958), ‘Vasantha kalam varumo’ (Marakka Mudiyuma, 1966) and ‘Aadi adangum vazhkaiyada’ (‘Neerkumizhi’, 1964).

Suradha, whose death anniversary falls tomorrow, did not believe in prolificacy. Convinced that poetry was ‘like mathematics’, he crafted it rather than reeling off verses. Similes were his speciality, and it won him the moniker, uvamai kavignar, the poet of similes. The crescent moon was an elephant’s tusk. A twirled moustache was a supine question mark. A mountain range was as long as Chandilyan’s historical romances.

Suradha: The poet of similes

Suradha was also famous for coining innovative phrases. Once he described the funeral bier as ‘a legless bedstead’. He had a knack for compiling data, making lists and turning them into poetry. For instance, a poem on Subramania Bharati listed, in rhythmic metre, earlier poets carrying the name ‘Bharati’. ‘Vinnukku meladai, paruva mazhai megam’ in K. Balachander’s Naanal is an excellent example of this style. Sometimes Suradha tried too hard, and the results were contrived.

He was also obsessed with literary minutiae and would glean choice titbits to weave into his poems. Literary stalwarts of the late 19th century fascinated him, and he wrote poems in praise of the unsung Pinnathur Narayanaswamy Iyer, Pamban Swamigal and Gnaniyar Adigal. The erotic and the bawdy held a special fascination, and apart from the thread of eroticism in much of his poetry, he published a book of erotic essays in the aptly titled Echil Eravu (‘Saliva Night’).

Suradha’s interest in films and his enthusiasm for offbeat themes led him, in 1971, to write a series of long poems in Ananda Vikatan based on trivialities about film actresses. Literary readers were aghast, but Suradha cared little. To make it worse, he put these together into a book, Suvarum Sunnambum.

Suradha was steeped in medieval Tamil literature and relished the most unlikely texts. Kalladam, a 13th-century Tamil classic with 100 long poems on Shiva was a special favourite; he even named his only son Kalladan. He was also besotted with Annamalai Reddiar’s Kavadi Chindus. Charmed by the verbal acrobatics and phrasal jugglery of pre-colonial poetry, he used some of these techniques in his work. In a manner of speaking, Suradha filled new wine in old bottles. Even though he wrote only in traditional metres and shunned free verse, the new generation of pudukavithai writers of the 1970s, especially of the Vandambadi tradition, claimed him as their precursor.

Suradha: The poet of similes

Thus, in some ways, Suradha was a poets’ poet. There is a long Tamil tradition of senior scholars penning forewords in verse (the ‘sirappu payiram’) to endorse a book. Suradha wrote innumerable such prefatory poems. He charged a fee for it but the queue was long. I recall painter-poet Amudhone waiting months for a foreword to his Manmada Ragam. Travelling across Tamil Nadu and addressing literary meetings, Suradha made his livelihood by charging a speaking fee and selling his self-published books.

Suradha was an antiquarian, bibliophile and anthologist, and despite his meagre means, amassed a huge collection — a part of it was sadly lost when his K.K. Nagar home in Chennai was flooded; another part, luckily, is housed in the Roja Muthiah Research Library.

Unable to exhaust his research in poetry, Suradha compiled several interesting anthologies: Sonnargal (a book of quotations); Sirandha Sorpozhivugal (an anthology of speeches); Vetta Velicham and Munnum Pinnum (both compilations of literary titbits). My favourite is the slim Nenjil Niruthungal that puts together an interesting set of cultural documents of the late 19th and early 20th century.

When Stephen Spender, on his first meeting with T.S. Eliot, said he wanted to be a poet, Eliot is said to have objected, ‘I can understand you wanting to write poems, but I don’t quite know what you mean by “being a poet”?’ Suradha didn’t just write poems — he was a poet.

An eccentric man, he had a sharp tongue, which could both delight and offend. To be in Suradha’s company and listen to his rambling conversation with occasional flashes of brilliance was quite an experience. Living in the same neighbourhood as Suradha, I often saw him walk on the streets at all times of the day, dressed in his regulation white vetti, jibba and coloured stole. As a 15-year-old, I was part of the welcoming committee for his 60th birthday celebrations, held in 1982 at Rajaji Hall by the Dravidian politician, S.D. Somasundaram, his boyhood friend. Four decades later, it is gratifying to pay tribute to the poet on his centenary.

The writer is a historian

and Tamil author.


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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 11:27:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/suradha-the-poet-of-similes/article34841499.ece

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