How Subbu Arumugam, who passed away recently, used his unique folk instrument to send out strong social messages

How Subbu Arumugam, who passed away recently, used his unique folk instrument to send out strong social messages

What will the world be without Subbu Arumugam? A less happy place. Though he was not active for the past few years, just the thought of his performances made his many admirers feel good. He conveyed message of social importance through villupattu, which he presented with simplicity and humour.

Subbu Arumugam and team during one of the Villupattu performances in 2010.

Subbu Arumugam and team during one of the Villupattu performances in 2010.
| Photo Credit: K. V. SRINIVASAN

To those who grew up in the early days of Doordarshan, Subbu Arumugam was a familiar face. He would be sitting on stage with an upturned bow while the ensemble of artistes accompanying him would play traditional percussion instruments. The ‘yes man’, an important member of this team was crucial to the flow of the narrative. . ‘Thanthanathom enru …’ was how the performance began, and it would then proceed at a brisk pace, with music and conversation punctuated with ‘aamaam’ from the ‘yes man’. “Learn to say aamaam, and you will do well in government service and also politics” said Subbu Arumugam in one episode. The recital would end with ‘Vaazhiyave…’ a free-flowing benediction on the world. In the process, the message of the day – on honesty, cleanliness, family planning, AIDS, and more – would have been delivered to us.

Subbu Arumugam’s Villupattu performance at Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, during the Bhakthi Sangeet Utsav, 2012.

Subbu Arumugam’s Villupattu performance at Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, during the Bhakthi Sangeet Utsav, 2012.
| Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

There may have been several villupattu performers before him but he probably did more for the art than anyone else. Born in 1928 in Tirunelveli district, Subbu Arumugam had plenty of opportunities to listen to villupattu. The art was going through a revival, with messages of freedom being propagated. Alongside this he had a natural flair for Tamil, his first collection of songs being published when he was around 16. In 1948, the well-known actor N.S. Krishnan attended an event at the Hindu College, where Subbu Arumugam was a student. He was greatly impressed with the latter’s impromptu composition of a song on Gandhi and invited him to be a part of his atelier, which had several people helping him with scripts and narratives. And, Subbu Arumugam moved to Madras.

Villupattu exponent Subbu Arumugam performing at a special event to mark the death anniversary of ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan, organised by the Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram, Chennai, in 2011.

Villupattu exponent Subbu Arumugam performing at a special event to mark the death anniversary of ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan, organised by the Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram, Chennai, in 2011.
| Photo Credit: KARUNAKARAN M

Thereafter, he had plenty of opportunities to observe NSK perform villupattu and gradually honed his skill. Another inspiration was Kothamangalam Subbu, a noted writer and an associate of S.S. Vasan, whose villupattu on Gandhi was his favourite.

The passing of NSK meant the loss of an anchor but it also made Subbu Arumugam chart his own course. But the association with the film world did not cease. He wrote scripts for actor Nagesh and composed the occasional song. But greater recognition came with his becoming a regular on the radio. His fans were legion, ranging from the Mahaperiyava of Kanchi and M.S. Subbulakshmi to the common man.

Subbu Arumugam’s bond with the Mahaperiyavabrought forth ‘Karunai kadal kamakshi’, a performance that he dedicated to the Kanchi seer.

After researching into the history of villupattu, which his children too mastered, Subbu Arumugam had a simple explanation about the origin of the art: the king was tired after hunting in the forest and for his entertainment the minister used an upturned bow, a pot, striking staffs and native instruments. There was of course much more to it. The upturned bow marked the end of violence, and that such an instrument could be used for music meant the return of peace. We could do with more Subbu Arumugams today. But he was unique.

The Chennai-based author, a historian, writes on music and culture.



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