Monday, February 04, 2013

Flowering Awakenings and Fiery Uprisings

Transfixed by the searing sight of a tiger, William Blake asks this being, "Did He who make the lamb make thee?" It seems that in the poet's mind, the lion and the lamb seem to have together lain, before parting as images of striding terror or slinking fright into the landscapes of the mind. The beseeching call of peace and the emboldening calls to war, are both voices to which words were lent by the same poet and made memorable by the musicians of the time. It is the words of the acclaimed thamizh poet Vairamuthu that shape the much-hummed and foot-tapping tunes of both the benediction for peace that is veLLai pUkkaL (kannaththil muththamiTTAl, 2002) and the bellicose anthem that is thuppAkki engaL thOLilE (viShvarUpam, 2013). There are no verbatim translations or even full-length transcreations in this piece, because doing so would require a studied revisiting of lyrics rather than an unforced reflection of what truly lingers even after a casual hearing, and would be less in keeping with the experience of so many listeners to whom an understanding of the human condition that suffuses these songs, is conveyed more musically than lyrically.

Vairamuthu paints his picture of Peace on Earth in veLLai pUkkaL by restraining the exotic vibrant tones which effuse effortlessly at his command. Having only the charred easel marred by jarred hues that a warring world presents, he chooses instead to give utterance to the untinged white of blossoming innocence. He offers no sights and sounds of the victory of Peace with anything like the gaiety of festooned revelry over hoarded spoils, but asks only for a yielding to the unspoken, unsung and unembellished comfort of a place called home. This joy of being truly home in silence, is to him something to which nothing can add, neither the wizardry of a poet or the virtuosity of a musician. Is all Art then worthless, or worse still, an infliction? What one hears in the poet is anything but such resignation, but an admission that what even the most effusive art yields and yields to, is a fulfilled and aware silence.  It is from this silence that every poet's voice is borrowed and it is to this silence that any understanding of the poet's thoughts is owed. Not squandering the night's precious silence, nor indifferent to the awaited dawn, the poet takes care not to let the eloquence of his dream stir undisturbed innocence from its sleep. Enchanting as his vision of a New Dawn is, he makes it neither the chant of a sleepless vigil nor a spurring hymn to hasten the unready, but holds it unforgotten as the loving welcome he has prepared for anyone who feels rested enough to savour the sunbeams.

The tremulous, trailing tones of veLLai pUkkaL are as fitting to a mellow twilight, as the staccato cadences of thuppAkki engaL thOLilE are to twilights streaked by flaming torches, stillness shattered by crackling bonfires and night skies ripped by flares. The song makes heard through the spring in the singing soldiers' steps, the sprightliness of youth that refuses to be stifled even by the spitefulness of their mission. In the unerring pace of this song  there is an assured reckoning that belies a berserk charge, and there is a compelling beckoning that belies a bitter end. The leaping tongues of this anthem are of the youthful indignation that takes but a spark to rouse but may take an all-consuming deluge to douse. In the soldiers' songs, words are few: used sparingly like ammunition, unused except when ordered, loosed unquestioningly on orders, and unsparing in the treatment of whoever is declared the Enemy. A soldier's word, defended to the death, is too dear to be spent on such things as an explanation for why their war is a just one, because questions, like sleep, are a luxury that the battlefield does not afford. The night maybe another inspiration for the poet, but to a soldier, its every minute is an added insult to the injury of a justice delayed, which keeps him and his comrades condemned to the shadows and disinherited of daylight. To a wronged warrior to whom justice is not promised on waking or available for the taking without a fight, the night coming in the way too becomes something he is at war with.

War of some kind is the grim back-drop for both songs, be it a scorched-earth struggle for self-determination in an island homeland in the first, and a 'holy war' waged in the name of holy lands in the second. Both songs are a wistful and sobering reminder of how, during a time when gaining a foothold for civilization beyond Planet Earth ought to be less and less implausible a dream, a home on this very Earth remains a distant dream for so many human beings. Civilization from the soaring vantage of a poet is but one more efflorescence of humankind; and from the single file of the soldier is hardly heard of, because it is only those who aren't marching that see any end greater than the Nation or Kingdom to whom the fighters are pledged. 

Civilization, however, is just a scholar's word for the homes and neighbours that make it. Few of us are poets but many more of us may yet be able to find within us one kind word of welcome that can make a stranger feel at home. Not many of us are soldiers but many more of us may yet be able to summon up from within ourselves what it takes to stand up for a neighbour denied his due. Whatever be our walk of our life and whether it crosses at all with the soldier's march or the poet's wandering, simple words of kindness and small acts of courage can make us the builders and defenders of civilization. Can we find in ourselves even a little of the poet's sensitivity and soldier's steadfastness to be home when we neither own it nor are near it, and be able to welcome strangers to share? The future of humankind may perhaps be imagined as one of extraterrestrial excursions, but before that, we cannot afford to let our shared imagination of what is 'home' be trapped in images of a villa in the jungle or a shining city on a hill. Humankind will be truly home, when we are able to make room for all and make a home for all, in the villa when possible and in the jungle when necessary, in the city when possible and in the hills when necessary.
1. Transliteration of thamizh words is according to ITRANS.
2. The word 'transcreation' is used in the sense it was popularized by Prof. P Lal.

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