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Padma Shri and Kalaimamani Subbu Arumugam slept in music on Monday, his villuppaatu drawing him closer.

Born on June 28 in 1928, Subbu Arumugam belonged to Nellai Samuthiram’s Puthukulam. And the one person responsible for catapulting him to fame was none other than Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan. The latter’s influence and support made possible Arumugam’s romance with the tinsel world as a lyricist and dialogue and story writer. In 1948 it was NSK who put together the script on Gandhi Mahan through Subbu Arumugaam and got it staged in the form of a villuppaatu kutcheri. It catapulted Arumugam to fame instantly as he captivated audiences as he sang while playing on the villu or bow.

That kutcheri was one of the more than thousand performances by Arumugam which brought him several accolades — he was conferred the Sangita Nataka Akademi award, Tamil Nadu’s Kalaimamani award and as recently as 2021, the Padma Shri.

In 1948 it was NSK who put together the script on Gandhi Mahan through Subbu Arumugaam and got it staged in the form of a villuppaatu kutcheri

Though traditionally the villupaatu was performed as part of temple festivals with songs in praise of the gods or as musical theatre narrating myths, Subbu Arumugam did not confine himself to the epics or to stories drawn from the puranas. His villupaatu included the benefits of government schemes, patriotism and even songs on safety regulations! A poet of the people, he sang of issues that mattered to them, composing and setting to music his poems which he then performed at concerts.

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Subbu Arumugam has been with the public broadcaster AIR since 1948 and over the course of some 75 years, he performed several hundred shows on radio.

His daughter Bharathi Thirumagan has joined her father in keeping the traditional art form alive. At a recent programme at Vani Mahal in Chennai, Bharathi sang one of Arumugam’s composition and caused a sudden quiet to envelope the hall. The composition, based on the Mahabharata, delved into Arjuna’s dilemma. Bharathi’s rendering forced the audience to introspect as Arjuna asks Krishna, “Who are you ultimately? The vast ocean or the vast sky above? God itself? And then tell me what is the purpose of this war? To win? If so with whom will I celebrate the victory? Here I give unto you my bow and arrow, please finish me off!”

His villupaatu included the benefits of government schemes, patriotism and even songs on safety regulations! A poet of the people, he sang of issues that mattered to them, composing and setting to music his poems which he then performed at concerts

In another gem from the same concert Subbu Arumugam spoke of the 63 Nayanmars, or Saivite saints, and his determination to add a 64th to the list. Was there none who could be added, he wondered. And then it dawned on him that one worthy of joining the list was poet and freedom fighter, Subramania Bharathi. And Arumugam got a statue of Bharathiyar installed at the Madhya Kailash temple next to the 63 Nayanmars.

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Anecdotes abound about his performances. Once the senior pontiff or Maha Periyava of the Kanchi Mutt had come to a programme of Subbu Arumugam. Some mischief-mongers raised the issue of Subbu Arumugam not getting off stage, to seek the blessings of the seer. Subbu did not stir at all. And yet it was the pontiff himself who explained the artiste’s action saying the villuppaatu demands that the feet have to be positioned in a unique manner during a performance and violating that was against professional dharma.

Subbu Arumugam gave the predominantly rural villupaatu a far wider exposure and brought the art form to a global audience with his performances and vigour.


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