Carnatic keys

Can poetry in classical music give hope in today’s polarised times?

The messages in Subramania Bharati’s poetry continue to have a resonance.

Charles Dickens’s memorable lines “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...” seem to aptly describe the ferment we are living through.

Merely weeks after singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, celebrating the power of musical poetry and lyricism, and giving us hope that there are idealists left, comes bleak news again. Donald Trump has won the US presidential election after a bruising race, stirring fears and reminding us of the divisions in this world.

Where we go from here is not known. What is known is that there will still be idealists, as there have been in the past.

Their poetry lives on in classical and popular music – the composers, tunesmiths and practitioners who have made it possible for us to dream of a better world. I take this moment to reflect on the power of poetry as reflected in classical music from South India. In particular, I take this moment to savour the works of Subramania Bharati.

A freethinker, poet extraordinaire and freedom fighter, Bharati galvanised thought in the early 20th century in Tamil. Born into modest means in the late 19th century, he eked out a living from writing and teaching at a government school. His life was marred by financial difficulty, ill health and strife. And yet he wrote, in my opinion, some of the most powerful and beautiful poetry ever composed.

His romantic poetry alone sets him on par with the world’s best. In Aasai Mugham, he talks of love so intense, and incomplete, when the face of one’s beloved is forgotten. It is a feeling of utter desolation when the eyes yearn for the one thing they cannot see.

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His idealistic poetry, once set to tune, became the preserve of Carnatic music practitioners. Vocalists such as DK Pattammal made it a point to include the poetry in concerts and it soon became a fixture.

Manadhil Urudhi Vendum

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The Mind Needs Resolve
The Tongue Needs Sweetness...
Women need to be free from persecution
We need good thoughts...
Things we desire ought to be in our grasp...

Agni Kunjondru Kanden

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I found a fireling
And I left it in the woods, still burning
The forest burned in rage
Did the fire spare the young or old?

Nenjukku Neethiyum 

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Bearing Justice in her heart
Adorned with Beauty
Armoured with Valour
With a gaze that extinguishes all hatred
Shakti stands...

In one of his most famous poems Bharati wrote: “Even when the sky above/ Seems to fall upon us all/ You will say no fear, no fear, no fear/ No thing called fear at all.”

For a world that is a changin’, this could not be more apt.

The author is a well-known classical pianist and music educator.

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