Tuesday, March 17, 2009

திருவாசகம்: Sacred Utterances

Thiru Manickavasagar, the ancient Tamil poet composed a collection of 51 poems devoted to Saivism. The work was translated by Rev. G.U. Pope and published in 1900. To give a sample here:

அச்சப் பத்து. [ஆனந்தம் ஊறுதல்]

புற்றில்வாள் அரவும் அஞ்சேன்; பொய்யர்தம் மெய்யும் அஞ்சேன்
கற்றைவார் சடைஎம் மண்ணல் கண்ணுதல் பாத' நண்ணி
மற்றும்ஓர் தெய்வந் தன்னை உண்டென நினைந்தெம் பொம்மாற்
கற்றிலாத்வரைக் கண்டால், அம்ம! நாம் அஞ்சும் ஆறே !

The Decad of Dread [Absorption in Divine Knowledge]

Not the sleek snake in anthill coil'd I dread;
nor feigned truth of men of lies -,
As I, in sooth, feel fear at sight of those
who have not learnt the Lofty - One
To, know; who fear the Foot of the Brow-Ey'd, -
our Lord, crown'd with the braided-lock,-
You think there's other God. When these unlearn'd we see, -

Thiru Manickavasagar is said to have composed the above poem when he made a hut of leaves for himself outside Chidambaram, and lived withdrawn to it as a Yogi. The translation by Rev G.U. Pope takes not only the work of devotion to new heights, but gives meticulous details about the grammar used too. The metre is ஆசிரிய விருத்தம், six feet in each line, with the formula:

கூ}விளம்|புளி}மா|தே மா||கூ}விளம்|தே}மா|தே மா
கரு}|தே }|||கரு}|புளி}|

The Tamil poems use a context free grammar, and are described elegantly at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venpa If there is any scripting work harder than computer programming, it would be composing poetry in High Tamil.

In 2005, Ilaiyaraaja gave new life to the "Sacred Utterances", by setting some of the quatrains, including the "decad of dread" above, to melodious music. A snip from my notes on the album:

Songs of Liberation from Thiruvasagam
"The East and the West have influenced one another in a very real and
not yet thoroughly understood way from the earliest times": thus wrote
Rev. Dr. G.U. Pope in his introduction to the translation of Thirukkural
in 1886. The symphonic oratorio "Thiruvasagam" by Ilaiyaraaja with the
Budapest Symphony Orchestra, conducted by László Kovacs, released on 6th
July, 2005 at Chennai, brings out the confluence of the East and West
Pope deeply felt, through a rich classical musical cross-over, in ways
words can never describe. Hats off to Ilaiyaraaja, László Kovacs,
Richard King, Stephen Schwarts, Budapest Symphony Orchestra and all the
other musicians for their brilliant work.

This delightful masterpiece cost more than Rs. one crore to produce.
Tamil Maiyam founded by Fr. Jegath Gaspar Raj, its producer, is looking
forward to income from album sales and donations, but it would be a
blessing, if many orgs and govs could join together, pay the outstanding
debts of Tamil Maiyam reported to be around Rs. 75 lakhs, and have the
work released under a suitable creative commons license. There are about
51 chapters in the Thiruvasagam, and the album is a fine selection of
only choice verses presented as six songs. A cc license should help
many musicians to join the project, and soon set entire work
Thiruvasagam of Thiru Manickavasagar in symphony. A brief intro to the

Song #1
The album begins with the verse "poovar senni mannan..." which is about
the "last journey" towards "ultimate liberation", and it is also
believed to be the last composition by Manickavasagar, on the last day
of his life on earth. The score for this song is quite naturally set to
a score that reminds of "poom poom dan dans" - the sound which anyone in
this part of the world can instantly recognize as a pointer to a death
in its vicinity, and that the last rites and rituals are in progress.
It seems, when the recording started at Budapest with this song, the
score sounded funny to some in the orchestra, who tried to hide their
laughter. Illayaraja observed this, and immediately sung the verse
explaining it, and the orchetra understood and briskly started with the
business of bringing Manickavasagar back to life again.

Song #2
The entire album is sweet as honey, but at about the 5th minute of this
song, the first stanza of Thiruvasagam, "Namasivaya vazhga, nathan thal
vazhga.." comes, and this is very easily the best part of the album, a
little more sweet than the rest. Illyaraja has freely arranged the
various verses, to convey meaning even through the topography and
arrangement of verses. Ilaiyaraaj and Roy Harcourt sing mixing Tamil
and English verses creating a very deep and stunning effect. A brief
snapshot from the lyrics, translated by Stephen Schwarts:

I'm just a man
imperfect lowly,
how can I reach for something holy? ...

So many forms I must wear!
So many lives I must bear!
Grass and shrub and stone and tree!
Worm and bird and beast and demon
heaven the sky and turn the earth
how long till I'm fin'ly worthy?...

Hail! Hail! ...

I am beginning
to be free...

The symphonical oratorio is a rich tribute especially to Rev. Dr. G.U.
Pope who translated the entire work of Thiru Manickavasagar. (Available
online at http://siddhanta.shaivam.org/thivacha.html ) We could be
certain that Manickavasagar would have composed his verses with our
traditional music in mind, but for sure, Pope had only a western
symphony in mind as he worked on the translations. The frequent "Hail"
we come across succintly summarises the essence of "Namasivaya Vazhga"
and other praises, and sets the work in symphony with great effect.

Song #3
pooerukonum Purantharanum is yet another sweet composition picturising a
king bee singing praises.

Song #4

Song #5
Manickavasagar paints a picture of women pulverising gold and perals to
dust with ural and ulakkai (pestle and mortar), singing Muthu Natramam
in praise of their lord. At the inauguration, this song was enacted on
stage by a classical troupe, and at the same time a pair danced swift
ballet moves sharing the stage with them.

Song #6
This is like a "hello world" introduction to setting Thiruvasagam into
symphony. Ilaiyaraaja takes a simple score, searches for suitable
verses and finally finds that the verse beginning "putril vazh aravum
anjen.." fits the score rather well, and finishes the album with great
grace. He makes the whole exercise appear very easy and simple, but
none other than the mastero could have undertaken the task of setting
the fairly difficult classical tamil verse of Thiru Manickavasagam, that
is more than 2000 years old, into symphony.