In this TNM exclusive, the lyricist shares her experiences on penning some of the latest earworms.

I broke stereotype of women writing only love songs Kaala lyricist Uma Devi to TNM
Flix Interview Sunday, June 17, 2018 - 14:38

Music has the power to conjure worlds, to heal wounds. And lyrics work a whole different kind of magic. The romantics like me will tell you that the battle is real – is it the song’s lyrics, or is it the music? Which triumphs? Which becomes indispensable for a song? Ensnared by the charm of its lyrics, caught in the web of its music, a song can also be a dying man's last wish.

I reluctantly turn down the volume on singer Ananthu’s version of 'Kannamma' that has been playing for the 100th time as I prepare to interview lyricist Uma Devi over the phone. When I tell her that I’ve been addicted to the song, there’s a pause and the faint sound of a smile on the other end.

Uma Devi is among the very few who’ve tasted success in their very first attempt in the film industry. A literary scholar, poet and a language professor, Uma Devi shares that becoming a lyricist happened for her only by chance.

Born in Athipakkam village in Vandavasi taluk of Thiruvannamalai district, Uma Devi did her schooling and undergraduation in her hometown. She then moved to Chennai to pursue her master’s. Coming from a family of artists, Umadevi’s foray into writing came very early.

“My parents are koothu kalaignargal (folk artists) and my brother too is a poet. I’ve always been surrounded by a very creative environment,” she tells us.

Having obtained a PhD from the International Institute of Tamil Studies, Uma Devi is currently an assistant professor at Ethiraj College for Women in Chennai. She also regularly publishes her poetry in prominent Tamil magazines and is a well-known figure in literary circles.

Director Pa Ranjith, before becoming a filmmaker, was a painter and a devoted literature aficionado, and the friendship between the two dates back to before either of their debut in the world of cinema.

Already acquainted with her work, Ranjith requested Uma Devi to pen lyrics for one of his film’s songs. Out came the poignant and subtle ‘Naan Nee’ rendered beautifully by Shakthisree Gopalan in Pa Ranjith’s Madras in 2014. And this set the stage for Uma Devi the lyricist. The young poet has penned over 20 songs so far.

“I was given the tune and the baseline of the story. In fact, 'Naan Nee' is a very story-like song,” begins Umadevi. She recalls the line ‘Uyir vaazha mulkooda oru paravaiyin veedaai maaridume’ and explains that it is the most basic imageries from life that she’s alluded to. “If you’ve observed birds, they pick up almost every object they can find to build their nests – thorns, wires, they don’t mind even if it hurts them. Isn’t that the most basic instinct of life?”

Soon after Madras came Kabali in which Uma Devi penned the lyrics for two chartbusters – ‘Maya Nadhi’ and ‘Veera Thurandhara’. The songs also won her Norway Tamil Film Festival Award for Best Lyricist.

There’s an aching sadness in both 'Maya Nadhi' (Kabali) and 'Kannamma' (Kaala). Yet the songs are strikingly different in the images that they conjure up. “Both 'Maya Nadhi' and 'Kannamma' are about lovers reuniting. Both the songs are of intimacy but while you can feel the warmth in 'Maya Nadhi', it leaves you with a void in 'Kannamma'. It’s the kind that slips past your hand. I felt the heaviness while writing 'Kannamma',” shares Uma Devi.

Her 'Veera Thurandhara' too was widely appreciated by many. “People often expect women writers to write love songs or songs that have feminine expressions. I feel I’ve broken that stereotype with 'Veera Thurandhara'. It was a challenging piece and my favourite to this day,” she shares.

The workings of a creative mind are often a puzzle. Uma Devi shares that imagination is crucial for a creative person. “The experience of imagining a particular situation, something that I’ve not been through personally, is almost like teleporting from one body to another (koodu vittu koodu payardhu). This is how I’ve been able to create.”

She goes on to add that a song gets more memorable when the picturisation is done right. “Sometimes I convey the image I have in mind to the music director or director,” she says.

But in 'Kannamma', when the lines ‘Kaayangal aatrum, thalaikkodhi thetrum, kaalangal kaikooduthe’ play, Kaala literally tousles Zareena’s daughter’s hair. Was she present when the song was directed?

“I was indeed surprised when I saw that picturisation. I would say it is the kind of understanding Pa Ranjith has of my work. Because we share similar ideologies, I’d say it has come through in the song,” she explains.

A successful woman is often asked about being underrepresented, of how she manages to tackle the odds lined up against her. Uma Devi, however, says that the odds are not stacked up against her in this case.

“I would say, of all the languages in the country, only Tamil has a good number of women lyricists. Writers like Thamarai have been able to sustain for over two decades in this industry. We do have great minds like Kutty Revathi, Tamazhachi Thangapandian, Rohini and others.”

Uma Devi talks passionately about gender equality, both in real life and in her songs. Her ‘Vaadi Thimira’ from Jyothika’s Magalir Mattum, ‘Puthu Varalare’ from Nayanthara’s Aramm, are a few examples.

“It was my way of expressing my anger and my longing for a society that treats its women fairly. This is not something new. We’ve been asking for it for over 2,500 years,” she says, adding, “If a woman asks for or talks about equality, she’s asking for everyone’s equality. But it is not the same when a man talks about it.”

Uma Devi also refuses to acknowledge the constraints society has foisted upon women.

“For most of my songs I decide the male and female parts. In Kaala’s 'Kannamma' song, I was asked why I made a man sing the lines, ‘Oottadha thaayin, kanakkindra paal pol, en kaadhal kidakkindrathe.’? Common sense might tell you motherhood is just a physical expression but it is more than that. I believe everyone can feel motherhood. If a woman were to sing these lines, it might sound normal. The effect is accentuated coming from a man,” she says.

Her ‘Thoranam Aayiram’ in Aramm is another song with powerful lyrics. The song fetched her Best Lyricist Award in Vijay Awards 2017. “The song is about a necessity making someone murderous. I felt deeply about Anita’s fate while writing it. Education that is a basic necessity became murderous in her case. In the film too, water (a basic necessity) became murderous. I get to express the angst I feel through words,” she says.

A devout literary enthusiast, Uma Devi talks at length of the beauty that can be found in Sangam era pieces. “I always believe that those who write with an affection for the language, its grammar and its ancient literature are the ones who’ll be able to bring out work that’ll last longer. Everything else will fade,” she finishes.

Uma Devi has a number of projects lined up for this year, including Vijay Sethupathi’s 96 and Ashwin Saravanan’s Iravaakaalam starring SJ Suryah. A teacher during the day, she shares that most of her works are the fruits of night labour.

After hanging up, I turn up the volume on 'Kannamma', playing it yet another time that day, but listening to it with a more nuanced understanding of having spoken to one of its creators.

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