Aadi Perukku: River Cauvery Has Been A Muse For Tamil Filmmakers And Musicians

K Balakumar

Aug 03, 2023, 05:24 PM | Updated 04:42 PM IST

A scene from the song 'Ponni Nadhi Paakanum' from the Ponniyin Selvan movie, showing the Cauvery River.
A scene from the song 'Ponni Nadhi Paakanum' from the Ponniyin Selvan movie, showing the Cauvery River.
  • River Cauvery has been more than a muse for Tamil filmmakers and its musicians over the years. It has lent itself to prose, poetry and prosody thereof.
  • One of the minor cribs after watching Ponniyin Selvan (1 and 2) was that the film, which carries the name of the River Cauvery in the title (Ponni is another monicker of the famed river body), is its (Cauvery) spirit was never really apparent in the movie. 

    There is a certain je nais se quois to the sprawling river — anyone who has lived in the vicinity can immediately feel or spot it — and it did not come through in the frames.

    The fact that Ponniyin Selvan was picturised in myriad places, far removed — both geographically and spiritually — from the Cauvery and the fact that the man helming it was essentially of city-based sensibility, may have made the movie less pastoral and riparian in its inner feel. 

    While it is a fact that Ponniyin Selvan the film is a personalised interpretation by Mani Ratnam of the novel, it cannot be gainsaid that the river Cauvery was in itself an important character in Kalki's prose.

    The fictionalised series itself starts off with Vallavaraiyan Vandiyadevan ambling along the Veeranarayana Lake (Veeranam Lake) which gets its water from Kollidam, which is the northern distributary of Cauvery as it flows through the Thanjavur delta.

    Kalki has placed his introductory scene on the Aadi Perukku (the 18th day of the Tamil month Aadi) — this year it is on 3 August — and he describes in detail the merriment and celebrations that is quintessentially part of one of the important festivals, which was at one point as big and important as the Pongal day.

    It is a grand gala to the munificence of water — specifically here to mother Cauvery — as it is at the core of sustaining human life on earth.

    Aadi month (mid-July to mid-August) usually sees the south-west monsoon being active on the western ghats and under its bounty the river Cauvery gushes forth in these parts.

    Aadi Perukku signifies the start of the sowing season that will eventually culminate in the harvest season of Thai (Pongal month). It is a grand tradition of these parts that casts a lot of significance in every-day living.

    Aadi Perukku, which enjoys such a huge cultural importance, was conspicuously missing in Mani Ratnam's re-telling of Ponniyin Selvan on celluloid. This is not said in criticism. Actually, Mani was earnest and sincere in his approach. But that doesn't cut much here.

    For, what was needed was a much more rousing fervour that brought to fore the spirit and sensibility of Cauvery and its delta. 

    The accompanying song that is avowedly in celebration of the river — Ponni Nadhi Paakanum — did not carry that flavour or flourish.

    The number, while serving the film more than adequately, did not match up with the emotion that the flowing water body usually evokes in those who have experienced its inner embrace. 

    But the river Cauvery has been more than a muse for Tamil filmmakers and its musicians over the years. With Cauvery being one of the main  spiritual rivers of the land (along with Ganga, Yamuna and Godaveri), it has lent itself to prose, poetry and prosody thereof. 

    Right off, what instantly comes to one's mind is the song Annaiyin Arule Vaa Vaa in the film titled Aadi Perukku. This song pays a beautiful tribute to the flowing Cauvery — lyrics by Kothamangalam Subbu, sung by Seerkazhi Govindarajan and music by AM Raja — in a fittingly majestic Ranjani ragam.  

    As it happens, the film had nothing to do with Aadi Perukku, and save for the song, which is played with the title card, the film's story does not return to Cauvery at all.

    There is also another song Kaveri Oram Kavi Sonna Kaathal in the same film (P Susheela's voice and K D Santhanam's words) but the river has nothing to do with the overall import of the number.  

    Talking of K D Santhanam, the man gave the most famous lyrics for the most famous Cauvery song in Tamil cinema (Agathiyar in 1972), Nadanthai Vaazhi Kaveri, a number that versifies, in the voice of Seerkazhi Govindarajan, the birth and journey of the 'favourite girl child of Tamil Nadu', the Cauvery.  

    The 1975 film Idhayakkani, starring MGR and the Bollywood heroine Radha Saluja, featured a six-minute-long opening song Neenga Nalla Irukkanum, in which the first two-minutes metrifies the beauty and bounty of Cauvery (lyrics: Pulamaipithan, music: MS Viswanathan, voices: T.M. Soundararajan, Sirgazhi Govindarajan and S Janaki).

    This song became iconic for various other reasons, and was played repeatedly in the theatres in Tamil Nadu almost as a heart-felt prayer for MGR to get well when he was admitted to hospital in 1984.   

    The 1964 film Poompuhar, based on Kovalan-Kannagi story in Cilappatikaram, had a beautiful TM Soundararajan and P Susheela duet, under the baton of R Sudarsanam, Kaveri Penne Vazhga in the words of that underrated lyricist Mayavanathan. This beautiful Kalyani ragam based song pays tribute to the river for bringing prosperity wherever it flows.  

    In the 1960s MGR-Anjai Devi starrer Mannathi Mannan, the song Kaveri Thaye Kaveri Thaye (music MSV-Ramamurthy, lyrics: Kannadasn and voice: K Jamuna Rani) has the heroine singing at the river as a lament to her now separated lover. 

    The banks of the river is, to this day, a favourite spot for love-lorn couples, and this becomes the take-off point for the pathos-filled number. 

    The 1968 AP Nagarajan Hindu religious extravaganza Thirumal Perumai (starring Sivaji and Padmini in the leads had a soothing KV Mahadevan composed song Karaiyeru Meen Vilaiyaadum, sung with poise by Susheela and Soolamangalam Rajalakshmi.

    The lyrics, by the inimitable Kannadasan, celebrate the river, the Chola kingdom and their beauty. 

    Earlier, in 1962, Kannadasan and KVM had used Kaveri as a muse for the evergreen song Kaveri Karairukku in Thayai Katha Thanayan (MGR-saroja Devi). But the song uses the river just for its alliterative effect in the lyrics.

    Staying with KVM and Kannadasan combo, the song Karikalan Katti Vaithan Kallanai (in the 1970 movie Thabalkaran Thangai), talks of both the river and the famous dam and uses them as figures of speech for women. The line Kaveri perukeduthal kollumidam Kollidam (when Kaveri is in spate it eventualises in Kollidam) is indeed evocative.

    For sheer musical exhilaration, the start of Kaveri Paayum Kanni Tamizh Naadu (in that 1959 thriller Maragatham — it is a terrific movie, by the way) in chaste Devagandhari (pallavi) is hard to match. The song, set to tune by S M Subbiah Naidu, is rendered with typical flourish by the redoubtable TMS.

    The 1957 G Ramanthan musical tour de force Ambigapathy featured a spirited virutham in the voice of actor cum singer VMN Sundaram that speaks of both Chozha Nadu and 'Ponniyan'.

    The song was Soru manakkum Sho Nada (சோறு மணக்கும் சோ நாடா, சோலி மணக்க புகழ் மணக்கப் பொன்னியனும்)

    The most folksy and pastoral feel to a song on Ponni has to be Thanjavur Seemaiyile in the 1973 movie Ponnukku Thanga Manasu with music by G K Venkatesh and lyrics by Muthulingam.

    The song, belted out with avidity by Seerkazhi Govindarajan, S Janaki and B Sasirekha, also brings in the other Tamil Nadu river Vaigai, and equates them to the various goddesses in the Hindu pantheon.

    But this song is important in another sense, as it is widely believed to be the first song of the maestro Ilaiyaraaja, who was working as an assistant to GK Venkatesh in those days. The beats and the rhythmic flow carry his stamp that we became so familiar with in the later years.

    This was also Muthulingam's first song in cinema. A man who possibly started his musical career with a song on Cauvery is aptly flowing timelessly with same cadence and charm. 

    Talking of Ilaiyaraaja, the man's songs for the 1994 film Mahanadhi — one of Kamal Haasan's best and one filled with river metaphors — celebrates in lyrics and also musical motifs the beauty of Cauvery in variegated vigour.

    The film, in a sense, is a search for the pristine and blemishless Kaveri (also, the name of Kamal's daughter in the film who goes missing) in literal and figurative sense.

    The song Sriranga Ranganathanin has the lines, "Kannadam Thaai Veedu Ènrirunthaalum, Kanni Un Maruveedu Thennagamaagum, Gangaiyin Maelaana Kaaviri Theertham, Mangala Neeraada Munvinai Theerkkum."

    Only a man who was weaned on the Cauvery could have come up with such words. And it was Vaali, who was born and brought up in Srirangam, the most famous spot where Cauvery and Kollidam cleave.

    The film also has another famous song Pongalo Pongal, in which a line goes, "Intha Ponni Enbaval Thennaattavarkku Anbin Annaiyadi, Ival Thanneer Endroru Aadai Kattidum Theiva Mangaiyadi." Another vintage Valli and made even more evocative in Raja's music. 

    Mahanadhi has a brilliant but tacit tribute to Cauvery that speaks of a man's perils and problems for having moved away from Cauvery.

    The song, Engeyo Thikkudesai, in the haunting voice of Kamal Haasan, the lines "...Kaaveri theeram vittu Kaalgal vandhadhadi Kaanaadha sogam ellaam Kangal kanadhadi," strums all the melancholic veins in our body.

    The Bengali lines at the start of the song may be an invisible hat-tip to the Bengali man who set to tune perhaps the greatest, but least heralded song on Cauvery in a Tamil film. 

    Salil Chowdhary's musical ode to the words of Ilango Adigal, the man who wrote the Cilappatikaram, is a rare beauty in the voice of K J Yesudas. The song is Thingal Maalai Ven Kudaiyan for the unreleased 1973 movie Karumbu. (There is also a P Susheela version that doesn't somehow have the same sweet and reflective character).

    When KJY finishes with his usual pensive touch 'நடந்தாய் வாழி காவேரி', you feel transported to the banks of the great river in a distant past.

    Indeed, a musical tribute that flows almost as its tributary — sweet and unsullied!

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