CHENNAI: When we think back to the freedom struggle, we are usually inundated with images of the brutalities our people faced during the colonial times, the impactful movements led by our freedom fighters, and the culmination of it all, 75 years ago when we first called ourselves a free nation. And while the fighters organised long marches, Satyagrahas and strikes for years, it was the poets and musicians that brought the endurance to carry it on.
Shedding light on these artists, historian Meenakshi Devaraj elaborated on the ‘Songs that boosted the freedom movement in Tamil Nadu’ in a talk hosted by The Golden Connect on Saturday. “No matter what movement you look at — even if it is as recent as the Jallikattu protests — there is always a slogan or song needed. Every movement has one. And the freedom movement was no short affair, it was stretched out across years and so, to keep spirits high throughout all this time, they needed songs,” she began.
But it was not just the songs that impacted the movement. Around 1906, songwriting in Tamil Nadu saw a transformation from music in a language that followed rigid grammar rules (that were not easily accessible to the common man) to simpler Tamil that could resonate and enrapture the masses. “Tamil poems then became accessible to all. Anything that is not understandable by the common man will not reach much success. And so came about the easy language that accelerated the movement in Tamil Nadu as more people could understand it,” she added.
As the music spread to the masses, it also saw its purpose beyond acts of the freedom struggle. People began performing them at weddings, birthdays, and even at funerals. Much like how film songs are now a common occurrence at family functions, desiya kutcheris began using these songs at functions in freedom fighters’ households. It seemed the population was completely dedicated to patriotic songs.
Poets and people
Several poets, who still hold a special place in the hearts of the people, began emerging with impactful verses at the time, Meenakshi explained. “One of them was Madurai Bhaskeradass, whose famous song called Gandiyo Paramaya Ezhai Sanyasi was about Gandhi which he had the opportunity to play once in front of the freedom fighter himself. Then there was Subramania Bharathiyar, whose song Endru Thaniyam Engal Sudathira Thaagam was a cry asking about when our freedom thirst will end; this also began to be performed at the funerals of freedom fighters.
Despite not being able to witness the freedom he fought for, there were many songs of his that would visualise what a free India would look like in songs like Sindhu Nathiyin Isai Nilavinile and Aduvome Palli Paduvome. The latter was performed by DK Pattamal on AIR in 1947 when Independence was attained. He also wrote several other famous songs such as Achchamillai Achchamillai Achchamenbathilaiye and Jeya Berigai Kottada that provided people energy and spirit, and continues to do so still. He also wrote a song called Berigai Kottada for his daughter. Since he was not a very wealthy man, instead of gift-giving, he would write poems for his daughter Thangamal when he felt happy or thought she deserved something, and Sindhu Nathiyin Isai Nilavinile,” she said.
Along with these revolutionaries was another poet Namakkal Kavignar, whose song Kathi Indri Raaththam Indri was inspired by an article of Mahatma Gandhi on ahimsa. It was also sung during the salt Satyagraha at Vedaranam. At the time, AK Chettiar was creating a documentary on Mahatma Gandhi. For the same, he was to use a scene of women singing at the wheel, inspired by an image of 200 women from Tirupur that he saw in the newspaper. Namakkal’s music became the background score for this scene.
Voices heard and hidden
“Bharathiyar would sing his own songs in such an emotional way and Sangu Subramanium was the same. He would carry the same performance, jam-packed with emotions. It was as if Bharathiyar sang the song. He caught the audience’s attention,” Meenakshi expressed. There was also the Desa Bhakta Samajiyam established by Subramania Siva, whose members went around Madras for seven months and popularised these songs, mainly written by Bharathiyar.
But it was not merely the men who were offering their talents. Meenakshi points to women like Pandithai Asalaambigai Ammaiyaar, who had two main works the Gandhi Puranam and the Thilagam Puranam. “It was still a rigid society then and unfortunately, not much has been documented about the works of women at the time,” she shared.
These songs may have been written decades ago, but they still find their way to the hearts of people today. “These are not ordinary songs, it was their emotions that the poets had for their nation,” she added.