Subbu Arumugam at the Music Academy in 2015

What will the world be without Subbu Arumugam? A less happy place. For his countless fans he may have not been an active presence in the past few years but just the thought of his performances would bring a smile and make you feel better. He was a message bearer – carrying messages of social importance but it was the simplicity and humour with which he presented that made them get across. That, and his medium of course – the villupattu. He was true to the art and in the manner of the bards of yore. Above all, he spread joy.

To those of us who grew up in the early days of Doordarshan, Subbu Arumugam was a familiar face. There was the ensemble on stage – he with the upturned bow, and his accompanists all wielding traditional South Indian percussion instruments, the ‘yes man’ who was so important to the narrative and flow, and everyone beaming, radiating happiness. ‘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 regularly, said Subbu Arumugam in one episode, and you will do well in government service and also politics. 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, or whatever else – would have been delivered to us. We were so mesmerised by the performance that it would take some time for us to come back to the mundane world.

To be sure, there had been several villupattu performers before him but in our time he probably did more for the art then anyone else. Born in 1928 in the Tirunelveli district, Subbu Arumugam had plenty of opportunity 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 16 or so. In 1948, the renowned actor NS Krishnan came for an event at the Hindu College where Subbu Arumugam was a student. He was greatly impressed with the latter spontaneously composing a song on Gandhi and invited him to be a part of his atelier which had several people helping him with scripts and narratives. Subbu Arumugam moved to Madras. He had plenty of opportunity to observe NSK perform villupattu thereafter and gradually honed his craft. Another inspiration was noted writer and SS Vasan associate Kothamangalam Subbu. His villupattu on Gandhi was a favourite of Subbu Arumugam’s.

The passing of NSK meant the loss of an anchor but it also made Subbu Arumugam blossom on his own. 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 over the radio. His fans were legion ranging from the Mahaperiyava of Kanchi and MS Subbulakshmi to the man on the street. He was the same towards everyone, irrespective of status. Once on a visit to Kanchipuram he went to the Math to have darshan of the Mahaperiyava. The seer asked Subbu as to what brought him to Kanchi. There was a wedding in the family he replied and so he along with others had come to buy silk sarees. Being there he had decided to drop in at the Math to see the sage.

‘See how this child speaks the truth,’ beamed the Mahaperiyava. ‘People who come here will usually never tell me they have really come to buy sarees and by the way take me in as one of the sights of Kanchi. They will aver they came only for my darshan.’ And then amidst gales of laughter from the audience he turned to Subbu Arumugam and said, ‘You too must learn to speak that way.’ His bond with the Mahaperiyava he considered one of the greatest blessings of his life and this brought forth the performance of ‘Karunai Kadal Kamakshi’ one of Subbu Arumugam’s very popular creations.

A serious researcher into the history of villupattu, and in which subject his children specialised and qualified, Subbu Arumugam had for his audiences a characteristically simple explanation – the king was tired after hunting in the forest and for his entertainment, the minister crafted the art with what was available – an upturned bow, a pot, striking staffs and native instruments. There was of course much more than that to it but to him the message was more important. 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.

This article appeared in abridged form in The Hindu dated October 14, 2022