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There are two sets of poets who write in Tamil: the ones who pen film songs and the others who don't. There is a sharp division not just in their output but also in who gets what and how much. Most say the poetlyricists walk away with all the recognition and money, while others remain in the background due to a fall in literary standards. "There are those who pen film lyrics and are sometimes paid Rs 1 lakh per song. Who will pay me that kind of money for my poems?" asks Abdul Rahman, who is referred to as Kaviko, or emperor among poets. His avant-garde voice, a mixture of varied imageries and puns, is much appreciated in literary circles. But many are unaware of the work of this former Tamil professor, a Sahitya Akademi award winner and now the chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Waqf Board.
Rahman says he is fine with the limited amount of publicity and is happy doing what he likes. "I consciously decided not to write film songs because it is a livelihood where you will have to listen to others. You will be asked to make the lyrics sexy or pepper it with English words. I am not willing to compromise on my ideals, so I keep away, " he asserts.
But there are others who easily transcend the barriers to write superhit film songs and brilliant poetry at the same time. Award-winning poet-lyricist Vairamuthu is known for his collaboration with composer AR Rahman. Filmmakers say that when the two come together, they bring out the best in both and help create superlative hits, the latest instance being songs from Raavanan.
"There has always been confusion when it comes to Tamil poets who don't know whether to write just poetry or try their hand at penning lyrics as well, " says publisher Gandhi Kannadasan. Very few, according to him, can straddle both worlds. "Twentieth century poet Bharathidasan and his mentor Subramanya Bharathi were brilliant poets. But their forays into films were not successful unlike my father Kannadasan, who was appreciated by both the intellectuals and the masses, " he says. Poet Kannadasan was also a scholar who won the Sahitya Akademi award for his novel Cheraman Kadali in 1980, and was one of the earliest recipients of the National Film award for best lyrics in 1969.
Not everyone can emulate the same kind of success, says poet Kutty Revathi, whose poetry of body politics outraged fellow poets and readers no end. "I have been sidelined after I wrote Breasts in 2002. But I can live with that, " says Revathi. What she is unable to digest is the general apathy towards poets who don't dabble in films. "I can't live on poetry. Magazines won't buy my stuff;nor does my work get recognised by mainstream critics, " she rues. Kannadasan attributes this to a fall in literary standards. "People loved Subramanya Bharathi for his poetry. Now poets are recognised only for their film songs, " he says.
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