Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous. – Bill Moyers, Journalist
In literature and elsewhere, we enjoy the works of various artists through their works. They provide a shining light on the genius and talent of these artists, making us bask in the glory of their creativity. However, such a view to the artist is like watching a protagonist in a movie – it edits out all the mundane activities of the hero, focusing mainly on the key events that align with the storyline and the events leading up to them.
One might ask – do we really need to know anything about the mundane activities? How does it matter when they woke up, whether they showered, ate, or wandered around? Isn’t that after all the value in editing a broader event?
While this is true, we can’t help but wonder what happens behind the scenes of a play. Do the mundane lives of these maestros give us insights into how they developed their genius or was it just a God-given gift that just happened magically? Did the artists practice their art only during key occasions or did they practice them during their daily routine as well? Did they do it only for money or did they entertain those surrounding them?
While the lives of some artists are well documented, the sands of time have obscured others, especially those from earlier Indian literature, where the practice of having a biography written was not common. So, literary archeologists are left with excerpts here and there that are part of other narratives (called தனிப் பாடல்கள் – thani paadalgaL – individual songs) that they then have to piece together to get a glimpse of the life and times of an artist.
Recently, we came across a couple of books in this category by the author Puliyur Kesikan on two poets – Kamban and KaLamEgam.
The author has attempted a literary expedition on the life of these poets by piecing together information available from multiple sources and is a pleasure to read. It also gives us an interesting and entertaining glimpse into these famous and prolific poets of Thamizh, as well as some glimpses into the life and times of their periods.
Whiter than white
Kamban was a handsome person and took care about how he looked. There was a washerman called சீராமன் (Sriraman) who had a lot of respect for Kamban’s poetic skills and offered to wash his clothes everyday, and did so without fail. One such day when Kamban was having a discussion with his friends, Sriraman knocked the door. Kamban received him and took the washed clothes from him. He was so impressed by the impeccable cleanliness of the washed clothes that he sang impromptu:
சிரம் பார்த்தான் ஈசன்; அயன் தேவி தனை பார்த்தான்;
கரம் பார்த்தான் செங்கமல கண்ணன்; உரம் சேர்
மலை வெளுத்த திண் புயத்து வண்ணான் சீராமன்
கலை வெளுத்த நேர்த்தி தனை கண்டு
Lord Shiva checked his head. Brahma checked his wife. Lord Vishnu checked his hand. They did so being impressed by the skill of the washerman Sriraman who can make a mountain turn white due to his arm power.
In olden days (even as recently as a few decades back) when there was no washing machines, clothes were washed with soap and water and then beaten against a washing stone to get rid of the dirt. This requires powerful arms. Kamban exclaims that Sriraman’s arms are so powerful that the washing stone that is normally dark turns white! He also goes a step further and states that even the three Gods are so impressed by the whiteness of the clothes that Shiva checks if the moon atop his hair is still there, Brahma checks if Saraswati who sits on a white lotus left him, and Vishnu checks if his white conch is still in his hand!
Kamban’s friends are surprised that such a great poet is speaking so highly of a normal washerman. Kamban responds: “Like how you all praise me if I go above and beyond at my job (when I sing a good song), so do I appreciate the washerman who does the same with his work!”
Even in mundane situations, great poets display their humility and appreciation of others’ work!
A small Thamizh aside – one of the interesting literary aspects of Thamizh is a concept called ஆகு பெயர் (aagu peyar) or a word that explains a function that it describes. வண்ணான் (vaNNaan) is one such word that can be taken as vaNNam thanthaan or vaNNam kaathaan – one who gives or preserves color. Washermen in those days did the job of both washing clothes (preserving color) and also dying clothes (giving color).
A close shave
Similarly, when Kamban was waiting in Chidambaram to present his RAmAyanam to the king, he got a haircut at the local barber shop. He was quite impressed with the work of the barber that he praised him with a song.
ஆர் ஆர் தலை வணங்கார் ஆர் ஆர் தான் ஏடார்
ஆர் ஆர் தான் சத்திரத்தில் ஆறாதார் – சீர் ஆகும்
தென் புலியூர் மேவும் சிவன் அருள் சேர் அம்பட்ட
தம்பிபுகான் வாசலிலே தான்
Who doesn’t bow? Who doesn’t raise their hand? Who doesn’t get healed at his knife? Everyone queues up in front of ThambipugAn’s barber shop in Chidambaram.
Bowing one’s head and raising one’s hands above the head (doing a salutation) is a mark of respect shown to those who are higher in stature (by their knowledge or profession). Also, in order to get one’s hair shaved, a person has to bow their head or raise one’s hand (to remove armpit hair). Kamban cleverly uses this analogy and exclaims that the barber ThambipugAn’s work is so good that everyone queues up in front of his shop and are ready to provide him respect!
Another interesting aside here to note is that in those days a barber was more than one who shaved or trimmed hair. They were akin to cosmetic surgeons and were involved in all aspects of beautification, including doing cosmetic surgeries (such as potentially removing warts, etc.). Hence Kamban refers to people getting healed with the barber’s knife.
Much like today’s online reviews, a good or bad review could make or break the reputation of a business. Since there was no Internet then, poets at times served as critics and conveyed the good or bad reputation of someone or some business through their songs. As a result, they were likely both revered and feared.
காளமேகம் (KaLamEgam) was another prolific poet who sang an immortal song on one such instance. He was in the town of Nagapattinam where there was a popular eatery run by a person called காத்தான் (kaathaan). However, the service was quite bad and it took a very long time for the poet to get his food. Frustrated, he sang the following song:
கத்துக் கடல் சூழ் நாகை காத்தான் தான் சத்திரத்தில்
அத்தமிக்கும் போதில் அரிசி வரும் – குத்தி
உலையில் இட ஊர் அடங்கும் ஓர் அகப்பை அன்னம்
இலையில் இட வெள்ளி எழும்
In the city of Nagapattinam that is surrounded by roaring oceans where Kaathaan has a restaurant, the sun will set by the time rice is procured; the city will be quiet by the time the rice is kept in the pot for cooking; and Venus will rise (be almost dawn) by the time the cooked rice comes to the plate!
On hearing the news about the song, the owner realizes that his visitor was no ordinary person but a powerful critic and immediately heads over to him requesting him to forgive the bad service. Being a kind person and also known for his play of words, kALamEgam changes the meaning of the song:
In the city of Nagapattinam that is surrounded by roaring oceans where Kaathaan has a restaurant, rice will come in bulk even when there is famine (dusk is rephrased as the time when good fortune sets), there will be so much food that the city folks will be sated (quite because they are so well fed), and the cooked white rice that falls on the plate will look as if the Venus has risen!
The bad side of an ash gourd (பூசணிக்காய்)
In another instance relating to food, KALamEgam visits a family in a town called கொண்டத்தூர் (KoNdathoor). Unfortunately, the food was so inedible there that the poet burst into a song:
கண்டால் கிட்டும் கைலாயம் கை கொண்டு உள்
கொண்டக்கால் மோட்சம் கொடுக்குமே – கொண்டத்தூர்
தண்டை கால் அம்மை சமைத்து வைத்த பூசணிக்காய்
அண்டர்க்கு ஆம் ஈசருக்கும் ஆம்
If one looks at it, they will feel as if they have died and gone to heaven; if they take a bite, they will surely achieve salvation. Such is the power of the ash gourd dish that is made by the lady of the house in KoNdathoor – such a food is only fit for the Gods and Shiva!
Though seemingly praiseworthy at a first glance, the poet is sarcastic here implying that the food is so bad that looking at it will make one feel like they are close to death and if they take a bite, they will surely die. It is so poisonous that maybe only the immortal Gods will survive the food and maybe Lord Shiva who willingly drank poison may like it as well!
It is interesting to see the informal side of great poets through such anecdotes. Not only does it make them more human, it also tells us quite a bit about their times. It seems that there was a healthy respect for someone who achieves literary heights and people revered and respected them for their greatness, willingly offering them support. We can also see that the greatness of these poets not only lie in their art but also in their daily actions where they showed humility towards other members in the community regardless of caste or creed – focusing mainly on their merits. We also see that they had a sense of humor and dry wit with them, which helped them get out of tricky situations and hurt egos. It will be wise for us to keep these in mind as they may come handy in our daily lives as well.
- KALamEgam thani paadalgaL by PuliyUr kEsikan – Ram Publications (available at Higginbothams, Chennai and likely other places)
- Kamban thani paadalgaL by PuliyUr kEsikan – Ram Publications (available at Higginbothams, Chennai and likely other places)
- Image source: Washerman, Barber, Ash Gourd Stir Fry (and recipe, not the one described in the poem!)