A group of friends and I were on a tour of the temples in the Thanjavur region. The chartered bus was crawling along the main road in Mayiladuthurai aka Mayavaram. From my vantage point by a window, I could see a Roman Catholic graveyard coming up on the right. There is something about cemeteries and graveyards that always fascinates me. Their inscriptions hide tonnes of information and yet hardly anyone bothers to visit them.

Vedanayagam Pillai's bust, RC graveyard, Mayiladuthurai
Vedanayagam Pillai’s bust, RC graveyard, Mayiladuthurai

I was, therefore, all agog as we approached this particular cemetery. It was not large but it had a number of crumbling vaults and tombstones. Fronting the compound, with a separate gate to provide access to it, was a plaster bust mounted on a tall pedestal. The man whom it represented was dignity personified, all turban, alpaca coat and moustache. The bus came to a halt right alongside the bust thereby enabling me to read what was written on the pedestal. It was Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai – the first Tamil novelist, Munsiff of Mayuram and the composer of Sarvasamaya Samarasa Kirthanaigal!

Stone commemorating Vedanayagam Pillai's mother and wife
Stone commemorating Vedanayagam Pillai’s mother and wife

It was the work of a moment for some of us to immediately jump off the bus, unmindful of the surrounding traffic. Asking our driver, who had, by then, seen enough of this kind of behaviour, to move on, we climbed over the dividing median and ran into the yard. The bust is of relatively recent origin. A committee headed by the pontiff of the Dharmapuram Mutt put it up in 1983. Behind it are two structures. The first, a lime and mortar vault painted yellow, is the resting place of Vedanayagam Pillai’s mother Arockia Mariyam Ammal, and his wife, Lazar Ammal. Fronting this is Vedanayagam Pillai’s sepulchre.

Vedanayagam Pillai's grave, Mayiladuthurai
Vedanayagam Pillai’s grave, Mayiladuthurai

It is a high rectangular tomb with the marble slab on the top, clearly a later addition. It is an interesting piece of work, with a cross on the left side top corner and an open book on the right side opposite end. Below these is a long inscription. It records Pillai’s birth at Kolathur on October 11, 1826, and his passing at Mayuram on July 21, 1889. Following these is a full list of all of his works – his verses – Neethinool, Tiruvarulmaalai, Tiruvarul Antaadi, Devamaata Antaadi, Periyanaayaki Amman Pathigam; his novels – Pratapa Mudaliar Charitiram (the first Tamil novel), Sugunambal Charitiram; his other writings – Penn Maanam, Penn Kalvi and Penn Mathi Malai; and his musical works – Deva Thothira Keertanaigal and Sarvasamaya Samarasa Keerthanaigal.

Another view of Vedanayagam Pillai's grave, Mayiladuthurai
Another view of Vedanayagam Pillai’s grave, Mayiladuthurai

U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, in his reminiscences, writes that Pillai’s knowledge of music was acquired through hearing. U Ve Sa also writes that he had heard Pillai sing his own compositions. His songs were based on popular tunes of the times and their simple structure and deep philosophical import enchanted several people. Among those who came to have a deep affection and friendship for Pillai was Gopalakrishna Bharati. This was when, long after the success of his ‘Nandan Charitiram,’ he had retired to his disciple’s house in Mayuram. Vedanayagam Pillai was also transferred from Sirkazhi to Mayuram as Munsiff and the two frequently met. Apparently some of the clerks and vakils of the District Court thought they could curry favour with the Munsiff if they sang his songs. They consequently approached Bharati to teach them music, which he did, at the steps of the Tula Ghat (Lagadam) in Mayuram.

During the infamous ‘Dhatu Varusha’ famine of 1877, Pillai contributed enormously to the public welfare, moving Bharati to compose a song in his praise. Among Pillai’s writings, his Pratapa Mudaliar Charitiram is the most famous, though his Penn Kalvi, written as a tract advising his daughters on the importance of education, was the first to be published. Written in 1857, Pratapa Mudaliar Charitiram was published only in 1879. It may have beeen named after the hero but its heroine, Gnanambal is the central character in the book. Pillai was an early champion of women’s emancipation and this shows in several of his songs and writings. Interestingly, it is from the Charitiram that we know of Vedanayagam Pillai’s first name – Samuel, something that is not mentioned on his tombstone and the bust.

Inscription on slab, Vedanayagam Pillai's grave, RC graveyard, Mayiladuthurai.
Inscription on slab, Vedanayagam Pillai’s grave, RC graveyard, Mayiladuthurai.

An ageing sexton and his wife now tend to the yard, which is in poor shape. The place needs weeding and one has no idea which other interesting graves and tombs the enclosure contains. Looking down at the dust and bird-dropping covered slab on Vedanayagam Pillai’s remains, I could not help thinking of his song – Oho Kalame, set in Sahana and immortalised by Dandapani Desigar and now popularised by Sanjay Subrahmanyan, which speaks of the inexorable passage of time.

Verily we are all dust to which we will return, as the Bible says in Genesis. Vedanayagam Pillai would have understood.

This article was published in The Hindu dated 28th February 2014