In mythology, Vaali was a king of the apes — one who could soak up the powers of his enemies as well, to bolster himself. And likewise, young Rangarajan, aspiring to be a caricature artist, took on the name of Vaali — a spoof on the name of the then best-known artist Maali — but succeeded over five decades in a competitive field as cinema lyric writing, going from strength to strength just by adapting himself.
Born S Rangarajan in Thiruparaithurai near Tiruchy, the boy fancied becoming a portrait painter. He drew a picture of Bharathi on his house wall and Bharathi’s tearful daughter, Thankammal would say it was like seeing her father again.
His hobby was to make sketches of VIPs and get their autographs when their trains stopped in Srirangam junction. Once Kamaraj autographed the picture and hinted that Rajaji was in the next compartment.
Rangarajan had a picture of Rajaji as well and went over. Rajaji scribbled something and when the aspiring artist protested that it wasn’t his signature, Rajaji retorted, “neither is that my picture”. Thinking his vocation and passion were the same, he would study in Madras School of Arts under Roy Choudhury, training to be a commercial painter for a year when he got an apprehension he just couldn’t make it as a painter.
Dropping out and back home, creative Vaali, morphed into a theatre enthusiast. He wrote and directed many plays in Tiruchy. He also penned his earliest poetry but only to sustain the flow of the drama. Vaali still hadn’t started thinking of himself as a poet but did turn out some gems from his pen. In an era when atheism was the fore, Vaali brought up in those times of DK activism, terming god as imagination and a piece of stone, used their own words to start a religious song. He scribed it on a postcard and sent it to a top singer TM Soundararajan.
‘Karpanai Endralum, Karchilai Endralum...’ (even if they term you as a figment of imagination or just a statue of stone, I revere you). TMS, who loved it, composed its music and sung it for the radio in Chennai. The song is still very popular at temple festivals across Tamil Nadu after 70 years.
Urged by many to come to the Mecca of entertainment, Madras, Vaali moved towns and took up a Triplicane mansion room for Rs 5 rent.
Lady luck seemed to smile and it took only 10 days to write his first song in Madras. But it was still a struggle and once when he decided to return home defeated, poor and hungry, he overheard a very optimistic song written by the reigning king of cinema lyrics, Kannadasan, booming from a speaker. Surcharged with newfound optimism, Vaali returned to his room. Ironically, he would ascend to be perhaps the only poet who ever gave Kannadasan a run for his money.
Vaali’s chance came through soon enough. Both MGR and Kannadasan were highly egoistic artists and when a fissure occurred between them, MGR vowed he would never mouth Kannadasan’s words again.
Vaali was brought in and one of the most prolific liaisons between a poet and lead star commenced. Vaali spun magical hits one after another.
His words often spelt the framework of the social image MGR was building for himself. No wonder Vaali’s association with MGR corresponded with the latter’s rise to heroic renown and soon translated to political realisation. The DMK would beat a couple of Vaali’s songs threadbare in the 1967 elections to get their point across to the electorate. A broad-minded Annadurai after the election would acknowledge to Vaali, “your poetry propelled us to the fort”.
Even when contemporary stalwarts were gone and long-buried, Vaali survived by adapting to the new generation. Adding English and other language words and punning in the two languages he created songs for the new-gen music directors. Teenagers humming the latest Tamil rap on the streets little realised it was written by somebody older than their grandfather. Vaali was soon known as ‘Vaaliba kavignar’ (youthful lyricist). This was when he was often accused of being vulgar and double-meaning lyrics.
In total, Vaali wrote over 15,000 poems over a wide plethora of genres and generations that have been important in film and political history.
Though it was well paying (some companies used to send blank cheques to Vaali allowing him to fill in what his song was worth), Vaali was intent he should be recognised in other forms of literature as well. He took up the classics as Ramayana and Mahabharata and retold them in free verse. Ramayana (Avathara Purushan), and Mahabharata (Pandavar Bhoomi) enthralled the common man who had kept away from Valmiki and Vyasa and Kamban.
Vaali also wrote stories for films of which one needs a special mention mainly because Vaali was always thought of as pro-establishment. ‘Orey Oru Gramathiley’ in which a Brahmin protagonist, the daughter of a government employee, pretends to be from the Adi Dravidar community to avail reservation and becomes a District Collector. The Tamil Nadu government stopped the release citing law and order problems. The filmmakers, however, approached the Supreme Court, which held up their right to speech and expression and the film won a national award. — The writer is a historian and an author