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Music with a message

CHITRA SWAMINATHAN

For over five decades Subbu Arumugam has been fostering the art of villu pattu. With rare innovative flair, the artiste and his family have redefined the folk tradition to appeal to the common people.

Lord Rama broke Parasurama's bow (villu) to win Sita's hand in marriage. Subbu Arumugam creates music with the bow to win people's hearts.

Made from a special and rarely found palm tree in Tirunelveli, Arumugam's villu is as strong as Parasurama's and his perseverance, as good as the Lord's.

But for this ardent practitioner, villu pattu, like many other folk arts, would have faded into oblivion. Today, only a few continue to make this unique weapon-cum-musical instrument in Tirunelveli (its birthplace). Fewer know to play it.

For more than 50 years, Arumugam has been breathing life into villu pattu with creative flair. So much that it now boasts of a repertoire that includes contemporary themes for a wider appeal.

Despite being the sole saviour of a dying art, Arumugam's humbleness tugs at your heartstrings. There's an old world charm about him — the cheerful vanakkam, chaste Tirunelveli dialect, disciplined living and dignified conduct.

Surprisingly, his son and daughters have not only inherited an artistic treasure house, but their father's unassuming ways too.

All the three were initiated into the art at a young age and despite modern compulsions have preferred to keep the family legacy intact.

The son, Gandhi (named after the Mahatma) is an expert udukai player, while the younger daughter Bharati (named after Bharatiyar), proficient in Carnatic music, lends a classical touch to this folk art.

Along with their artistic pursuits, the trio have excelled in academics too.

Arumugam himself has earned a rare distinction as a folk artiste because of his literary skills. "Many of the villu pattu artistes in Tirunelveli have either given up or are in dire straits. But my writing helped me survive," he says. He penned stories and songs with a right mix of humour and message.

It was actually a four-line verse written on-the-spot at the request of yesteryear comedian, N.S.Krishnan that marked a turning point in Arumugam's life. It launched him as a comedy script, dialogue and lyric writer in Tamil movies. Money and fame followed. Thus, Arumugam had a hand in NSK's success!

However, after the popular actor's death, Arumugam's career faced a lull — albeit temporarily. "The All India Radio offered a prime slot on Sundays to me. I did a year-long series on Mahatma Gandhi's life for children. It was a big hit. One programme led to another. "Nehru's Nava Bharatham, life history of Bharatiyar, social themes and devotionals like Karunai Kadal Kanchi Kamakshi, Valli Thirumanam, Adi Sankara etc., have been relayed by AIR, being telecast by various TV channels and are performed on stage."

Arumugam's second innings in films began when Nagesh became a sought-after comedian. Many of the almost 60 films for which he wrote the dialogue (for Nagesh) became quite a rage — Chinnanchiru Ulagam, Ulagam Ivvalavu Than, Selva Magal, Sorgam, Veetukku Oru Pillai, Annai Abhirami et al. And Arumugam made sure that his work always carried the folk touch.

With recognition came awards — Kalaimamani in 1975, D.Litt by the World Academy of Arts and Culture, California (1995) and Asthan Vidwan of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam (1992).

But what Arumugam cherishes most is his association with the Paramacharya. His talk is replete with memories of the seer and his puja room is full of his photographs. "I happened to meet him one day at a function in Madras. I was then working for films. That one meeting left such a deep impact that I decided to leave the superficial world of films and do something to derive spiritual satisfaction," recalls Arumugam.

He sought the Paramacharya's blessings to work on Thirunavukkarasu's life, and later took up the Ramayana and Mahabharatha. And as a tribute to the Paramacharya, he wrote "Kaladi mudal Kanchi varai", a two-and-a-half hour story.

Another rare honour for the artiste and his art is the performance at Thiruvaiyaru during the Tygaraja aradhana for the past 10 years. "I am indebted to violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan for this".

Despite its busy schedule, Arumugam's family enthusiastically accepts offers to teach interested youngsters. "We have worked with the students of the Rosary Matriculation, Padma Seshadri, etc.

We provide the instruments, compositions and train them to perform in authentic style," says Bharathi.

Though the family aspires to open a training school, it lacks the required infrastructure and passionate learners.

The Annamalai University once invited Arumugam to advise on its plans to incorporate villu pattu in the curriculum.

A delighted Arumugam placed six conditions for the students — integrity of character, literary knowledge, patriotism, sense of humour, and knowledge of music and drama. Apparently, the plan never came through.

"I am very touchy about my art and cannot let anybody destroy its purity," he says emphatically.

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