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A poet, first and foremost

When poet-lyricist Prabha Varma won the 2020 national award for the best lyrics for the song ‘Arodum parayuka vayya/Aa ravin ninavukalellam…’ from the film “Kolaambi”, he ended a quarter-century drought in the Malayalam film industry. It has been almost 25 years since a Malayalam song bagged the top award.

Varma is the fourth Malayalam lyricist to receive the national award instituted in 1969. Poet-lyricists Vayalar Ramavarma, O N V Kurup and Yusufali Kechery were those who won the award in the past. “I consider this award more as an honour to Malayalam lyrics than a personal achievement. Often, Malayalam songs are ignored, despite their merit over most film songs in other languages,” says Varma.

Varma is best known for his poems, especially Shyama Madhavam, considered his magnum opus, in which he paints a different picture of Krishna. Compared to the vast body of poetry he has written and published over the years, his contribution to Malayalam film songs is meagre. But, the ever-increasing popularity of his songs such as “Oru Chempaneer Pooviruthu njanomale…,” he penned for the film Sthithi (2003), sung and composed by Unni Menon, proves the lasting impression he has been able to make in Malayalam cinema lyrics.

The challenge, says the lyricist, while working for “Kolaambi”, directed by T K Rajeev Kumar, was that the film demanded two songs in the same metre, exuding opposite emotions. While one demanded pathos, the other one was romantic to the core. Ramesh Narayanan’s music enlivened both songs to a mesmerizing degree. It’s the romantic song in this yet to be released film that fetched Varma the national award. But, like the audience, the lyricist too has predilections, says Varma when he says that if he were the jury, he would have chosen the other half of the twin songs, the one which exudes pathos.

“If you ask me whether the song “Arodum parayuka vayya/Aa ravin ninavukalellam” is my favourite, I would say no. There are a lot many songs I feel closer to. For example, the song “Oru Chempaneer pooviruthu njanomale…” never fetched any award but different versions of it continue to trend on social media. And in the film “Kolaambi”, the song “Ororo novin Kanalilum/ Eriyaanore Nilaavin Thalirithalo…” sung by Bombay Jayasree is my favourite. If I were the jury, I would have given it the award,” says Varma.

But awards largely depend on the taste of the jury. They must have found more merit in the romantic song, he says. “That’s why I said I consider the award more as an honour to Malayalam lyrics than a personal achievement,” he adds.

It was the musical rendering of Sanskrit slokas and mantras by his father P K Narayanan Namboothiri that opened to little Varma the doors of letters and music. “He used to render mantras and slokas beautifully. Even without knowing the meaning, I started following them with a verve and admiration at a very young age,” he recalls. Varma is not ready to subscribe to the arguments that film-goers of the current generation look only for fast-paced songs with dry prose. The problem, he would say, is more with the mediocre music directors than anybody else. Many music directors don’t have the creativity and knowledge to give life to musical verses with poetic qualities.

“Since they are unable to give life to written words, they prefer to use the text as a filler for music. This was not the case when great musicians like Dakshinamoorthy Swamikal and Devarajan master were running the show. They had the gift and knowledge to give life to written words. I really wish if I had the opportunity to work with masters like them,” he says.

Unlike directors like K S Sethumadhavan in the past, most film directors of the present leave the music department and songs to the discretion of the music director, who often considers it as a contract work. But it doesn’t mean that there are no talents around, he says. According to Varma, his oeuvre of film songs is not fat in terms of numbers for two reasons. “One is that I don’t live by writing songs and so I don’t go after music directors or film producers, seeking a chance. Second, owing to the official positions I hold (Varma was formerly the resident editor of Desabhimani Daily and currently the media advisor to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan), many harbour a false belief that I am not approachable. Once a director and producer decided to ask me to write songs for their film and they started their journey from Ernakulam to Thiruvananthapuram. But by the time they reached Alappuzha, the misunderstanding about me reached such a height that they decided not to proceed further and cancelled the trip,” he says with a tinge of humour.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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