The villu to keep it going

Subbu Arumugam on a time when artistes were revered for their craft, and the changes that lent the city new character

January 05, 2010 04:08 pm | Updated 05:01 pm IST

Chennai: 04/01/2010: Metroplus: Subbu Arumugam performing the Villu Pattu Programme

Chennai: 04/01/2010: Metroplus: Subbu Arumugam performing the Villu Pattu Programme

Where we grew up (in Tirunelveli), Chennai was considered a faraway place, called ‘vadakathi seemai'. We were a satisfied, artistic lot, with great love for Tamil (even the boy working in a grocery store could recite the Tholkappiyam and Manickavasagam ) and leaving home was never on our minds. It was N.S. Krishnan who brought me to Chennai in 1948, to help popularise Gandhiji's life story, using Kalki's Maandharul Oru Deivam , based on My Experiments with Truth . The show premiered in M.S. amma's house in Kilpauk.

A hundred years ago, Saint Ramalingar called Madras a city with values ( Dharumamigu Chennai ). And, that was how it was when I came here. I used to stay at NSK Nadaga Sabha, on Venkataraman Street in T. Nagar, along with about a hundred artistes. There were actors, but poets were more revered.

I was the only vegetarian there, and was longing to get back home and to regular food. Knowing this, NSK arranged for a vegetarian cook from Mylapore. That was how people, even the renowned ones, took care of artistes. And, discipline was recognised, not reviled as it is now.

Plurality was accepted. I was a staunch believer; though NSK, Periyar, Annadurai and Bharathidasan (all atheists) would visit us at the studio, no one would pass comments about my vibhuti-kungumam . That was also the time when T. Nagar was not as bustling as it is today. Panagal Park had some activity, but North Usman Road was something we dreaded crossing after 5 p.m. And, there was no South Usman Road.

Then, you had narrow streets and wide hearts, now it is the other way round. If there is one thing that has not changed, it is the attitude of people; they are always in some kind of a rush, restless to achieve something. It is like riding a poi kaal kudhirai . They keep moving, and get tired, but there is no progress.

Those days, only those who knew music wrote poetry. I soon graduated to writing comedy tracks for films, and worked with NSK, Nagesh and Sivaji Ganesan. I would go to the sets and write the tracks. The Madras of yore was also a place where refined humour thrived. Today, when I see what it has been reduced to, I feel sad. It is all about pulling someone's legs, making fun of someone's defects, etc.

The coming up of some institutions changed the way Madras thought, socially and religiously. Valluvar Kottam used to be a dumpyard before this beautiful structure came up and transformed the place; so did the Sarva Samaya Temple at Ramakrishna Mutt.

The beach was where great people such as MGR and Anna used to walk. Did you know Gandhiji used to walk near the First Line Beach when he came here?

What is now Kodambakkam High Road was a horse-cart track in the 1950s; there was only Vijaya Sound Recording and the Vadapalani temple. We would pay two-and-a-half annas from Periyar Street to go to the temple. The area developed after other studios came up.

The music season then was full of soul; when you listened to M.S. amma, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Kitappa-Sundarambal, you were transported elsewhere. And, they would willingly perform what the audience requested.

Madras' Tamil has got many people's goat. I think it is because of the confluence of people from across the country. Once, my Tamil teacher, scholar Navaneetha Krishnan Pillai came here to correct board exam papers. He got into a bus and the conductor addressed him in the singular. He got out, considering it an insult, little knowing that this was how people spoke here. He got in and out of many buses that day!

The one thing I truly miss about Madras? Those days, people would love talking and helping the other; today we force ourselves to make pleasant conversation!

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