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The bards of Madras: Saints to Nobel laureates

This panorama is dedicated to the poets of Madras who marked their presence even before the city was founded.

The bards of Madras: Saints to Nobel laureates
Illustration by Saai

CHENNAI: September marks the anniversary of Mahakavi Bharathiyar, who died unsung, ironically with less than a dozen fans following his cortege. And there arises a question.

Did Madras, which today is a cultural hub, treat its poets fittingly? Or were they flouted during their lifetimes?

This panorama is dedicated to the poets of Madras who marked their presence even before the city was founded.

And what a variety! They have been saints, Nobel laureates, freedom fighters, expatriates, Carnatic composers, and Persian lyricists in the mushairas (poetic symposiums) of the Nawab of Arcot who composed their verses in the city or while living here


Roughly half the sculptures on the Marina beach where most of Madras statuary is grouped are of poets. Kamban, Ilango, Bharathi, Bharathidasan, Avvai and Tiruvalluvar gaze proudly at the new capital of the Tamils which grows from strength to strength to the pinnacles of glory they envisaged many years back.

Madras honours its poets not only with statues but by naming its suburbs, universities and even the Secretariat after them.

Perhaps the second most powerful building in the State after the Legislative Assembly is the concrete monstrosity within the British fort.

It was named after Namakkal Kavignar, the first poet laureate of Madras post-Independence. Nowhere else was a gold coin made for a poet by an administrator born two continents away.

Madras collector Ellis minted a gold coin for the saint poet Tiruvalluvar.


Saints seem to have flocked to the geographical area that constituted Madras many centuries later.

The child saint Sambandha who is credited with having converted the Tamils back to Hinduism, from the Jain religion they followed, visited Mylapore in the seventh century and performed a miracle by singing a poem of his.

Poompavai, a Mylapore girl, had died of snakebite and Sambandha sings a song, asking her to come back to life to witness the various festivals of the temple. The Shaivite legend says the poem enabled the dead girl Poompavai to spring forth with her life restored.

Mylapore lass Poompavai is the only person mentioned 10 times in the Shaivite text Devaram.


Joseph Rudyard Kipling

Known now more for his jungle book, Joseph Rudyard Kipling was perhaps the earliest Indian-born Nobel laureate.

A diehard defender of colonialism, Kipling remains a controversial figure who can inspire passionate disagreement. Kipling’s place in literary history is far from settled and as an example, one would most choose to disagree with his biased poem on Madras, where he compares the city to an old lady musing on its past greatness.

Completed after August 1892, his ‘Song of the cities’ is a cluster of poems that celebrate the great cities of the British Empire (most like Madras which he probably never visited).

Clive kissed me on the mouth and eyes and brow,Wonderful kisses, so that I becameCrowned above Queens — a withered beldame now,Brooding on ancient fame...

While Kipling laments the doomsday of the city, Madras reared to go and in the next century exhibits its resilience.


The Trinity of Carnatic music refers to the spectacular trio of composer-musicians of Carnatic music of the 18th century.

They are known for creating a new era in the history of Carnatic music by bringing about a noticeable change in what was the existing Carnatic music tradition.

Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri were born in Tiruvarur and were prolific in composition and individualistic in style.

Of the three, Muthusamy Dikshithar lived in Madras and Thyagayya visited it writing much poetry here. Dubashes were the new millionaires and one of them, Manali Muthu Krishna Mudaliar, supported Muthusamy Dikshithar to stay and compose in Tiruvotriyur. Tyagaraja stayed in Black Town Bunder Street, visited Tiruvotriyur and composed five songs.


Bangalore Nagaratnamma

The first book banned in India under the Indian Penal Code for the proscription of work on grounds of obscenity was an erotic poem in Madras of 1910.

Radhika Santawanam was a highly erotic Telegu poem whose pivotal theme was lovemaking, written by poetess Muddupalani (1730-1790), a courtesan and a lover of the Tanjore king.

When put into print by Bangalore Nagaratnamma, who succeeded in tracing the original palm leaf manuscript, it caused a furore when viewed under the lens of Victorian morality.

The ban on Radhika Santawanam was rescinded in 1947 by Chief Minister of Madras Tanguturi Prakasam who boasted, “I am restoring a few pearls to the necklace of Telugu literature.”


MGR with Vaali

Cinema was a behemoth. An ever-hungry monster that swallowed all the arts and built itself, poetry and music was its first targets.

The poets of the 20th century could hardly make a living if they ignored the cinema. But in its prolificity, poetry grew.

Heroes, heroines, comedians, and even villains burst forth into a song in early Tamil talkies at the least of provocations.

The earliest of lyricists, Papanasam Sivan was so popular that he was mentioned in the gramophone records along with the singer-hero. He even wrote as many as 55 songs for one talkie (all based on Carnatic ragas). Papanasam Sivan’s cinema songs are still sung on Carnatic stages. Soon thereafter it was Kannadasan and Vaali (both assumed names), who were the most sought-after lyricists in the industry.

So potent were cinematic lyrics that post-1967 victory at the hustings, CM Anna would accost Vaali at a get-together and attribute the victory of the DMK in the elections to a couple of songs the poet had written for MGR and repeatedly played as election propaganda.


George Town — city of the merchant

Chetties happy hunting ground

Where the lifelong struggle rages

For the rupee and the British pound

Madrigal is a medieval-type short lyrical poem in a strict poetic form. Shipley, a poet who lived in Madras, did a series of poems in this form and printed them as a 100-page book in 1928. He describes the lives of the British in Madras as well as its natives. He is sarcastic about the state of the Cooum and how its odour asphyxiates the citizens. Very few copies of the book are in circulation.


Subramania Bharathi is perhaps the best known of the Madras bards though he wrote his finest poetry in Pondicherry during his exile years. Bharathi is connected with Triplicane more than any other place.

His last years were spent translating Tagore’s works and editing the Swadesamitran paper. Bharathi struggled to publish his poetry, much of which wasn’t printed till he died.

However, within a year of his demise, his untutored wife Chellama managed to form a publishing company and sell 3,000 copies of a collection of his 80 poems.

The poems would soon be banned by the British and later on, post-Independence, become the first work of a poet to be nationalised, placing it in the public domain.


Often quoted in parliament by the top politicians of the nation, Thirukural the code book of Tamil law and culture consists of 1330 couplets. It was written by Tiruvalluvar who was born and lived in Mylapore — one of the oldest parts of the city. Pattinathar the philosopher-poet roamed the lands seeking his eternal resting place and would attain samadhi in Tiruvotriyur after composing many songs.

Saints Vallalar and Pamban Swamigal, both creative poets with a substantial religious following even today, lived in Black Town. Vallalar would mention Madras as ‘Seermigu Chennai’ (the wealthy Chennai) in many songs.


They check proof at print houses

Or teach Telegu to the whites

To stay alive

Once proud poets have been humbled

Times have changed

Poets needed patrons. When the kings and the zamindars went into decline, the dubashes of Madras provided them with ample support. Some poets were welcomed and paraded on caparisoned elephants during that period. With the decline of the dubashes, many poets had to become teachers in the East India Company College. But not all were happy with the new arrangement. A poem criticising the changing careers of Telegu poets by a songsternamed Venkata Sastry summed up the scenario.


Madras has its intrinsic poetry. Most were written in colloquial Tamil by common men or were intended for them.

Gujili Paatu, named after the market where the books were sold, start appearing in 1850 taking advantage of the excess capacity of mushrooming printing presses. The songs are an important record of Madras history.

There are songs about the introduction of trams and trains, famines, fire accidents and even the Emden bombing.

Eventually, they petered out when the government frowned on them fearing their popularity could inspire sedition. The modern-day gana of north Madras is inspired by the poems of a Sufi saint of Royapuram, Kunnangudi Masthan.


While no Tamil king has had a poem in his honour composed in Madras, two sovereigns from faraway had that fortune.

George III was called the mad king and cursed by many of his citizens for losing America from the empire. But that didn’t stop a faithful citizen Ellis, the Collector of Madras, to write a Tamil poem in medieval style in his praise.

Likening him to the Tamil kings who wear the ‘mummudi’ (the three crowns), Ellis would say George III wore the crowns of Scotland, England and Ireland.

During the coronation of his namesake George V in Delhi, three poets of Madras wrote Carnatic songs in Sanskrit in his praise. While two songs got prizes in a competition held for the purpose in Muthialpet Sabha of George Town, one was a 100-stanza epic — George Deva Sadhakam.

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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