How South India proudly sings freedom songs with a local accent

Varsha Venugopal | Updated on August 14, 2020

Joining forces: Actors MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa in Aayirathil Oruvan, the 1965 film that celebrated feelings of national unity and liberty   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Freedom songs of the South are always in harmony with local issues

* Amsi Narayana Pillai’s Varika, Varika, Sahajare (Come, come, comrades) was revived to widespread acclaim in the Mohanlal-starrer Lucifer

* In Telugu, freedom poems and songs were written in the padya (poetic) format — Bahudeshamulu per vadasina (Earn a name in many countries) by Gurram Jashuva is a famous example

* Kuvempu’s vision of freedom included a summary rejection of caste discrimination, gender inequality and superstitions

* The image of a strapping MGR singing of freedom in Aayirathil Oruvan made for an unforgettable cinematic moment

When India was celebrating 50 years of freedom, singer-composer AR Rahman released a song that would widely be seen as an iconic symbol of the country’s spirit. With Thai Manne Vanakkam (I salute you, my motherland), Rahman in 1997 presented a stunningly fresh interpretation of patriotism as a decisive march towards a promising future of unity and growth.

“Like a small, small bird, I flew everywhere... I lost myself searching for an identity,” Rahman sang. “There is no love like yours; and, so, I searched for your lap.” While the Hindi version, Maa Tujhe Salaam, matches its Tamil counterpart in pulling at every Indian’s heart strings, the emotion of ‘coming home’ to soothe an unbearable alienation was special to the Tamil lyrics.

The feeling of patriotism expressed through South Indian songs is suffused with local sentiments — and has been so from the beginning. When the fire of the freedom struggle spread to the South, music took on the role of gathering adherents to the cause and packaging the ideals of a free India alongside urgent social issues.


In Kerala, Amsi Narayana Pillai’s Varika, Varika, Sahajare (Come, come, comrades) energised the people milling to join the Dandi March at Kozhikode in 1930. A timeless piece, the song was revived to widespread acclaim in a new avatar in the recent Mohanlal-starrer Lucifer. Kerala’s songs, like those from the other southern states, called out to the people to join the freedom struggle while preserving the essence of regional identity. As the poet Vallathol Narayanan Menon (1878-1958) wrote: “When you hear the word ‘India’, you should swell with pride; when you hear the word ‘Keralam’, blood should boil in your veins.”

In fertile Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the call for people’s participation in the independence movement was presented as a love for the motherland. Many such poems and songs were written in the padya (poetic) format in Telugu — the song Bahudeshamulu per vadasina (Earn a name in many countries), by the literary great Gurram Jashuva (1895-1971) is one example. Other eminent poets such as Acharya Atreya and Devulappalli Krishnasastri also focused on the theme of Mother India.

Among Kannada litterateurs, the poet Shantakavi was one of the first to pick up the pen to heed Gandhiji’s call for a non-violent freedom struggle, according to writer RS Mugali’s contribution to the 1977 book Indian Literature (Sahitya Akademi). Shantakavi’s Nammadi Nammadi Bharathabhoomi (This is our land) was said to have inspired many young people to join the cause. Then there’s the incomparable poet Kuppali Venkatappa Kutappa (1904-94), fondly known as Kuvempu. His vision of freedom included a summary rejection of caste discrimination, gender inequality and superstitions. “Drive away those numerous gods,” he wrote. “Mother India is our goddess, let us worship her alone.”

Like Kuvempu, the Tamil clarion call for freedom included fiery themes of social justice, women’s rights and a redefining of India as a free country surging towards social and economic progress. Poet Bharathiyar’s famous exhortation Rowthiram Pazhaghu (Practise anger, which appears in his collection of maxims titled Puthiya Athichoodi) sought to channel people’s anger against injustices into meaningful action. When freedom fighter VO Chidambaram Pillai launched his company ‘The Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company’ in 1906, to break the British empire’s maritime trade monopoly, Bharathiyar came up with the song Velli Panimalaiyin (On snowy mountains), which was an anthem of hope: “We will stroll across snow-clad mountains, launch ships across the great seas.”

Tamil films, a powerful mass medium even then, took the cause of freedom forward with films such as Thyaaga Bhoomi (Land of Sacrifice). The song Desa Sevai Seyya Vaareer (Come, serve the nation), banned by the British, inspired people to join the freedom movement.

Post Independence, songs of patriotism reflected the optimism of the people. The 1950s’ path-breaking Malayalam play Ningalenne Communistakki (You made me a communist) had songs written by ONV Kurup and G Devarajan that became massive hits. Tamil films — with stalwarts such as MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi, NS Krishnan and Sivaji Ganesan at the helm — sang of unity, self-respect and progress. Who can forget the image of a strapping MGR singing of freedom in the film Aayirathil Oruvan (1965). Kannadasan’s words come to life in the song Adho Andha Paravai: “We should live like the birds, we should dance like the waves; as one nation, under the same sky, we sing a song for our rights.” As Tamil identity went through a resurgence, the film Roja (1992) sought to reconcile state and national identity in Thamizha Thamizha: “Say that Tamil Nadu is your home; proudly declare that you are an Indian.” Confidence and optimism burst through the song Ini Acham Acham Illai (No more fear) from Indira (1995).

Today, the idea of patriotism is being expressed outside the context of the freedom struggle, exploring sociopolitical issues. In the wake of the controversy over the entry of women to the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, lyricist Harinarayanan BK wrote Ayyan in support of equal access. The Jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu against the ban on bull taming events embraced Hiphop Thamizha’s Takkaru Takkaru (Super, Super) as its anthem: “This is a global political conspiracy, spurred on by commercial interests”. Rapper Arivu’s recent composition Sandai Seivom (We will fight) is an impassioned stand against discriminatory citizenship laws.

The regional music scene is dotted with artistes seeking to share their dreams and bring communities together. Seventy-three years after Independence, music — once again — is dreaming of an all-inclusive India.

Varsha Venugopal is a Chennai-based writer

Published on August 14, 2020

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