Come Pillaiayar Chathurthi, the ubiquitous Lord Ganesha temples across the length and breadth of the State get into festive mode and most of them have a tradition of playing a swathe of songs on the elephant-headed God.
And the most popular song of the lot has to be Vinayakane Vinai Theerpavane. In the heavy voice of the singer Sirkazhi Govindarajan, it possibly is the most popular of devotional songs in a land that is suffused with hundreds of them.
And down the year, once the Tamil month Karthigai kicks in, the temple loudspeakers start pouring out Lord Ayyappan songs. The most played song over the years has to be Pallikattu Sabarimalaikku delivered from the emotion-filled throat of Veeramani
Practically no one could have lived in Tamil Nadu without hearing this song at least once. These two Tamil songs, filled with piety and religious devotion, are an inextricable part of the cultural and traditional landscape of the State.
And as it happened, these two songs, and many other similarly popular devotional numbers, were penned by a once staunch Dravidian atheist. He was none other than Ulundurpettai Shanmugam, the famous poet and lyricist, whose 20th death anniversary fell last week
How the man, who once participated in the gross and bigoted idol-breaking and slippering event infamously helmed by the Dravidian leader E V Ramasamy, became a staunch believer and a legendary writer of songs on Gods and Goddesses, is the kind of uncanny twist that life plays from time to time.
The other legendary poet from Tamil Nadu Kannadasan too was a theist and a DMK member. But in the fullness of time, the Kaviarasu not only became a theist but also authored many great songs on the Gods in the Hindu pantheon. He also wrote the seminal book Arthamulla Indhu Madham (The Meaning-Filled Hindu Religion).
From atheist to a prolific devotional song writer
Shanmugam was a professor of Tamil in the 60s and the early 70s, when the DK's cussed events were unfolding. And as he was an atheist at that time, had joined the idol-thrashing palooza that the DK louts had unleashed in the State.
As it happened, Shanmugam fell ill soon after. The ailment was so serious that some accounts have it that he was close to death.
It is at this point that he chose to turn a believer. He found God, or perhaps God found him. Now, you can choose to interpret what happened afterwards as per your convictions. Divine help or just coincidence? Shanmugam thought it was the former. His health, which had looked precarious, suddenly improved and Shanmugam was back to his best.
Shanmugam was convinced that it was Lord Muruga who saved his life. From then on he focused on bhakti literature and song and by the time he passed away on 24 August 2003, he had penned more than 4,000 songs and done some important translations to Tamil many well known Sanskrit slokas and mantras.
He has written songs on every conceivable Hindu deity and also on Jesus and Allah.
Although his lines have been sung by many singers, including T M Soundararajan, LR Easwari, Veeramani, Bombay Sisters, Malaysia Vasudevan, the ones sung by Sirkazhi Govindarajan would seem to be the most special.
Apart from Vinayayakane Vinai Theerpavane, there are countless musical hits like Nee Allal Deivam Illai, Muruga, Thirupathi Malai Vazhum Venkatesa, Madurai Arasaalum Meenakshi, which are considered iconic ones in the genre. All of them in the brass tone of Sirkazhi Govindarajan, who was also his 'co-brother' — they were married into the same family.
In the time from 1971, Ulundurpettai Shanmugam hit a purple patch, and he was also the go-to lyricist for movies which had religious and Hindu historical heft.
The songs from the 1972 film Agathiyar are a good case in point. The Ulagam Samanilai Pera Vendum is among his best, in which he combined both religious fervour as well as a Gandhian egalitarianism in his well-chiseled words.
The songs, Andavan Darisaname and Malainindra Thirukumara, in the booming voice of TR Mahalingam, are popular even today. And what can one say about the unforgettable contest song Vendriduven Unnai — in the voices of MS and Sirkazhi.
It is considered an all-time classic, and as the lines smartly and organically included the raga they were being sung, it also underscored his innate understanding of Carnatic music.
Seminal translation works
Not just film songs or devotional numbers, Shanmugam had the depth of knowledge and understanding in other languages, especially Sanskrit and Hindi, to undertake seminal translation works.
He translated Venkateswara Suprabhatham into Tamil, and the recording in Bombay Sisters, is among the highest selling Tamil audio recordings.
The man was prolific in his translation works. Hindu slokas and renditions like Adithya Hridayam, Vishnu Sahasranamam, Bhaja Govindam, Hanuman Chalisa, Kanakadhara Sthothram, Sri Mahishasura Mardini Stotram, Sri Maha Ganapathi Sahasranamam, Devi Mahatmyam are now available in Tamil thanks to his inspirational efforts. He has also penned over 20 lyrical books on various gods. His works were rightly nationalised by the AIADMK government in 2020.
It may be 20 years since he passed away, but his famous lines would never pass away. If anything, every temple would be airing them with religious relish every festive season. After all, this is a land of spirituality and religiosity as the story of the lapsed DK man shows us.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.