If it is Bob Dylan, why not Ilaiyaraja?


The Swedish Academy has pushed the eligibility limits further for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Works which once did not merit literary consideration at all have now attracted its attention in this post-post-modernist world of high liberalism and take-it-easy attitude.

For the first time in the annals of the Academy, a song-writer-singer has got the coveted award. The Nobel in Literature for 2016 for American rock and roll icon Bob Dylan has raised several eyebrows though by and large acclaimed all over the word. The social media is divided vertically on this prize given to a lyricist.

Fans and detractors of the singer legend of the US, who are, though, unanimous in their good opinion about the extraordinary lyrical and melodious skills of Dylan, could not help raising questions over the poetic strength or literary quality of his songs. They feel a little hesitant to put him in the august league of great Nobel laureates such as T. S. Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samuel Beckett, Tony Morrison, Albert Camus, Tagore.

There is no gainsaying that Dyalhas created, as the Academy has said, “new poetic expressions in the American tradition of song”, raising voices against war and for civil rights in 1960’s. He has certainly infused new blood into the folk song tradition. While Grammy award is given exclusively for such musicians, should a Nobel Prize in Literature be given to the musician, howsoever popular he is? That is the question, seemingly reasonable and justifiable, which drives the raging controversy.

Salmam Rushdie of ‘The Satanic Verses’ fame has termed Dylan as a good choice. Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the 18-member Nobel Prize Committee, has justified the selection, saying that poetry from time immemorial has been more sung rather than read and has had a tradition dating backto the age of Homer and Sappho. Dylan has indeed perpetuated the tradition, she said, quoting his own line, “times, they are a-changing.” Dylan too has conceded that his own songs have been impacted heavily by great poets such as Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Ezra Pound etc.

It is quite obvious that Dylan’s aesthetic sensibility and poetic sense get reflected in his performing art. No wonder, in 1988 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and honoured with scores of awards including the Grammy.

All said and done, the question still nags one’s mind whether his songs could, with ease, fit into the lofty genre of poetry, the Queen of Arts, whose definition and disciples are still uncompromising and highly demanding. For instance, Norman Mailer, US writer, once said, “If Dylan is a poet, then I am a basketball player.”

Echoing the line of Mailer, the pitchfork.com, an online magazine, has written a critical article captioned as, “The World Does Not Need Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize Winner in Literature.” An excerpt will illustrate the current against Dylan:

“…. it was still somewhat shocking—even disappointing—to see that Dylan had won this year’s prize. His work, certainly, is monumental. His words changed songwriting—culture, even. And he has been awarded for that repeatedly in appropriate forums—with Grammys, an Oscar, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But he is a musician, and his relationship with words is as a lyricist, someone whose prose exists inexorably with music. To read his lyrics flatly, without the sound delivering them, is to experience his art reduced.

Consider one of Dylan’s most powerful songs, “Hurricane,” about the false imprisonment of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an anthem whose words are delivered with a rhythmic urgency that mirrored the situation his writing described. “We wanna pin this triple murder on him!” is not the greatest sentence on its own, but rendered through the character embodied by Dylan’s voice, the line becomes fierce. Reading him is fine, but considering Dylan’s words without his music is like watching a cooking show and declaring chocolate cake superb without ever having taken a bite. Sure looks good, but is that all that makes it delicious?”

It is quite an irony that certain literary stalwarts, whose immortal works are still being read and discussed the world over, were not favourably considered for the honour by the Swedish Academy. Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Henry James and John Updike….. the list goes on.

The iron has got sharper when tens and thousands of fans of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami felt disappointed over the persistent denial of Nobel prize to him. Apart from the merits of a person deserving the highest honour, are there any extraneous considerations at play?  One can’t help raising the question, going by the past record of the Nobel Prize.

For instance, Mahatma Gandhi, whom scientist Einstein described as a man whose existence would not be believed by the posterity and  whose merits for the Nobel Peace Prize were certainly beyond doubt, was not at all honoured by the Swedish Academy though he was nominated five times. But Obama whose peace efforts definitely pale in comparison with the Mahatma was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just when he was nine months into the Presidency of the US.

GeirLundestad, former secretary of the Nobel committee, has conceded it, saying, “In our 106-year-old history, the greatest omission we have done is our failure to honour Gandhi with Nobel Peace Prize.” He has attributed the mistake to the probable European-centric attitude of the members who could not properly appreciate the freedom struggles in colonial countries.

Anyway, the Nobel committee has now recognized even contributions to the revival of folk music by a US singer-cum-songwriter who is no doubt the most popular.

Now another question arises whether the committee will recognize and honour such personalities who have dedicated their lives to the revival and renaissance of folk music, irrespective of language, race, country, religion, creed and what not! There is no dearth of such musicians in several languages and in several countries  who write songs and sing them through whatever media are available to  them.

For instance, for nearly 40 years, Tamil Nadu, the southernmost part of India, has been witnessing and enjoying the works of a great musician who has blended the native folk music with the western, Carnatic and all forms of music. He is Ilaiyaraja whose genius has already been demonstrated through symphony.

Maybe, the dhoti-clad genius has no western appearance, nor wears western apparels; but the music that keeps on flowing through his soul is no less greater; in fact, the emotions that his melodious notes evoke are universally human and do not need any language at all for interpretation.

Will the Nobel Committee come down to listen to our Ilaiyaraja’s music and award him the same way as it did in the case of Bob Dylan?


Maharathi is a poet writing in Tamil and English; he has a collection of Tamil poems titled, “Mazhai Iravukal,’ (Rainy nights) published in 2013. His writings in Tamil and English have been published in various Tamil and English magazines and websites.


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