While talking to @Raaga_Suresh the other day, the near-perfect understanding of female desire in iLaiyaraaja’s music came up. He referred to mudhal murai from Neethaane En Pon Vasantham and asked me to notice how Ilaiyaraja uses sounds to express female desire and want for s3xual companionship in that song (He writes about it in details here). The conversation led me into thinking about expression of a woman’s desire and especially (because my interest is always in the meanings than sounds) in lyrics. I want to begin with a short one on how Thamarai treats female desire and then I’ll aim to look into other song writers as well. I choose Thamarai merely for reasons of popularity, success and gender. I’d like to explore how women write about their own desire before I look into how men think women desire.
Thamarai is said to have’arrived’ in the Tamil film lyrics scene with VaseegarA from MinnalE. She went on to write aNal melE panitthuLi and ondrA rendA AsaigaL for Gautham Vasudev Menon’s female leads. Largely, the profiles of the three women are similar – they are employed, intelligent, self-dependent and this isn’t puppy love. Given that, it’s interesting how Thamarai perceives desire for each (of course given the circumstances).
I’ll begin with Reena from MinnalE. She sings to Rajesh – she’s attracted to him. They are in her kitchen, desire each other and almost act on it when they break into this song. She’s perhaps unsure because she hasn’t known him long enough (though she believes she is going to be married to him) but desires him nonetheless. There is a sense of helplessness in the lines, a boundary she is desperate to cross.
vaseegarA en nenjinikka un pon madiyil thoonginAl pOdhum
adhae kaNam en kaNNuRanga mun jenmangaLin EkkangaL theerum
naan nEsippadhum svAsippadhum un dhayavAl thAnE
EngugiRaen EngugiRaen un ninaivAl nAnE nAn
She subtly implies desire wrapped cleverly in ‘nEsippadhum svAsippadhum’. While I would have gone the stretch to interpret ‘madiyil thoonginAl pOdhum’ as making love, the metaphor recurs in several other songs of Thamarai’s and it definitely does not mean the same in the others – but I’ll get to that later. For now, the next part that’s interesting here is that there is no talk of pleasure or destination in this song. Merely playfulness, friendship and longing.
oru pOrvaikkuL iru thookkam
un AdaikkuLE naan vENdum
kAdhalenum mudiviliyil gadigAra nEram kidaiyAdhae (edit on 29/06/2013: Thanks @vforvadi)
It becomes highly arguable if these lines are indeed about desire. The use of the metaphors (Adai, pOrvai etc.) must be a way to circumvent her inability to convince herself that he is the right guy for her. In fact, she isn’t convinced until the far end of the film.
In contrast, Maya of Kaakka Kaakka is sure. In the scene where she proposes to him (or responds to his question about what she wants), she speaks about making love (ok, most GVM heroines do, but that’s besides the point here) to him and having children with him. So, during the celebratory first night after their wedding where the song ondrA rendA AsaigaL festures, you’d expect passion/ desire. Turns out, it’s not what you get. What begins as ‘ondrA rendA AsaigaL ellAm sollavE Or nAl pOdhumA’ does not discuss anything about desire/ Asai/ want/ wish. She meanders into explaining why she loves him (which was already well established earlier in the film).
The closest that comes to desire is
NathigaLilE neerAdum sooriyanai nAn kaNdEn
VErvaigaLin thuLi vazhiya nee varuvAy ena nindrEn
UnnAl en nenjil ANin manam
Naan un sontham endra eNam tharum
Maghizhchi meeruthE, vaanathai thAnduthey saaga thOnruthey
The imagery created by ‘NathigaLilE neerAdum sooriyan’ and ‘VErvaigaLin thuLi vazhiya nee varuvAy’ is miraculously interesting. Exploring the physical attraction towards a man’s body in this song as against ‘dinamum nee kuLitthadhum ennai thEdi, en sElai nuNiyAl undhan thalai thudaippAye..’ is fresh. But aNal mElE panitthuLi is far more intriguing in exploring physical desire. It’s perhaps important that the woman Priya knows Surya from her childhood and they are well past stages of romance and formalities. What’s here is raw desire and uninhibited the interest in pleasure. The picturisation of the song takes immense interest in Suriya’s body – apart from Kamal, I don’t recollect seeing so much of a man’s skin (so much to the extent that I can already hear people say ‘don’t objectify men’:))
ANal mele panitthuLi; alaipAyum oru kiLi
maram thEdum mazhaitthuLi; ivaithaane ival ini
Imai irandum thanitthani; urakangaL urai pani
EdarkAga thadai ini
The distraction that desire causes and the wish to break boundaries! It gets better as the song goes.
Unadhu iru vizhi tadaviyathAl amizhnthuvittEn mayakathilE
Uthiradume udalin thirai; Adu thaan ini nilavin karai karai
Iru karaigaLai udaithidavE perugidumA kadal alaiyE; iru iru uyir thathaLikayil vazhi sollumA kalangaraiyE
UnathalaigaL enai adikka; karai sErvathum kanAvil nigazhnthida
It’s the unapologetic, straightforward, not-shy ask for pleasure is what excites me here. But looking deeper into Thamarai’s work, this perhaps does not arise from the lyricist’s approach to a woman’s desire.
Another one of Thamarai’s popular songs of desire must be kaNgaL irandAl from Subramaniapuram. This is a duet and therefore I shouldn’t classify it as entire about female desire. But I’ll look at the lines that the female character sings to bring out some points.
Somehow I am not convinced Thamarai is any (radically) different from male lyricists while writing duet songs. (Let me explain: Expression of s3xual desire for someone a woman may or may not love must be uninhibited, without holding back; perhaps, without seeing the need to hold back). Without accham, madam, naanam – something women have been forced to possess since times immemorial. Given that premise, let’s look at kaNgaL irandAl.
Male: iravum allAdha pagalum allAdha pozhudhugal unnOdu kazhiyumA
thodavum koodAtha padavum koodAtha; idaiveli appOdhu kuraiyumA
Female: madiyinil sAindhida thudikudhE; marupuram nAnamum thadukudhe
The difference in male and female thinking about desire (albeit poetic) is stark there. Also, for all you ladies, when you desire a man, how often do you stop yourself because of your nAnam? (genuine question)
Then Thamarai does the ideal woman drab in oru vetkam varudhE from Pasanga with vetkam and accham intact. Not alone does the song begin with vetkam and discuss accham, it’s interesting how you can read the lines (without listening to the song) and figure out what lines are for the man and what for the woman.
oru vekkam varuthey varuthey; siru acham tharuthey tharuthey
manam indru alai payuthey; ithu enna muthala mudiva
ini enthan uyirum unatha; puthu inbam thalatuthey
Poga cholli kalgal thalla; nirka cholli nenjam killa
ithu muthal anubhavamey; ini ithu thodarnthidumey
ithu tharum tharum thadumatra sugam
Mazhai indru varuma varuma; kulir konjam tharuma tharuma
Kanvennai kalavaduthey; Ithu enna muthala mudiva
ini enthan uyirum unatha; puthu inbam thalatuthey
Ketu vangi kolum thunbam; kooru potu kolum inbam
para para para ena vey; thudi thudithidum manamey
vara vara vara karai thandidumey
It may not be exceptionally important considering our heteronormative understanding of desire and how much of our poetry is written within the confines of the distinct and complimentary boxes of gender roles we assume. The rise of female writers is meant to do precisely this: break open the traditional understanding of gendered behaviour and Thamarai seemed like the sort of writer who will break those boundaries. Perhaps not always.
For instance, there is ‘aanin manathirkulum penmai irukirathey’ in oru vekkam varuthey and ‘aasaiyum naanamum sandaigal podudhe’ (sung by the male) in panithuli from kanda naal mudhal. But the bigger problem could arise from the limited metaphors that Thamarai seems to have. ‘madiyil saayvadhu/ thoonguvadhu’, ‘kaatril vaasam’, ‘kanavu’, ‘sudum panitthuli’ – I’ve listed a handful of songs here and you see all these metaphors repeated in these very songs.
I only wish the women I see on screen desire without inhibitions and apologies. Desire, seek, demand – without having to worry about anything. Why not?
P.S: In fact a good 20 years ago, Vairamuthu called accham & naanam ‘hyder kaala pazhasu‘. I’ll look into the idea of ‘modernising’ and the way women have modernised. But that’s for another post.