Interview: Thamarai

Picture courtesy: hindu.como

Picture courtesy:


That sound you hear is Baradwaj Rangan fanning himself after a heated conversation with the lyricist Thamarai, the beauty of whose verse cloaks a blistering commitment to cherished beliefs.

FEB 26, 2010 – A BLACK MUTT LIES ON ITS SIDE in the modest living room where Thamarai is to join me for a conversation, its flank rising and falling with every lusty breath. This is not a happy situation, especially after the offhand information that this is a dog with a penchant for fastening its fangs around the ankles of strangers. Trying not to think about my canine companion, I focus on the wall in the distance, bedecked with trophies whose glimmer has waned over time. Common sense tells me that the item of furniture in front, by my feet, is a coffee table, but it’s unrecognisable – all I see is a hillock of books, newspapers, magazines, more books. Thamarai arrives and, after preliminaries, enquires if I will have coffee. I wonder if I should say yes simply to see where she plans to position the cups, but it’s late evening and I have no desire for a stimulant. Thamarai is dressed simply, in a nightgown that declares, in no uncertain terms, that the person inside has no patience with frippery. The paint and polish are reserved for the poetry.

The conversation, however, begins with mechanical engineering, which claimed Thamarai after school. She wanted to study journalism, but the only choices were medicine and engineering, and she chose the latter to avoid the former. She, then, worked for seven years doing quality control in the fabrication division of a pressure vessels company, Universal Heat Exchangers Limited, Coimbatore – a distaff island amidst a sea of men. She was the first woman trained at the Welding Research Institute, Trichy. This information is not something I’m prepared for. I would have been happier with the creationary myth that a pigtailed Thamarai ran home from school, flopped on her bed, and breathlessly began to recount her day in perfectly calibrated verse, and that these volumes were displayed by mildly amused parents to a guest who coincidentally turned out to be the editor of a Coimbatore publishing house, who, wonderstruck, felt beholden to showcase this dazzling talent to the world at large. A welding mask does not fit into this picture.

As if sensing my dismay, Thamarai reveals that, in this period, she did find time to submit short stories and poetry to popular Tamil magazines. During the final year of college, she was selected as student reporter for Anandha Vikatan. She was even offered the position of subeditor with (the now-defunct) Saavi, but a move to Chennai, at the time, was out of the question. A full seven years elapsed before Thamarai emboldened to scratch a long-festering itch. She knew she should be doing something else, so she quit in 1994. She came to Chennai with dreams of writing for films. Like starry-eyed strugglers everywhere, she knocked on more doors than she cares to remember – of producers, of directors, of music directors like Deva and Ilayaraja who advised her to wait until they called upon her to write. Thamarai realised that to make it in Tamil cinema, she could not afford to be based in Coimbatore. She needed to relocate to Chennai. So she gave up the dream and retreated to reality, staying at home for a while to recover from setbacks both professional (a job she was unbeaten at but uninterested in) and personal (a bad marriage).

Finally warming up with familiarly angsty chapters of a creator’s backstory, Thamarai recalls feeling that her talents had rusted – but this notion was dispelled when, to climb out of depression and keep herself alive, she started reading again, writing again. She won a Kumudham-Air India poetry contest in 1994, and then the floodgates opened. A slew of literary awards from Tamil magazines flew her way, two short-story collections and a poetry compilation were published, and the trips to Chennai became more frequent, if only to pick up prizes. She decided to give films another shot, especially as, by now, her name was established in the literary circles. She met many more directors and showed them her prize-winning poems. That’s how she tiptoed into her first film, Seeman’s Iniyavale, in 1997, and that’s when she moved to Chennai, all alone. I interrupt this reverie to enquire if she’d label her interest in films as dilettantish dabbling or desperate desire, and she laughs that she’d rather call it destiny. (The exchange sounds punchier in Tamil. “Aarvam-nu solveengala veri-nu solveengala?” “Vidhi-nu solven!”)

But she doesn’t really invest in destiny – she’s an atheist, or as she puts it, a Periyar-ist – and she says it was perseverance. Her life was hell in Coimbatore, and she sought a more intense inferno to sink into and forget the pain, and the sulphurous sidestreets of Tamil cinema proved perfect. She’d had enough of being yanked around by life. She wanted, now, to be the one to pull at the leash, with life trotting behind like a panting puppy. She delivered close to 50 songs – some kicked and screamed their way to the final film, many stayed stillborn at the recording theatre. But despite hits like Malligaipoove (Unnidathil Ennai Koduthen) and Onnu rendu (Pudhumaipithan), the lyrical landscape had little place for a woman. Possibly owing to a paucity of predecessors (other than curious one-offs like Roshanara Begum), the male-dominated film industry remained sceptical about this lone female songwriter knocking at the doors. Thamarai restates the obvious, that there’s a difference between the male and female points of view, and that male directors had gotten used to male point-of-view songs from male lyricists. Her style did not appeal to them – they just didn’t understand.

The first four years in Tamil cinema were not a happy period for Thamarai. She was physically unwell, mentally burdened, and, as a consequence of severing ties with almost everyone, socially single. The struggle was hard, the monetary rewards hardly commensurate – the crawl through the long tunnel ahead was suffused with gloom. Light finally arrived in the form of a first-time director named Gautham Menon and a first-time composer named Harris Jayaraj. Thamarai was writing songs for television shows produced by Madras Talkies, when she got word about the young team that was making a romance named Minnale. She met the director, who said that Vaali, the veteran lyricist, was writing the songs. He said he’d call her if anything changed. She waited. She kept in touch. Three songs (Azhagiya theeye, Mama Mama, Venmathi) were written and Vaali, for some reason, did not continue. Thamarai was invited to craft the remaining songs (Vaseegara, Ivan yaaro, and the exquisitely eros-imbued Iru vizhi unadhu), and the rest is her story.

Vaseegara was the first song she wrote for the film, in 2000, and her first draft was approved. It was her song, with her feelings, written from her viewpoint, in her by-now-patented style. Thamarai recalls that Gautham Menon was extremely non-interfering – he described the scene and left the rest to her. (“Kaatchi avarudayadhu, karpanai ennudayadhu!”) Not a word was changed in the song that defined her career. Minnale was a hit – the birth of the millennium witnessed the blossoming of Thamarai. She admits that there was the euphoria of vindication, but the success was sweeter because it arrived on her own terms, through her own struggle. She comes from a family that values education, and, unsurprisingly, was leery about politics and cinema. (Both parents were teachers in corporation schools. Her father taught English and Mathematics, and her mother was a Tamil teacher, which possibly explains the names of the children: Thamarai, Malligai, Poonkundran.) But today they are proud, almost as proud as Thamarai is that her flight to the stratosphere was unimpeded by turbulent compromise. She will not take up a new song until she finishes the one she’s writing. She will not stain her verse with vulgarity. Most importantly, she will not employ English.

It’s not that she hates this leaden legacy of British rule. But she hates that English has come to mean not “a language” but “superior knowledge.” She hates the mad scramble for English education that is turning Tamils into little brown sahibs. She hates that parents speak to their children in English, that they choose to enroll their children in English-medium schools. She hates that there are Tamils who cannot read their mother tongue. She hates that Tamil magazines use English words, for effect, when English magazines do not feel the need to include Tamil phraseology. She hates that Tamils have an inferiority complex about their own language. (“Vandhavanayum vaazha vaikkum, thannaiyum thaazhthi kollum! Andha maadhiri culture idhu.”) She wants to fracture the hegemony of English and bring Tamil back to the folds of Tamil Nadu. She reasons that cinema is not just entertainment, that it has an enormous influence on society, and she cannot (and will not) wield a weapon like the film song to perpetuate this inequity. She demands to know where else the language will be nurtured if not in the land of its birth.

I venture that, while an admirable ideal, the writing of lyrics is subservient to context, and I ask what she would do if there were a character, in a film, like me, someone to whom “thank you” rolls more readily off the tongue than “nanri” – a Tamilian who speaks and writes Tamil, but thinks and dreams in English. After all, some aspects of our lives are chosen for us before we are capable of making other choices. Thamarai gracefully spares the head I have laid so timorously on the chopping block. She admits she can see why exceptions are needed – in comical songs, for instance, or in the Kaadhal yaanai track in Anniyan, where the Westernised Remo character was a pointedly silver-tongued stud. She says she has used words like “dozen” and “kilo” and “dragon,” but where there is a readily understood Tamil equivalent, she will not write in English. There are others to do that, she says. They don’t need her. In her stories, she is more relaxed about English, because stories are realistic, whereas songs, by nature, are unreal – nobody bursts into song in real life. Lyric writing, therefore, is a specialised art – one that she should use to reflect what she fights for, what she believes in.

Like a drop of driven snow carried aloft a tempest of blazing conviction – Anal mele pani thuli? – Thamarai is swept up in this subject. She segues into a relevant flashback about her husband, Thyagu, a Naxalite, a social revolutionary who received the death sentence when he was 20. A decade thence, he became a lifer and was released after serving a term of 16 years. While incarcerated, he authored what Thamarai terms the first prison literature in Tamil, a couple of serialised stories (Suvarukkul Chittirangal and Kambikkul Velichangal) about life inside, which proved enormously popular when published in Junior Vikatan. (He also translated Das Kapital into Tamil.) Thamarai became a big fan. She wrote an eight-page letter to Thyagu, through the magazine, and eventually met him. They found they had lots in common, like the fact that they had both survived a traumatic first marriage. They gradually fell in love, and in 2002 – after eight years, as if commemorating a year of courtship to each page of the letter that brought them together in the first place – they got married. After his release, Thyagu founded a political party named Thamizh Thesiya Viduthalai Iyakkam, based on the principles of Tamil nationalism, aimed at retrieving the lost rights and reinstating the lost pride of the Tamils, even those in Eelam. It is understandable that Thamarai feels the way she does about English – what her husband does through politics, she seeks to do through poetry.

Now that she has come to be identified with a certain kind of poetry, with a certain female point of view, I wonder how Karka karka in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu came about – the über-macho hero-introduction number she wove around a massively heroic Kamal Hassan. She says that, at the beginning and as a female lyricist, it was a struggle just to write a song – any song. Then the struggle was to prove the people wrong who thought she could write only sensitive and romantic songs. Hence, when this opportunity to showcase an encounter specialist presented itself, she had a point to prove – that she could be all woman and yet write an ode to the manliest of men. I bring up the casual phrase about this cop sauntering about with death in the pocket of his shirt, and Thamarai insists that it’s not just wordplay. There is depth in her songs because she is essentially a storywriter, and besides, she has worked for seven years in a male-dominated field like engineering. She carried all that baggage into this song. Upon hearing the lines Adhigaaramo aarpaattamo ivan pechil illai / Mun aayvathil pin paaivathil ivan puliyin pillai, entranced fans of Kamal Hassan thanked Thamarai for beautifully capturing the essence of their hero, their thalaivar, and she laughed that she hadn’t written about their thalaivar but hers, Thyagu – these words are the observations of a proud wife.

Thamarai has felt, on occasion, like parlaying her story-writing strengths into screenplays, but she does not wish to diversify now. She wants to do one thing, and she wants to do it well. She says she has achieved a position that no female has gotten to before, and she needs to use this privilege to say the things that haven’t been said. She tells directors to not just give her love songs, but also philosophical songs, songs of revolution, the other variegated songs that existed during the times of Kannadhasan. The latter, along with Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram, has been a major influence – besides, books of course (“Paadalgal kettu valarndhen, puthagangal padithu valarndhen!”) – and she wanted to write songs as beautiful as Naan pesa ninaipadhellaam from Paalum Pazhamum, Thoongaathey thambi thoongaathey from Naadodi Mannan, Paattondru ketten from Paasamalar, the title song from Anbe Amudha (she singles out the line Kaadhal dheivam mounam aanaal kanni Thamizhum vaadume), Kaadhalile tholviyuttraal from Kalyana Parisu, Thillai Ambala Nataraja from Sowbhagyavathi (which she cites as a stunning instance of how an atheist could craft a devotional ode without compromising his core beliefs).

These songs were worded, mostly, before being forged in the fires of musical imagination, in an era where director and composer and lyricist huddled together in the hope of making magic. Thamarai agrees that technological revolutions have sundered this triumvirate. She hasn’t met the composer James Vasanthan, for instance, except on stage during audio release functions. (They collaborated on Kangal irandaal, the gargantuan hit from Subramaniyapuram.) She observes that the change began, gradually, from the Ilayaraja era. The maestro had such confidence in his tunes that he deemed it enough if words were retrofitted to these tunes. The trend has prevailed, and if Thamarai is wistful about a more glorious age of lyric-writing, she isn’t complaining. She points out that technology is one of the reasons for her rise, despite her gender, in this profession – she was able to write from home, which is a blessing in an industry so male-dominated. This isn’t fussiness or fear – just that in the midst of all the men, it’s more practical to work from a distance. (The men feel at ease too.) And she notes that the metrical challenge of adapting to a predetermined musical scheme can give rise to unusual constructs like maragadha sombal or kalaaba kaadhala.

Every once in a while, Thamarai will aim a bouncer at the head in order to clear fast-forming notions that attempt to slot her, stereotype her. She says she’s a Harry Potter fan and that she can be quizzed endlessly about JK Rowling’s magical universe. She hoards comic books – Phantom and Mandrake and Asterix and Tintin and Irumbukkai Maayavi (the Tamil adaptations of The Steel Claw) and, most of all, Modesty Blaise (by which time, of course, I’ve figuratively fallen out of my seat and dislodged the hillock of books in front, causing the dog to jump with a start and lunge at my long-awaited ankles). Thamarai quotes a hugely influential panel from Modesty Blaise, where the bedevilled heroine snarls at a man who offers help, “Step aside. I will fight my own battles.” And then she quotes from early Harold Robbins, 79 Park Avenue, where he wrote of a prostitute that “she came willingly into his arms.” Thamarai marvels at this phrase, where a man attains a woman not through might or money but (only) through her will. Given the opportunity, Thamarai would love to create comics, but she says, like Goscinny and Uderzo, there needs to be a melding of minds.

A day in the life of Thamarai comprises primarily housework (with a husband always on tour, and a seven-year-old son to run behind) and social work, with only the remainder available for writing songs. That’s why she writes so sparingly. Earlier, it was a song a month, but now she tries to average one a week. She shows me her song diary. I read out a few lines of verse she’s writing for Sasikumar’s new film and I’m curious about the writing in pencil. She jokes that it’s easier to erase (“Adithu adithu ezhudhuvadhai vida azhithu azhithu ezhudhuvadhu vasadhi!”), but the real reason is that, due to chronic migraine and backaches, she prefers to lie down and write, and a pen just won’t work. I flip to another page and read from another song. I fail to recognise the words – neeyum naanum, orey pulli, orey kodu – until she hums the tune. It’s Kannukkul kannai, AR Rahman’s composition for the new Gautham Menon movie, Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya. I rue that this is one album where her contribution was completely overshadowed by the music – in the sense that it was tough, at times, to even decipher the words – but Thamarai promises that this will change when the movie releases, and that the lyrics will leap off the screen.

It’s been a couple of hours, and I forage for final thoughts. She delivers, instead, a finality. She begins by saying she’s more than just a lyricist – she feels strongly about not just Tamil, but also religion, caste, male domination, child abuse, and the degradation of politics. She wrote very little last year because she was affected by the Eelam war (and also the untimely demise of a close friend, her only friend in Chennai). She says she cannot write love songs here when so many are dying out there. She campaigned for the release of Nalini. She has a social responsibility and she doesn’t shy away from speaking out, even against the present government. The day India interfered and destroyed her Tamil nation, disregarding her feelings and supplying arms to the Sinhalese (who are her enemy; she sympathises with the LTTE and she sports a badge with Prabhakaran’s image whenever speaking on stage), she stopped feeling like an Indian. This rage congealed into rhetoric in the poem Kannagi Mannil Irundhu Oru Karunchaabam, a fiery curse from Kannagi’s homeland directed at the Indian nation. She declares, with pride, that she is a Tamil nationalist, and she delivers her finality. “I won’t write anthems about India.”

Copyright ©2010 The New Indian Express. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

87 thoughts on “Interview: Thamarai

  1. I was feeling a little left out with all the un-translated Tamil phrases, till I came to this line – “She hates that Tamil magazines use English words, for effect, when English magazines do not feel the need to include Tamil phraseology” – and then I understood. I quite like this, Thamarai.:-)

    PS. Was pleased to see this statement by you – “I venture that, while an admirable ideal, the writing of lyrics is subservient to context.” I’ve been surprised by the number of people who refuse to acknowledge this obvious reality.


  2. >>>She hates that Tamil magazines use English words, for effect, when English magazines do not feel the need to include Tamil phraseology. She hates that Tamils have an inferiority complex about their own language. (“Vandhavanayum vaazha vaikkum, thannaiyum thaazhthi kollum! Andha maadhiri culture idhu.”)

    Earlier this year I heard Pavan Varma hold forth on the same topic – that we are losing intimacy with our respective mother tongues due to the hegemony of English. Sadly, however, even he could not hold forth long enough without using an English word in his Hindi speech – like she does, with “culture”. Surely there is a Tamizh word for “culture”?


  3. Great read BR. Lots of nuggets

    Her comment on IR’s style of working is quite true, she had the guts to say whatever she said and also confess at the same time about the current working styles.

    We need more Thamarais in the industry.We also need more voluntary retirements from the likes of Vaali.

    I would have liked just a little bit of more info, like instances of pattukku mettu(if any) vs mettuuku paatu amongst what she has written so far, and any anecdotes from the recording sessions, but I cannot complain much about this piece.

    For some artists though consider doing a three-parter.


  4. Wah! Great interview BR! I always admire her for her convinction and no mincing of words!

    Ad sir, you are brilliant in carefully crafting interviews. And what a title! :D


  5. Superb writing, as always Baradwaj. Please tell your editors to ask you to continue spreading light on the non “STARS”. Would love to read about lyricists, technicians. art directors etc.


  6. Not being a Tamil speaker, I can’t appreciate Thamarai’s verse, but I am curious to know whether, in your opinion, most Indian Tamils share her sense of connection to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka?


  7. It’s a great interview. I didn’t even know that Thamarai was a Woman (thought its a pen name of a male composer) although it doesn’t matter. Of all the songs I was singularly amazed by the introduction song of VV which is very different from the usual intro songs. It is great to know the person behind the lyrics and also the person about whom it is written. I may not agree with the Tamil Nationalists completely but its nice to discuss their point of view in a level headed manner as done here than in the speeches given at the political rallies. I was wondering whether you have done an interview with Vairamuthu before or if you plan to do in the future.


  8. Lovely interview! Apart from the popular ones in the Gautham Menon movies, my favorite Thamarai song is Engirindhu vandhayada from 5 star.Such imagery..the song is truly an unsung gem!


  9. Wonderful as always.Though I do not harbour even the remotest of vestiges of tamil within me(I hail from Andhra),I found this piece fascinating.
    Just a small nitpicking-
    …she sought a more intense inferno to sink into and forget the pain, and the *suphurous* sidestreets of Tamil cinema ….
    Did you mean ‘sulphurous’?
    …which she cites as a stunning instance of how an atheist…This too a minor lapse,I suppose.Misplaced use of adjectives.You meant to say the epiphany was ‘stunning’ for you?(or did she herself feel that way.)
    It would have been a benefit for people like me if you had translated the lines in tamil,that you mention.Very curious to know what those lines about Kamal meant.


  10. Your interview captured brilliantly the essence of a lyricist..who happens to be a woman and whose passion and brilliance shines through the piece..It was so refreshing to read about someone who can be in page 3 but is not…

    and BR, thought that black dog addition was really surreal!!(I dont know whay but thought of kurosawa and the black dog that runs with human hand in hand!!)..

    Now that would have given the piece a whole new dimension to the notion of writers block!!
    keep penning


  11. @vijay – Voluntary retirement for people like Vaali.
    Care to explain why? I mean, if there is a reasoned argument to support it, then it is fine. But, I am just hoping that it does not become yet another discussion like ARR Vs Ilayaraja.
    Yes, Thamarai writes beautiful lyrics but why would that in any possible way ask for a retirement, that too a voluntary one, by Vaali?

    @Baradwaj – Beautiful choice of title. Absolutely brilliant!
    I just hope, by the above comment, I have not opened up a new can of worms!


  12. Awesome interview BR, simply awesome. Didn’t quite realize that Thamarai had such a story to tell us. But I disagree with you on one point though, the lyrics of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya are probably some of the best yet to come out in romantic numbers, do listen to the album once again, and this time you’ll notice that the lyrics do come out and hit you.



  13. Shalini: ACtually, the untranslated phrases are merely her exact words, which I added for flavour. The preceding lines have the approximate meaning.

    vijay: “For some artists though consider doing a three-parter” – sure dude, so long as you volunteer to transcribe all the tapes for me :-)

    K: yeah, I have it on tape. have saved it along with the tapes of my Rahman chat. One day, when I become famous, I’ll sell these on e-bay and retire rich ;-)

    munimma: thanks. corrected now.

    Aravindan / Padawan: About the title, being a former techie does help, no? :-)

    srikantan: Not written anything on Vairamuthu, though I think I might someday. His early work with Ilayaraja is stunning IMO.

    Srikanth: Thanks for picking out the typo. And that is a “Stunning instance” — as in an instance that’s stunning. Am I missing something here?

    Jairam: The point wasn’t about the brilliance of the lyrics. Just that they were “hidden” by the music.


  14. While I admire the poetess, I simply can digest the fact that she does does not take pride in being an Indian. While I admire her love for Tamil Culture, language, ethos and the people, cannot digest the fact that she supports LTTE (A violent terrorist organizations, which has probably butchered more tamils than the sinhalese, in their savage urge to become solely representative of the Tamils). A poet / poetess who is not patriotic shall never claim my regard or appreciation.


  15. BR, Wish you had shown some moderation, while reporting on her fringe fanaticism. the poem “Kannagi Mannil Irundhu Oru Karunchaabam” is a completely unhinged diatribe against Indians – basically a wishlist of bad things that should happen to India and Indians (i.e in the tradition of Kannagi – collective punishment for people who had nothing to do with Sri Lanka)

    The original poem is here, people who know tamil can judge for themselves –


  16. Wonderful piece, I really liked what I read about this lady. I dont listen to Tamil songs much and in any case the lyrics are beyond me… but I definitely like this lyricist.

    Also, as somebody else has asked, what does the description of Kamalahasan mean?


  17. Watching VTV tomorrow, so, let us see if those lyrics leap off the screen. BTW, if only you had done the piece on Vettaikaran/Asal/masala movie thing last week, we could have had BR of VTV for this weekend. Any particluar reason why did you not do the BR last week?


  18. From what I’ve seen and heard Thamarai seems like quite the character and this interview just confirms it. It is gratifying to hear her cite KannadAsan as an influence.

    I’ve always wanted to ask a lyricist why thamizh film lyrics lose the abstract nature of thamizh poetry. Is it the necessity of having to write “matter for meter” (as MSV loves to say, when he quotes conversations with KaNNadAsan)? Or does is stem from the need to be populist? If Bharathi can be set to music can’t Gnanakkooththan? Heck if Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan can set SempulappeyalneerAr to music, why not Gnanakkooththan?

    And dude, Roshanara Begum? That is an arcane reference. Which thamizh lyrics did she write?


  19. “She hates that parents speak to their children in English, that they choose to enroll their children in English-medium schools.”

    I wonder what was running in her head when she watched Vaaranam Aayiram. Or any Gautham Menon movie for that matter. She says it is ok for English to figure in conversations in stories, because they are meant to be realistic, but does not want parents to speak to their children. Is it that as a portrayal of reality, it is ok, but she wouldn’t want it to really happen in reality?

    What an interesting interviewee, and what a super interview!


  20. bala: What moderation are you talking about? Yes, I have read that piece, and yes, it *is* called karunchaabam, so you’re hardly going to expect paeans of peace and love. That’s what makes people unique and interesting, and I don’t see why individual views should be “moderated.”

    shyamala: Oh, that his speech is free of fuss, that he looks before he leaps (loosely speaking)…

    Padawan: Reg. “Watching VTV tomorrow, so, let us see if those lyrics leap off the screen” – er, they don’t :-) Just took a break last week. It’s allowed, you know. And even if I’d done that BR for last week, I couldn’t have done VTV this weekend. The deadlines are very early in the week. I’ll write about it for next Sunday, and yes, this is turning out to be a good year for Tamil cinema.

    Deepauk M: The awesome Kudiyirundha Kovil, which is simply one of the best MGR movies ever. She was some family friend of MGR’s and hence got this opportunity. BTW, I think Visali Kannadhasan has written a couple of film songs too (or maybe TV serial songs).


  21. Lotus Notes — heh heh.

    Brilliant interview btw , its always gratifying to hear a firebrand poet.

    Do you think you can upload the actual interview itself ?


  22. Venkatesh: It’s on microcassette. How would I go about “loading” it? Not sure!

    Ramesh: Remember Kunguma pottin mangalam, with a Rubenesque JJ in a green peignoir over a checkered nightsuit? :-)


  23. Apparently one of my favorites Kunguma Pottin Mangalam was written by one Roshanara Begum! And all this while I thought it was Alangudi Somu. Thx for that Baradwaj!

    Oh and Visali wrote one song for that Sangeetha movie for which Raaja composed – Dhanam I think it was.


  24. In reply to #30,

    “It’s on microcassette. How would I go about “loading” it? Not sure!”

    Assuming the cassette player has a headphone socket, you can take a cable which has stereo jacks on both ends (avlble in electronic shops for about Rs.30), plug one end to headphone socket of the cassette player and other end to the audio-in socket of your PC. Then play the interview and record it on your PC. The audio file (WAV) you get can be converted to an mp3 file, and uploaded to any audio-sharing site like Odeo, Podomatic etc.


  25. Roshanara Begum was the lyricist for ‘Kungumapottin Mangalam’. Visali Kannadasan wrote a couple of songs. One I know is for Illayaraja for the unreleased film called ‘Kangalum Kavi Paduthey’. It is a nice Mayamalvagowla based number ‘maalai nila’ sung by Raja and Manjari. I think she also wrote for ‘Dhanam’. The song was ‘kannanukku enna vendum’.


  26. All I can say is “nandri” for this awesome piece. Got me curious enough to dig out a video of her on youtube.An impassioned rhetoric on the plight of tamils and something about how “true tamils ” can eat food peacefully through all this and I was having dinner watching this one :(.


  27. I had the same thoughts as Priti.. Her thoughts on english usage contradict with some of the movies she worked on.. And yes, please don’t do moderation in the future as well..

    Very good interview.. I very much enjoyed reading this..



    Thaamarai as she spoke in favour of Thamizh Eezham (தமிழ் ஈழம்). A speech I loved to hear and see after a long time. Who would have the guts to speak like this? I am not much of a fan for her lyrics, but I must thank Harris Jeyaraj for according the clarity they deserve in films – Her courage (துணிச்சல்) is noteworthy and I am a fan of it with pride.


  29. Thamarai’s love of language comes with worrisome strings attached. Notwithstanding her deftness at tamizh poetry, her embrace of the lethal politics of Eelam and Tamizh nationalism calls for reprobation, not wide-eyed adulation.


  30. @38 – Vidyut, I concur. She sounds like one of my loony work acquaintances that see my poor grasp of Tamil as some sort of a character flaw and an affront to themselves. All that talk of Tamil identity and nationalism as if it trumps their identity as human beings and Indians.


  31. @Ravi : Assuming Baradwaj implements your solution, it will be the first time we’ll listen to his ‘soothing’ voice :). Now, that’s an interesting thought.


  32. @38,39 I guess our friendly neighborhood reviewer misunderstood his brief.

    instead of interviewing a millitant feminist he ended up interviewing a feminist millitant. ;)


  33. Is the tamil transcript available somewhere ?

    It’s amazing that legality of the Indian state is so vehemently believed in. The Tamil identity, though splintered has had a much longer reign than the current 60-year old (courtesy the Brits) Indian nationalism. It’s astonishing that the post-independence Indian nationalism continues to be regarded not as an experiment that needs constant rework, but as something that sprang from the head of Brahma.


  34. ” It’s astonishing that the post-independence Indian nationalism continues to be regarded not as an experiment that needs constant rework, but as something that sprang from the head of Brahma.”

    head of bramha hattis. :D


  35. Just what is the “legality” of *any* state or for that matter anything? Who has the right to confer it? Why? What is Tamizh identity? Who confers it? When does one forfeit it? And btw, why does Brahma have
    a headstart over the rest of the Trinity in proclaiming the legality of anything?


  36. feedback to the paper…

    in your interview with the poet thamarai i noted that she is suffering from migraine for which there is no medicine to cure.but in an article published on a sunday a couple of weeks back in ie m/s.sheelarani sungath i.a.s recommended ‘anu thailam’ an ayurvedic medicine that cured her fact my wife who is suffering from maigrane since the age of 12years started taking that anutailam and she could feel the relief and is confident she would be completely cured in a year. i request u to inform the lyricist and send her a copy of the article. this i am specially requsting u to do as it is a tremendous suffering to see someone suffering from maigraine. even a very famous neuro surgeon who is not alive now once said the medicine for permanent cure was yet to be found as he too was suffering from the disease. ‘yaam petra thunbam pereakkoodathu ivvaiyagam’ kindly help her. we are senior citizens living in a home for senior citizens.



  37. அற்புதமானா செவ்வி. தமிழ் திரை உலகில் நாம் மதிக்க கூடிய அளுமையுடைய ஒரு சிலரில் இவரும் ஒருவர். போலித்தனங்கள் இல்லாத குனமுடையவர். அர்த்தமற்ற வார்த்தைகளால் நம்மை கொடுமைக்கு உள்ளாக்கும் கவிஞர்கள் மத்தியில் தொடர்ந்து சிறந்த தமிழ் பாக்களை எழுதி வரும் அவருக்கு நமது நன்றிகள்! அவரால் தமிழுக்கும் தமிழருக்கும் பெருமை.


  38. DIGRESS(due to some remarks on comments section)
    Why is it terrorism when outsiders use violence, while a states violence or India rebels pre-1947 are saluted? Under the British Raj, weren’t today’s Indian heros written up as terrorists(which they were, if Britain considered India hers)? Are they, b/c they were fighting for India’s cause, better than other terrorists? Isn’t it comical that many speak of terrorism, but wear shirts with Che Guevera’s face? Terrorist turns superhero is nothing new. They give National awards for films made on once-upon-a-time terrorists like Bose.

    Why must Thamarai, be apologetic at all for her belief in something? She probably has seen things from a closer reality than most. Including myself, not a single person who comment about her, would have the “courage” that woman has shown. Even our Indian superheros are only good for the screen, or they will buddy up to the politicians.

    I like her writing. “ANAL MELE PANI THULI”… what a poetic string. Vaseegara was awesome. There have been many times when I wondered how these words are flowing together to these tunes. Hope she becomes a wider success… for just judging from talent alone, she deserves the opportunity to showcase her full potential.


  39. “Why is it terrorism when outsiders use violence, while a states violence or India rebels pre-1947 are saluted? ”

    thats like asking “why should germs be killed, dont they do the same things white blood cells do? yeah but its my body. attack it and you die.


  40. to extend the analogy, i think tamil speaking indias were ok about supporting the cause of srilankan tamils until you guys messed it up for yoursself by killing rajiv gandhi. at this point, people said “on one side is a nation we fasted and prayed to build with gandhi and ambedkar, on the oher side is a bunch of gun smugglers who thought they were a country just because MGR felt pity for them and gave some of them arms.

    The choice was easy, really.


  41. Agree with Ramesh @51 about the sri lankan tamil cause, and with vidyut and srinivas @38,39 about the alarming adulation for tamil nationalism. she may not think she is Indian, but she is living in this country and the benefits it offers, such as they are. It reminds me of mullas in Kashmir who don’t mind using loudspeakers powered by Indian electricity to incite violence against the Indian state. If she felt so strongly against India, she should stand for her beliefs and move over to Sri Lanka. Her poetry sounds fabulous but her rhetoric is repellent.


  42. “Including myself, not a single person who comment about her, would have the courage that woman has shown.”

    Yes, Thamarai’s courage and call to arms (see part 2 of video link in one of the comments above) will take Tamils to the promised land in a jiffy!

    Oh, wait a minute, that was tried before. After all the murder and mayhem that was unleashed by the Eelam revolutionaries over 3 decades, what do they have to show for? Not a Kaani Nilam! And the misery of the tamils there has only increased manifold !

    One only hopes that Thamarai will channel her talents positively rather than turn into a “thee pOri” that inflames passions with talk of “thupaakkis” and “thOtaas” outside of movie lyrics (her Vettaiyadu Velaiyadu lines “Thuppaaki matrum thOtaavai thaan kaadhalithaan …” resonate differently now).


  43. Doesn’t really answer the setting of my question, does it? Your terrorist is a hero, my hero is your terrorist! I wonder how many that clapped for Rang De Basanthi were thinking the characters on screen died as terrorists…

    Again, we are being redirected to “nation built by Gandhi/Ambedkar”. If I or Thamarai are going to debate over such popular “imaginative” notion built by a singular governing party over centuries, there lies our Waterloo. And to loosely base Eelam state on remark such as “B/C MGR…” is ridiculous and shows the extent of ones knowledge on the subject. We know just how far the Gandhians/Ambedhkars built India; after all, India’s partition was second to the Jewish holocaust in violence and casualty. I suppose the white man incited peaceful Indians to kill each other, in the time of Gandhi? If I were to remark right back, the LTTE(built by Indira Gandhi) & the Tamils in Srilanka were with India until they were backstabbed by India, her army killed their people, raped and looted, are you going to believe that? Isn’t this the same crowd of people who asked Maniratnam why he set the film “Dil Se” in North East, as if the problems there were not real or not normal Indians?

    And there was another ridiculous remark that Thamarai should leave India :-) Why? Her right to stay in the land that she is on, probably stands above many who criticize.

    I am going to stop here on the political aspect. This interveiw should be celebrated for the person that she is, especially for her courage to fight against a society that she lived in, and meet with some degree of success.

    Sorry Baradwaj, for taking up your space, on an apparently, herd mentality argument(on both sides :-) ) The End; until the next interesting interview.


  44. That’s a very good interview and transcripting effort too.

    These are the articles that keep bringing me back here. Can’t but agree with #57 more. We already know thamarai’s rhetoric thanks to youtube – this interview brought out the person behind the rhetoric – not a mean feat in a land where the everyday interviewer would have been happy with trigger-happy quotes.
    One wonders how the anti-sympathy-for-sl-tamil brigade feels about the “racist” attacks on Indians in Australia.


  45. The argument that Thamarai should not be criticising India, staying in India, sounds absurd to me. What are artists for? Every artist is either a collaborator or a rebel. I appreciate Thanmarai for speaking frankly. Of course, I double Sasi’s arguments, although I’ve not exactly chosen my side on the LTTE issue. Who are the “terrorists” anyway? Whoever the right-wing media calls so? it’s really sad that the terms “Maoist” and “terrorits” have become inseparable in India.


  46. “The argument that Thamarai should not be criticising India, staying in India, sounds absurd to me.”

    that wasn’t radhika’s argument. she talked about people preaching sedition against a state while living in it.

    so your defending a straw man here.


  47. “One wonders how the anti-sympathy-for-sl-tamil brigade feels about the “racist” attacks on Indians in Australia.”

    i think we should start running guns and establish a tamil homeland in australia from where we can spread sedition to japan, korea and newzealand. Certainly worked well for us in Srilanka!


  48. Off all the things that these people scream about, they never seem to have across, ” athirakaranuku budhi mattu”.

    That was a neat interview.


  49. “Doesn’t really answer the setting of my question, does it? Your terrorist is a hero, my hero is your terrorist!”

    Yes, there are people who worship Hitler too using specious reasoning and by drawing moral equivalencies to
    justify vile acts. So what ? In a world you inhabit, there is never such a thing as “good man” and “bad man”, but just a ton of perspectives. Afterall, there is no man so good that he doesn’t do *some* bad and no man so bad that he doesn’t do *some* good and so all men are basically the same, right?


  50. Hi,

    Another very interesting interview, I had no idea she was so strong an LTTE supporter.

    Btw, how do you go pick your interviewees? Do you send them an request and then assent, or is it determined by other factors? The reason I ask is because I would LOVE to read your interview of Ilaiyaraaja. Considering the fact that he is now a Padma Bhushan, this could warrant an interview with the great maestro and I would rather it be you doing the interviewing than someone else!


  51. Niranjan: Early in my (new) career, this was the height of my ambition — to interview IR, ARR, Mani Ratnam, Kamal, and get them to open up and talk like they’ve never talked to the press before. You know which one happened. As for the rest, you know the temple deities guarded by looming dwarapalakas. Multiply that tenfold and you’ll know how difficult it is to get through :-)


  52. That’s oh-so-unfortunate :(

    Maybe an opinion piece on Raaja’s illustrious career then?…I know the fanboy in you would make a great piece on that.


  53. Niranjan: On second thoughts, it’s probably good that the interview didn’t happen because I don’t know how he is as a person and he might have felt slighted by what I wanted to do — which is to separate his career into two halves and talk at length about both halves, the natural instruments and arrangements half, and the period from late 80s onwards, when (through songs like O Butterfly and the dhik-chak beats in Endhan nenjil and so on, where his “sound” became less “soft”) there was a distinct move towards a synth-dominated work ethic. (Star Wars fan that I am, I like to call this his descent to the dark side :-) )

    I’ve always wondered how and why this came about — lack of funds (in the later stages)? lack of instrumentalists or players who understood his vibe and completely “got” him, especially when long-trusted hands like the great VS Narasimhan migrated to Rahman’s studios? a desire for greater control over his effects? genuine curiosity about new technology (not that he hasn’t used it earlier, but in the sense of “how will it be if I translate my musical ideas entirely through this technology, as opposed to simply using it as pickle”)? the desire to do something new, especially after a ton of films where he walked into the same recording studio and the same violinists and the same faces?

    And even if I don’t care as much about IR 2.0, this phase genuinely interests me from a musical-creator perspective. There are certain songs and interludes where I wanted to ask him about his choices and such, especially in the “grander” recent works like Pazhassi Raja where the superb musical ideas aren’t “finished” to the extent the Raja of the early days (or his fans) would have liked. But I don’t know if anyone would like to submit to such a personal and probing line of questioning :-)


  54. There is a fairly dated interview of Ilayaraja given to Frontline (1987) in which I found this intriguing remark of the maestro

    A S Paneerselvan: What is your view about music?

    Ilaiyaraaja : To me, music is nothing but fraud. The moment you play all the seven notes, music is completed. Then going on repeating it – in different permutations and combinations – is nothing short of cheating. The person who successfully cheats a large audience for an extended period is called the “big” composer. Genuine music, to me,is the one which has no purpose. It should be as natural and as purposeless as the flow of the river. I have a purpose in creating my music. The purpose is business. Saint Thyagaraja sang songs to attain God. So even he had a purpose for his music. At least, he never sold his music. But take a farmer for instance. While ploughing, he spurts into a crescendo of music with no purpose. That is true music.


  55. >“The argument that Thamarai should not be criticising India, staying in India, sounds absurd to me.”

    >>that wasn’t radhika’s argument. she talked about people preaching sedition against a state while living in it.

    yes, zigackly. thank you Ramesh. i didn’t mean that artists cannot profess dissent against their countries – sure they can, but when a point comes when they shift allegiance to another state then surely it would be the intellectually honest thing to do, to should shift domicile – or at least citizenship – as well. she uses words like “India destroyed her Tamil nation” which clearly tell us where her allegiance lies.


  56. >>synth-dominated work ethic. (Star Wars fan that I am, I like to call this his descent to the dark side

    heh, BR I can see the title of that one already – Revenge of the Synth, eh?


  57. Thanks BR, for that elaborate response.

    Since I am as big a Raja fan as anyone else, it does strike me as rather odd that there has not been any really ‘good’ interview of the maestro and in the few sound bytes that come from his, he comes off as being a little too arrogant and dismissive.

    I think that this attitude primarily stems from a completely inane line of questioning from his interviewers – you know, asking the same kind of question, making the same insinuation (for instance when he was asked after the Padma Bhushan if south Indian musicians have been neglected, his infamous temper was there for all to see!)…the interviewer usually seems to want to hear a specific kind of answer, and the questions are rigged to such an extent that it is impossible to say anything else. A smarter person sees that, and either decides to play the game or reject it completely.


  58. Niranjan: I do think there have been a few good interviews with him — can’t recall off the top of the head though. The bigger problem is getting through the phalanx of “supporters” and hangers-on, and it’s so much easier if you’re from the Tamil press, because they can control the way the interview goes. They know they’ll get a “favourable” portrait.

    For some reason, they’re very wary of English media, even if you insist you’ve nothing but good intentions. They see articles like the Bala interview of mine, and they think I’m some gunslinging upstart-cowboy who’s out to shoot holes into the long-revered local sheriff, which is so not the case. [Been in a bit of a Western mood, lately :-) ]


  59. Why is it incumbent on an interviewer to present an alternate view of reality than what may exist? Granted that there are those who push narratives or reduce people to one-dimensional caricatures,
    but that is not all of them. Sometimes, the chinks in the personality armor come through as a common strand in many different situations.

    Might it be that if a person comes across as being arrogant and dismissive, it is because they *are* arrogant and dismissive and not always because of bad intentions on the part of the observer?
    Preachy as it sounds, there are for e.g. great people who have a famous temper and the greatness at which they excel is not diminished by such character flaws. One could for e.g. be a great artist and yet also someone who regularly yells at their neighbor’s kids “Get off my lawn!” :-)


  60. Vidyut: My comment earlier was not just regarding Raja but about interviews with film personalities in general and that their character ‘flaws’ will out, no matter what. Its just that I have seen many an interview in the Indian media with film personalities where the interviewer is simply gushing away with joy at the mere fact they are sharing space with their icons, or the questions are phrased in a sort of peculiar manner which lead me to believe what I stated earlier. For instance, I saw an interview of Mani Ratnam of Channel V (I think) before the release of Yuva where his rather young interviewer asked him how he conceived such ‘brilliant ideas for scripts’ for his films. It’s just the sort of question for which I as a viewer felt like strangling the interviewer :)

    BR: I remember you did an interview of Prasanna (Guitar) a little while ago. Have you done other interviews of some of the Carnatic/Hindustani stars,or do you have any lined up in the near future? Sanjay? TMK? Jayashree? (hint :))


  61. rameshji, no need for tamil arms in Oz land
    pUnjabi oye oyes can revive khalistan in Oz – Indian govt will go out of their way to help them unlike the wretched blackie tamils in SL


  62. I think the blackie tamils and the blackie sinhalas, who showed that they were an example of skin color harmony, should join together and fight all white people including punjabis.

    oh riiight… the blackie sinhalas KILLED all the blackie tamils in blackieland…er…srilanka….


  63. point being, if you lose your home to a misfortune, the appropriate response is not to attempt to steal the house of the person who offerred you shelter and refuge…if someone invited you home to have dinner when your house burnt down, would you sit at the table and tell him “all the fair skinned people on this table are entitled to all the food, all of US black skinned people will eat all the sweets, and if you dont agree, you are no different than the man who burnt my house.”

    Why would you shoot yourself in the head like that?


  64. more feedback…

    Dear Bharadwaj,

    I honor your movie reviews and at least your take on new releases. But, I think, when you write about a lyricist, especially Thamarai, I guess, there should be no space for political coverage. Thats my first point.

    Secondly, I do acknowledge that its her personal belief that she is not feeling part of the so-called india. When you can’t cover the other side of the story when the war was ON, I guess, the same so-called national media (dont know to which nation though!) has no moral right to cover this side – that too, in bad light.

    I say this for a reason though. I believe in the principle that, any alternate thinking not covered is also bad journalism.

    Now, if you immediately want to bash me on the above comments, please try to answer the following…

    1. How many times have we had headlines about development in the North-East states?
    2. We have virtually stopped getting news about Gujarat these days. Have you heard about GIFT project in Gujarat? Please check out Has Gujarat become an independent nation or what?
    3. Not to mention about Andaman & Nicobar. Dont know if you guys even have a journalist there.

    Typically, our national media is busy covering delhi, mumbai, delhi-durbar politics, bollywood & cricket. Leave alone development.

    Expecting some good journalism from you guys.

    This mail is not intended to hurt you, but to express my views on journalism thats defined currently.

    Cheers my friend,


  65. Wow, great interview. I have always loved her work. Sample these lines from Mannippaaya in VTV:

    Anaivarum urangidum iravenum neram
    Enakkadhu thalaiyanai nanaithidum neram



  66. Hai thamarai… am ur greatest fan. Am inspired by ur words. My ambition is to become a lyricist like u. Am staying in ur area only. I want to meet u. I wrote some poems in tamil. I wanna show it to u. Plz giv me one chance…. So send me ur address to my id… Atleast respond to my post…..bye bye :-)


  67. Hi Thamarai madam I am krishna.working in private concern coimbatore.i am ur fan.i like that ur every lyrics.i interest to become lyricist.i wrote some tamil poems in my dairy. so I meet it u please one chance.kindly help me.i am wait for ur reply.thank u madam.bye


  68. I strongly agree with THAMARAI that ,” cinema is not just entertainment , but has enormous influence on society ‘ – well said thangaiyae.


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