At a time when folk music is fading, Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan and M. Navaneethakrishnan have revived its popularity and brought respectability to the song of the masses

Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan and her husband M. Navaneethakrishnan need no introduction. Their house is a repository of folk arts. They have dedicated their life to the collection, preservation and documentation of folk and tribal music. They also help promote folk theatre, religion and culture.“Folk music brings to light the social history of the people,” says Vijayalakshmi, resplendent in multi-coloured silk saree, jewellery and bright kum kum. “This art form cannot be taken lightly. It has a lot of serious implications as it reflects the way of life. Between the lines one can understand how our ancestors have passed on the information to the next generation on the purpose of life and how to live,” she says.

Born in Chinnasuraikaipatti Village near Rajapalayam, young Vijayalakshmi was drawn into folk music seeing people sing and dance in the village temple festivals. “When I was asked to choose between tailoring and music, I preferred music as an optional course at school,” she says.

Her singing is spontaneous and natural. Both her mother and her grandmother sing well, and she was inspired by seeing people perform Kaniyan Koothu, Kolattam, Kummi and Mulaippari. “My village is full of temples,” she says. “Starting from the Tamil month of Thai to Aadi, not a single month passes without a temple festival. In those days, invasion of mass media was less. Radio was new to us. We spent the whole night watching the performances,” she reminisces.

Years later, when Vijayalakshmi, as a research scholar, revisited her village in pursuit of people who sang folk songs of ethereal quality, she returned empty-handed. “I went there to document those songs,” she recalls. “I could remember only a few lines of the folk song I heard as a child. So I went there to see one Ayyamma to collect the remaining lines. But she was no more. Though her daughter and granddaughter were very much present, they have not learnt the art from her,” she laments.

She marched to the temple and sat there for hours in meditation, till she was able to recollect the lyrics. Now, she has a good collection of songs on Uraiyur Vekkaliamman, Madapuram Kaliamman and Vandiyur Mariamman.

Communicating through songs

Folk music has songs for every occasion from birth to death. “Our ancestors have communicated a lot through this art,” says Navaneethakrishnan. “For example, through a lullaby the mother of the newborn establishes her position by boasting of her parents’ wealth. At times, she also intelligently uses the art form to vent her emotions. She never fails to remind her in-laws that she also has an equal right in that house.” The community of a person could be identified just by the prelude note of the lullaby, he adds.

“It is a beautiful sight to see the mother communicating with her baby,” says Vijayalakshmi. “She becomes the first teacher. Through the ‘Thaappu, Thaamaraipoo’ song, she introduces the child to nature and the world around. She grooms the child to become a responsible citizen,” she explains.

There are songs that portray farmers’ lives and activities. “Their expertise in farming comes to light in these songs,” Navaneethakrishnan says. “For example, a folk song on paddy cultivation says that there should be enough space for a crab to move in the gap between two saplings.”

As therapy

Folk songs have also been used as therapy in some cases. Vijayalakshmi cites the example of a matriarch in Chettinad, who sings a song that is so powerful that it stimulates a child stuck in the womb to come out on its own. “The aachi is much sought after in that area to treat labour-related complications,” she says.

Mourning songs are called ‘oppari’. Oppari is sung impromptu and talks about the greatness of the person. “It is the combination of ‘oppu’ (comparison) and ‘vari’ (line),” explains Navaneethakrishnan. “It is well defined and has a distinct prosodic grammar. Even the wailing finds place in the grammar. One can find this genre in ancient Tamil literature also. In ‘Purananooru’, Avvaiyar sings oppari mourning the death of King Athiyaman.”

There are also drumbeat notations in folk music that are believed to send the spirits of the dead straight to heaven. “When a person is dead in a village, the performers with thappu instrument would play the ‘Vaikunthaparai’. The general belief is that the gates of heaven open on hearing the sound of the beats,” he says.

There are lakhs of folk songs but not many are popular today. Hence, the couple is in the process of classifying and codifying these songs to evolve a folk music grammar and guide. They also plan to compile an encyclopaedia of folk arts. They have recorded more than 10,000 audio cassettes with rare songs.

Even years after their retirement as the heads of Department of Art History, Aesthetics and Fine Arts of Madurai Kamaraj University, they continue to explore folk music. “We would like the Government to support us in our mission to establish a model centre for folk arts,” says Vijayalakshmi. “The centre will showcase folk music and related ethnic music instruments that bring to light the real cultural heritage of the country.”