11 October 1826 - 21 July 1889
Hindu, 1 November 2002
Vedanayagam Pillai was a remarkable
poet. But that was only one of the several talents
he had. "Chittam Eppadiyo... Ayya... " As the
vidwan sang in an emotive spirit, many in the
audience were drawn into an introspective mood.
More than the music, it was the purport of the
lyrics that created this effect. Even more so, it
was in a language they understood
ï¿½ Tamil. As they wondered who the
composer of this thought provoking lyric was, the
singer sang "Vedanayagane... "
Vedanayagam Pillai was indeed one of the remarkable
Tamil poets of the febrile 19th century. One daily
paying homage to this poet on his death on July 21,
1889, said, "Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai was the
Oliver Goldsmith of our times." Vedanayagam Pillai
was not just a master poet but also much more.
A renowned jurist, a social worker, Tamil's first
novelist, Vedanayagam had in addition a sterling
personal quality that made him stand head and
shoulders above his fellowmen. He was humane. The
same newspaper also added these words in its
obituary ï¿½ "Only a few men deserve
the name of `Gentlemen' and if the word can with
perfect propriety be applied, it is to this great
man." The newspaper was not paying encomiums
without reason. During the famine that shook Tamil
Nadu during 1876-1880, Vedanayagam responded
spontaneously and generously to the desperate
hunger calls of humanity. He contributed all the
physical and material resources that he could
generate towards the rehabilitation of the victims.
It was this trait in Pillai that led that master
composer, Gopalakrishna Bharati, to compose a song
ï¿½ "Neeye purusha meru"
ï¿½ in Vedanayagam's praise. A
tribute all the more significant for Gopalakrishna
Bharati rarely sang in praise of a human being for
The spontaneous appeal of the songs of Vedanayagam
captivated even the orthodox and rigid connoisseurs
of both Tamil and music. Vedanayagam Pillai was a
Tamil Christian by birth. Story goes that on one
occasion his parents ï¿½ Savarimuthu
Pillai and Arogya Mariammal ï¿½
offered food and clothing to a mendicant in
distress. The mendicant was touched by this
kindness and blessed them that they would give
birth to a worthy son and that he should be named
The mendicant's words came true. On October 11,
1826, at a village called Kolathur in Tiruchi
district, Vedanayagam Pillai was born. In the world
of letters, the father was his son's first tutor,
but later on, Vedanayagam was brought under the
tutelage of Tyagaraja Pillai, who taught him both
English and Tamil. Learning English was a matter of
great prestige and honour in those days.
Vedanayagam must have certainly been a precocious
child, for even at the age of ten, he started
composing light, humorous verses for situations
like a wedding or the arrival of a rare guest.
On completing his education, Vedanayagam joined the
Tiruchi court as a record keeper and soon got
promoted as a translator. A quick learner, he
learnt Sanskrit, French and Latin and also used
every opportunity to acquaint himself with the law
books. In 1856, he wrote an examination to qualify
as district Munsiff.
In 1860, he was appointed the District Munsiff of
Mayuram and served there for 13 years and came to
be known as Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai. However,
his road to professional success was ridden with
difficulties. Finally, he quit his job in 1963.
Notwithstanding his professional demands,
Vedanayakam pursued his mission of writing songs
and books. In 1858, he wrote a highly acclaimed
ethical work called the Neethi Nool.
In all, he wrote 16 books. His hugely popular
``Pratapa Mudaliar Charitram" has also the
distinction of being the first novel in Tamil. In
addition, he also translated law books in
Vedanayagam Pillai was proficient in music too. The
great musicologist Abraham Pandian, a contemporary
of Pillai paid him compliments. "Vedanayakam Pillai
of Mayuram was a celebrated vidwan in Tamil and
Sangeeta Sahityam and a good player on the veena.
More than a thousand of his keerthanais have been
printed and are in use... "
The great Tamil composer Gopalakrishna Bharati was
charmed by the songs of Pillai. It is said that
Vedanayagam sang every one of his compositions, as
soon as it was created, in the presence of Bharati,
to get his approval. Tamil poet and litterateur
Meenakshisundaram Pillai and Vedanayagam Pillai had
mutual admiration for each other. Ramalinga
Vallalar found a like-minded soul in Pillai, the
Mahasannidham of Tiruvavaduturai Math
ï¿½ Subramanya Desikar
ï¿½ held regular parleys with him on
several topics. It was not surprising, for if
Pillai knew his Bible he knew his Tirukkural
equally well. For that matter, Vedanayagam Pillai
was secular to the core. His songs were not
addressed to any personal God and were aptly
titled,`` Sarva Samaya Samarasa Kirtanaigal."
Each one of Vedanayagam Pillai's songs had a
message to convey. He was a great champion of
women's rights and education. He said that one
should work hard for a living, lead a simple life
and help others as much as they could. He also
reacted against atheism ï¿½ "if
there be a poet for a poem, a potter for a pot, an
artist for a picture then there should be a creator
for the universe," he asserted.
On the lines of Tyagaraja's "Nidhichala sukhama" he
wrote "Manam Peridha, Varumanam Peridha?" Some of
the popular songs of Pillai are ``Naale Nalla
Nall," ``Nee Malaikkade Nenje," ``Tharunam,
tharunam... " One can find a profusion of Sanskrit
words and proverbs in his Tamil compositions.
Vedanayagam Pillai's domestic life was far from
happy. He married five times as each of his wives
lived only for a short time. The peace loving man
that Pillai was, his journey through life also had
a smooth ending. He died peacefully with all his
loved ones around him.