Songs that have been passed on orally from generation to generation must be preserved, or they might simply get lost. Forever. Thankfully, a few women are doing their bit to keep them alive

Some of my earliest memories have been of my grandmother singing. She was no professional, but in her soft, quavering voice, she sang all the time. She chanted His praises when she decorated the puja room, hummed folk songs as she cooked; and when she put me to sleep, she crooned soothing melodies — chiding Krishna, affectionately, for his mischief. The songs she sang were hardly known outside her family; she had learnt them from her mother and aunts, just as they had from their elders. No music teacher teaches them now; they're not on Youtube; they live on — like many other rare, beautiful songs — as memories, in grey, old heads.

Through generations

Just like my grandmother, many women of her generation are storehouses of knowledge — be it home remedies or home-grown music. “I come from a joint family with plenty of aunts. There was always someone or the other singing songs and it was they who taught my four sisters and me,” says 76-year-old Varada Prasad. “The songs were in Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. Learning music and singing was our only entertainment.” But thankfully, Varada didn't just stop with singing them; over the years, she has carefully written down all the songs she has learnt, along with anecdotes related to them, in the margins. And to make it accessible to the next generation, she has also translated old, vernacular rhymes into English for her grandchildren.

Eighty-two-year-old Lakshmi Ramamurthy, similarly, has an entire tunes library in her head. Her daughter Suseela talks about Savithri paadam, Devi paadam and Chitraguptan kadhai that she and her sisters learnt from her. “When we were children, we used to help clean the yearly spices — remove the seeds from tamarind, sift through mustard seeds — in cChithirai (mid-April to mid-May), while she entertained us with these songs. In Chitraguptan kadhai, all mortal sins were listed in great detail; it struck fear in our hearts, and we never wanted to repeat them.” There were, she says, slokams recited by all the women in the household when the vVengalapaanai (a kind of pot) was placed on the wood-fired stove; and others when water was brought from the Cauvery. “But as people moved to the towns, these activities and the verses that went with them were nearly lost; many were never found in books or cassettes. My mother, however, has preserved several songs by writing them down, and we're now trying to get a rare one — called ‘Vandikaal Charithram' (a song on Lord Venkateshwara) published as a booklet.”

For her part, Jayalakshmi Narasimhan, octogenarian from Kanchipuram, has been composing as well as teaching music for many years. ‘Paatu Maami', as she's called, says she and her older sister compose songs on different deities. “I don't know how the songs come to me; I set the songs to simple Carnatic tunes. My students and I perform them in temples and sabhas, and lately, people have been asking for the songs and even offering to buy them. I just want it to reach people, and so my daughter-in-law is now compiling over 30 of them into a book,” she says.

For wider audience

And all this makes you wonder, doesn't it, especially when social media makes a mockery of real achievements (how many ‘likes' do you think a post saying ‘I scored 56,000 on Angry Birds' gets? You'll be surprised — dozens!), why is it that women who're quietly making a difference go unappreciated? May be it's reach. Or, the lack of it. “My mother used to sing a lullaby — ‘Gopala Krishnaswamy Gokulathilley', and at least three generations of children have gone to sleep listening to it,” says Suseela. “Maybe, someday, we could even get the good singers in the family to cut these old songs into a CD; that way, it will have a wider audience.” An audience it well and truly deserves….

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Varada Prasad reminisces on learning Purandaradasa Devaranama in Kannada. “The headmaster of a school taught it to us. The interesting thing is he had taken a vow that he would feed the poor in a Rama temple. For this, he begged for alms door-to-door in Mysore. I remember him appearing at home — a tall man with a turban and orange robes. We could hear him at the end of the road. His resonant voice was heard long before he appeared and we would be ready with rice to give him. My mother requested that gentleman to teach us (her daughters), the devarnamas of Purandaradasa.”

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Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012