CHENNAI: In the 1950s and 60s, a youth from Jaffna, Sri Lanka, would keep audience in Tamil Nadu spellbound with his unmatched speed and adeptness at playing the thavil. Eventually, his talent and stage charisma made him famous all across the country and also abroad. It’s none other than the legendary Yazhpanam Thedchanamoorthy, whose story has grabbed national attention, all thanks to a documentary titled Yazhpanam Thedchanamoorthy — Music Beyond Boundaries by Chennai-based Amshan Kumar has won the National Award for Best Arts/Cultural Film.
“In Chennai, we take pride in being a hub of culture. But we promote a very narrow version of it. For instance, in the December season, not many sabhas give importance to thavil and nadaswaram, which are our native art forms. Not many would have even seen a thavil!” he says. Narrating an incident that took place during the release of his documentary, he said, “I had to explain to one of my acquaintances that it’s the instrument that actor Balaiah plays in the Tamil film Thillana Mohanambal.”
The film critic and documentary filmmaker got to know about Thedchanamoorthy when he heard two people discussing his work. “I hadn’t heard of him until then. When I first listened to his recorded performance, I was dazzled. That’s when I decided I should do this.”
From the 50s-70s, he explains, artists from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), would visit Tamil Nadu (and vice versa) to perform. “They were the cultural ambassadors and fostered peace during times when people were quarrelling over race and language,” he narrates. “He has accompanied legends like Karakuruchi P Arunachalam and Sheik Chinna Moulana.”
At that time, there were no sponsors or organisations. It was only temples which hosted these performers. “When I started out, there were only three photos of Thedchanamoorthy and while doing research, I gathered about 24 hours of his performances from various sources,” he adds.
Speaking about his experience in Sri Lanka, he says, “I had gone to Sri Lanka in April 2014 (during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime), when a documentary exposed the Tamil genocide. Naturally, they were suspicious and perhaps thought I had a hidden agenda — why would this man want to document the life of a thavil player who died in 1975?”
After a lot of red tape, they permitted him to shoot, but the ordeal was not over yet. “When I landed in Colombo with my crew, the immigration authorities stopped us. It took six hours for them to clear us,” he recalls. But things have now changed, and when he went back to Lanka for the film’s release a couple of months ago, the new government under Maithripala Sirisena was much more open and even appreciative of his documentary. Speaking about the National Award, he says, “I will simply continue doing what I do. I am happy it happened and it will encourage other documentary filmmakers.”
The film has one vital component missing — footage of the legend himself. “That is a big loss. We lack the culture of documenting things through film — we are poor that way. We have lost the chance to document several greats, for instance, Subramania Bharati.”
Searching for the Elusive Footage
When Amshan was making a documentary on Subramania Bharati in 1999, he faced the same problem — lack of footage. There were only five pictures of the legendary poet. His first documentary was on theatre in Kolkata featuring playwright Badal Sircar. Yazhpanam Thedchanamoorthy is his 24th documentary