“Arunagiri Perumale”… The search for a saint, with beautiful music

Posted on January 20, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

I’ve just walked out of a screening of Arunagiri Perumale at the Goethe Institut Auditorium, organised by Prakriti Foundation. The title of this intensely personal documentary makes you think it’s about the poet-saint. But it isn’t. About suggests a kind of biopic. He was born here. He did this. Then he did that. All the way up to the time he composed the verses that became the Thiruppugazh. And if you’ve seen the Ramanna-directed movie, starring TM Soundararajan, you expect two things. One, the tongue-twister verse that goes Muthai tharu, easily one of the great singer’s finest hours. And two, details about the poet-saint’s colourful early life.

Like many men who later became saints (think Valmiki), Arunagiri was first a sinner – and his sin was that he liked sleeping around, before and after marriage. To see this aspect playing out in a 1964 movie is startling – the lines about lust are breathtakingly frank. Two years earlier, in Saradha, Vijayakumari played a wife whose husband was impotent – she ended up taking cold showers to quell her desires. Here, it’s worse. Arunagiri ends up with leprosy. His old flames avoid him. His sister, who swore on their mother’s deathbed that she’d take care of her younger brother’s needs, says she’ll sleep with him if that’s what it takes. What a far cry from the infantile wink-nudge depictions of sexuality in films today.

Anyway, back to the documentary, which has the song (playing over the end credits) but not the shocking scene. But this isn’t a whitewash. For the film isn’t only about Arunagiri but also around him. The director-composer, V Pradeep Kumar, learnt verses of the Thiruppugazh as a child, and now all grown up, he sets out on a mystical trek through places filled with Arunagiri lore. He meets odhuvars who sing their heart out. (The first one – I forget the name – is stunningly expressive.) He reflects on his own musical journey. He visits his teacher, who explains how these verses are so inherently rhythmic, with seemingly little need to tap out a thalam. (The words are their own percussion.) And sometimes he simply sits down and becomes the audience, listening to episodes from Arunagiri’s life.

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It’s an eccentric film – some of it in charmingly rendered animation – that meanders around a man and his muse, but that’s inevitable because there’s a (self-confessed) strain of eccentricity in Pradeep himself. To put together something with such feeling and coherence when one is so lost in the subject is itself some kind of achievement.

And the music is beautiful. (Sean Roldan is credited as additional composer.) There’s not a note of dissonance in hearing these Old Tamil words backed by a symphony orchestra. Later, in the Q and A, someone rightly brought up Ilayaraja’s magnificent Thiruvasagam, based on the works of another saint-poet. This isn’t as formal a creation – it’s looser, with a sense of improvisation that hints at the music being found, and this is entirely in sync with the nature of the project, which is essentially a search. An early injunction advises the audience to feel rather than think about what’s about to unfold. The music makes it so easy.

PS: V Pradeep Kumar is the music director of Kalki, the short film I’ve written.

KEY:

  • Thiruppugazh = see here
  • Saradha = see here
  • odhuvar = see here
  • thalam = see here
  • Thiruvasagam = see here

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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