Indian films are known for their song and dance sequences. While the “dance” component tends to have gotten more attention nowadays with a must-have item number by a high-valued start providing guest appearance, the “song” aspect was more prevalent in the earlier years (70’s or before), where the dance was aped mostly from the slightly stale western favorites like Twist and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Songs also came about in various moods – sad (soga paadal), happy, party, and probably more so in Thamizh films, philosophical.
Kaviarasu Kanndasan (கவியரசு கண்ணதாசன்) was famed for his songs that had deep philosophical connotations put in almost Beatles-esque terms. T. M. Soundararajan led the pack (along with P. B. Srinivas) in bringing those to life. Most songs were enacted (or in case of some actors, overacted) by Sivaji, MGR, Jai Shankar, and Gemini Ganesan, among others.
One such everlasting song is from the film Paadakaanikkai (பாதகாணிக்கை). The song starts like this:
வீடு வரை உறவு
வீதி வரை மனைவி
காடு வரை பிள்ளை
கடைசி வரை யாரோ?
veedu varai uravu
veedhi varai manaivi
kAdu varai pillai
kadaisi varai yaaro?
Translation: (When you die), relatives mourn for you at the house, the wife comes till the street, the son accompanies you till the cemetery. Who comes with you forever (no one)? Four simple lines that explains the transient nature of our lives. We can build as many relationships as we want, but can’t carry any of them with us when we die.
Such contemplation on the futility of material attachments is not new. In fact, long before Kannadasan, this has been explored in depth by the famous Siddhars, with Pattinathaar being the more popular one. We will hopefully explore Siddhars and their background a bit later, but here’s one from Pattinathar that might have been the inspiration for Kannadasan.
அந்தமும் வாழ்வும் அகத்து மட்டே
விழி அம்பொழுக மெத்திய மாதரும் வீதி மட்டே
விம்மி விம்மி இரு கை தலை மேல் வைத்து அழும் மைந்தரும் சுடுகாடு மட்டே
பற்றித் தொடரும் இரு வினை புண்ணியம் பாவமுமே.
andhamum vAzhvum agathu matte
vizhi ambozhuga methiya mAdharum veedhi matte
vimmi vimmi iru kai thalai mel vaithu azhum maindharum sudukAdu matte
patrith thodarum iru vinai punniyam pAvamume
Pattinathar is a lot more elaborate and ornate than the more succinct Kannadasan. With no audio and visual support he simply paints a picture with his words for the reader to visualize the scene!
Fun and relations is within the home.
Women (wife or ‘anyone’ else for that matter) who looked at you lovingly in bed come only till the street.
Sons who hold their head with both their hands and sob uncontrollably are only till the cemetery.
The only thing that are stuck with you are the good and bad deeds you did in your lifetime.
Where Kannadasan left an open question at the end, Pattinathar is fairly unambiguous in his assertion.
When taken literally, it can be interpreted similar to Kannadasan – material attachments do not come to you. As we dig a bit more, a few more perspectives come to mind. When someone dies, we remember their face or their structure for a few days or maybe weeks (unassisted by photos). Then the physical memories slowly start to fade away and what remains are their actions – whether they led a good life, whether they treated others well, whether they were philanthropic or kanjoos, etc.
Nothing “sticks” other than the paavam and punniyam they accumulated in their lifetime, and even that fades away over time. Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa talks about the story of Dilipa that beautifully explains this eventual fading, that is worth a read.