The moon and the poet

The moon always brings out the best in poets; like the Chinese “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai, required reading for beginner Chinese students, or contemporary lyrics of movie songs, like Shakeel Badayuni’s Choudvin ka Chand.

This post is about a Tamil song, from the 1970’s. It’s called Vaan Nila Nila Alla, which means (in literal translation) “The moon in the sky is not the moon”. Here’s a video.

There is a background to this song which I was told relatively recently. The lyrics were written by Kannadasan, possibly the most gifted Tamil poet and song-writer of the 20th Century. Kannadasan battled alcoholism and bipolar depression all his life, but he wrote sublime Tamil verse. He was the most sought-after of Tamil lyricists.

The lyrics to this song were (so it is said) written by Kannadasan ‘under protest’. The producer of the movie was insistent that Kannadasan write a song for him. The poet, who was going through one of his lows, was not particularly keen, and tried hard to put off the producer. But the man was insistent. Finally, Kannadasan told him he would dash off a poem for him on the back of a piece of paper, and he would have to be content with that. This is how this song came to be (at least apocryphally) – an extempore creation to put off an unwanted client.

Of all the poetry I have ever read, I think there are few poems that would beat this one for wordplay – especially the pun and the rhyme. But I think this is at least partly because of the language that it is written in. Tamil is an agglutinative language; that means there are no prepositions or question-indicators in the language, these being provided instead by suffixes to the word. For example, the word nenju means heart; nenjil means ‘in the heart’, and nenjilaa means ‘is it in the heart?’. The fact that the language is so pliable means that it is much easier to find rhymes in Tamil than in English; most often, a Tamil word’s trailing syllables are not a part of the root word, but of the grammatical scaffolding instead.

In this song, Kannadasan pulls off an incredible achievement: nearly every phrase rhymes with the word nila (which means ‘moon’), and the poet exploits agglutination in the language to achieve remarkable variety of grammatical expression while retaining this constraint.

The song starts off with: Vaan nila nila alla, un vaalibam nila – “the moon in the sky is not the real moon, your youth is.” The word then in the next line means honey, and very interestingly, the words then nila mean “honey moon” – which has the same meaning in Tamil as in English.

The heights of wordplay are brought out, for instance, in this verse:

Deivam kallila, oru thogaiyin sollila
Ponnila pottila punnagai mottila
Aval kaatum anbila?

I’ve translated this somewhat loosely as:

Does God reside in an idol of stone? Or in the murmur of a woman’s clothing?         [‘thogai‘ literally means a peacock’s fanned-out tail]
In gold? In vermilion? In the bud of her smile?
Or in the love that she shows?

The next stanza is:

Inbam Kattilaa, Aval Thaega Kattila,
Theethilla Kaathala Oodala Koodala?
Aval Meetum Pannilaa?

Which I’ve translated as:

Is love the bed, or in her body’s embrace?
In suffering? In romance? In lover’s fights? Or in their coming-together?
Or is it the song that we draw from her heartstrings?                 [the verb meetu is typically applied to stringed instruments like the veena, and pannu means song.]

Note the amazing fact that almost every word ends with the same syllable in this verse (‘la). In the first word kattila, the agglutinative suffix is the interrogative –akattil being the Tamil word for cot; the second word kattila has the root kattu (which means embrace), and the suffix is –ila, which is a locative, interrogative form (“in the embrace?”). 

I particularly love the climax of the song — the beautiful line Ennilaa aasaigal ennila kondathaen, athai solvaai vennilaa. The first word Ennilaa is a conjugation of eNNu (meaning ‘count’) and ila (meaning ‘not’), and means ‘countless’. The second ennila is a conjugation of en (meaning ‘mine’) and nila (meaning ‘moon’), and means ‘my moon’ (my lover). The last vennilaa means the real moon (literally, white moon). The line means, “Desires innumerable, moon of my life, why has she so many, O moon in the sky?”

Here’s a freer translation:

The moon is an imposter. You light up the night for me,
Not him, though honeyed he be. My lady love, the moon of my life;
Your absence is my waning, and pale-faced am I.

In a land bereft of deer, will not women’s eyes will make up the loss?
And a land without flowers will not miss them, if there are women there.

Does God reside in an idol of stone? Or in the murmur of a woman’s clothes?
Is He in the gold in her hair? The vermillion on her forehead? The bud of her smile? Or in the love she shows?

Is love in the cot? Or in her body’s embrace?
Is it in suffering? In romance? In lover’s fights? In coming together?
Or in the song that we draw from her heartstrings?

Is it in our journey of life, or in the light of a woman,
In a town, or a country, that we find happiness? Is it at home? Or in a petal of her heart?
Is a relationship of the darkness? or of the grace of a woman?

Desires innumerable, the moon of my life, why has she so many, O moon in the sky?


5 thoughts on “The moon and the poet

  1. Thank you so much for this post – this has been one of my most adored songs over the years. For someone who has been brought up in Mumbai with no formal schooling in Tamil, I had missed out on many of the subtleties of this beautiful song, until I saw this post.

    Thank you!


  2. Dega Kattila does not mean body embrace. It’s a reflection of her body’s physical attributes, other than this small error the description about this song is superb. But there are even better lyrical songs than this penned by the great Kannadasan like “Paarthen Sirithen Pakkam Vara Thudithen” from the film “Veera Abhimanyu” or the song “Atthikkai Kai Kai” – also by the way about the moon – from the film “Bale Pandya”.

    1. Thank you for the correction and also for your recommendations! I will check it out. I wish someone would take the effort to translate them into English as my Tamil is not strong enough to appreciate great poetry :-(.

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