This judge sang away his blues

Vedanayagam Pillai had a song for each occasion

April 13, 2017 05:01 pm | Updated 05:01 pm IST

Interior of the Governor's bungalow, Tharangampadi

Interior of the Governor's bungalow, Tharangampadi

Tharangambadi is a great holiday destination. There is a certain magic in the Dansborg Fort and the surrounding Danish town. The proximity of the sea adds to the splendour of the place.

In the past few months, the Governor’s Residence, an 18th century building in the neo-classical style, has been restored and opened to the public. Its best known resident was the Danish Governor Peter Anker, who not only presided over the fortunes of Tharangambadi for two decades and more but also made sketches of life in the region, all now carefully preserved in Denmark.

What is less known is that once the Danes sold Tharangambadi to the British in 1845, this building served as the District Sessions Court till that office shifted to Nagapattinam in 1873. The Courts shifted back to the same building in 1878 before moving to Nagapattinam once again in 1884.

Among the first Indians to be drafted into the lower judiciary was the composer Vedanayagam Pillai. He was, according to the Tharangambadi guidebook, “appointed as a Record Room Keeper in the District Court Trichy and then worked as Language translator within the court. In 1851 he was promoted as District Judge and posted to Tharangambadi at first.”

Considering that he was born in 1826, Vedanayagam Pillai must have been only 25 when he was appointed District Judge, a post also referred to as Munsiff. This, however, appears to be erroneous for the Tamil translation of the same book (referred to above) gives the date of appointment as 1857, in which case he was still a youngish 31. That makes for a Carnatic music connect with this most unlikely of places. But then Tharangambadi has one more link — it is the place from which Panchanada Iyer, a disciple of Subbaraya Sastry came. He is best known for his composition, ‘Birana Brova Ide Manchi Samayamu,’ in Kalyani. As to where he lived in this town we have no idea.

Vedanayagam Pillai’s life is better documented. The son of Savarimuthu Pillai and Arockiam Ammal, he is credited with being the author of the first Tamil novel — ‘Pratapa Mudaliar Charittiram.’ His friendship with Gopalakrishna Bharati has been written about by U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer.

A detailed account of his life and literary contributions by Lakshmi Devnath appeared in The Hindu dated Nov 1, 2002. A story on the sad condition of his place of rest too was published on Feb 27, 2014.

Courting reality

Vedanayagam Pillai wrote and published his ‘Neethi Nool’ in 1858, while he was in Tharangambadi. Of greater interest is the fact that he composed 14 songs on his experience in the judiciary. These, classified as Udyoga Sambanda Kirtanaigal, form part of his greater work — Sarva Samaya Samarasa Kirtanaigal.

A perusal of the lyrics reveals a person who was shocked at the corruption and lack of ethics in his profession. Some of them are worth quoting from. ‘Naane podu needi’ (Saveri/Adi) is clearly a song composed when he first took office, for it thanks God for bestowing the honour on him and also prays that he should have the capability to dispense justice without fear or favour. The song lists the various obstacles that could come in his way — bribes, advice from elders, sweet words of the vakil s and arrogance, which could make him rude to litigants.

‘Inda vazahakukkellaam’ (Saurashtram/Ata) lists the kind of cases a Munsiff can expect — polygamy, insolvency, property division, usurping of other’s lands and selling of spurious goods. The second charanam lists the false witnesses — a man posing to be a barren woman’s son, a blind man who saw a crime, a person who cannot speak being accused by a hearing-impaired man of having indulged in hate speech.

‘Appa idenna adikaaram’ (Nadanamakriya/Adi) laments about Munsiffs who have to listen to falsehoods throughout the day, thereby not having time for prayer.

‘Podum podum’ (Punnagavarali/Triputa) sings of the difficult position of a judge —subject to requests from all sides, hatred of those who lost cases, and the risk of having all judgments reversed by the Appellate Court.

There are songs criticising higher officials and their arrogant ways. One of these, ‘Ninaippadeppodu nenje’ (Nadanamakriya/Adi) has a significant line — when can we think of God if we work till death for these white rulers? This may qualify as one of the earliest songs in Tamil that calls for freedom from foreign rule.

It is, however, the songs on bribery — ‘Cheechee neer lanjam vaanginal’ (Saurashtram/Adi) and ‘Edukko vaangugirir lanjam’ (Sankarabharanam/Chapu) — that make for hilarious reading. Not much has changed since Vedanayagam Pillai’s times.

Not surprisingly, Pillai who was transferred to Mayuram in 1860, quit his job in disgust in1873. He spent his retirement in spiritual, literary and musical pursuits, passing away in 1889.

The author is passionate about Chennai history and Carnatic music and has several books to his credit

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