Dr. Aru. Ramanathan has spent over 40 years recording and analysing folk songs that reflect grim reality through wry wit.

The palanquin bearers were miffed. They had not expected the corpulent Englishman they were carrying uphill, to be miserly. Not knowing any other way of getting back at him, they broke into a song. The song invested the Englishman with as many bad qualities as the men could think of. The Englishman, who knew Tamil, could take no more. So he dismissed the men and trekked up the hill. Charles Grover, Member of the Royal Asiatic Society, whose ‘Folk songs of Southern India’ was published in 1871, was witness to the incident. He writes that the British officer “crawled into Coonoor, a sorrowful victim of Dravidian impromptus.”

Percy Macqueen, Collector of Nilgiris, collected many folk songs, and donated his manuscript to the Madras University Library. Tamil scholar Ki.Va.Ja. edited the collection, which was published by Saraswathi Mahal Library in 1958. Ki.Va.Ja gave the collection the title ‘Malaiaruvi’. Justifying the title, he compares folk songs to the untrammelled gushing of a waterfall. A folk song, he writes, is like a flower that blooms on an untended plant in a jungle, in contrast to the structured verses of poets, which can be compared to a carefully nurtured jasmine creeper.

Songs and panns

Ki.Va.Ja. says that Tholkappiyar’s classifications of pisi, mudumozhi and kurippu mozhi are references to folk literature. The use of the word ‘mozhiba’ by Tholkappiyar, indicates that such classifications must have existed even before his time. Tholkappiyar also talks of ‘Pannathi’, which can be translated as ‘that which is inclined towards pann.’ Ki.Va.Ja. argues that pannathi is a reference to folk songs. In folk songs there is pleasing music, but the music is not in consonance with any musical idiom. Therefore Tholkappiyar refers to this genre of songs as ones inclined towards panns, instead of saying they are songs set to panns. Tholkappiyar further compares pannathi to pisi. So this too indicates that by Pannathi, Tholkappiyar must have meant folk songs, concludes Ki.Vi.Ja.

While scholars such as Vanamamalai and A.Mu. Paramasivanandam accepted Ki.Va.Ja’s interpretation of pannathi, Dr. Aru. Alagappan said that Tholkappiyar described folk songs through his definition of ‘pulan.’

Dr. Aru. Ramanathan, retired Head of the department of Folklore, and Dean- Languages Faculty, Tamil University, Thanjavur, says that he has heard folk songs sung at the time of sowing seeds, which pray to the Sun, Moon and Indra, the rain god.

“The invocatory prayer in Silappadikaram, which prays to the Sun, Moon and rain god, is inspired by such songs. The varipadalgal of Silappadikaram and Aicchiar kuravai too are folk inspired,” says Ramanathan, who has edited 10 volumes of folk songs, of which five volumes contain songs collected entirely by him. His books ‘Tamizhar Vazhipaattu Marabugal’ and ‘Tamizhar Kalai ilakkiya Marabugal’ have won prizes from the Tamil Nadu government.

He has written more than 10 books on folklore and edited 35 volumes on it. He says folk literature is of four types - proverbs, riddles, songs and stories. Except for proverbs, he has done research in all the other areas.

In his quest for folk songs, he once walked 15 kilometres up to the foot of the Kalvarayan hills, and then went 15 kilometres uphill to gather folk songs from the villages there.

He says that while a folk song has to be originally thought of by someone, other villagers chip in with their contributions, so that in course of time the song becomes the product of collective effort. When people travel, their songs travel with them, so that one can hear different versions of a song in different districts.

Range of topics

For villagers, who had no access to education or newspapers, these songs filled the gap. There are folk songs recording suicides, murders, disasters and accidents. There is a folk song about a fire accident in a girls’ school in Madurai in 1964. The first line of the song sounds like a headline in a newspaper report-‘Maduraiyil nadanda pallikkooda vibhathu’- (Tragedy in Madurai school). Folk songs give minute details about accidents. One song about a fire that engulfed two streets in Kumbakonam, a 100 years ago, gives a list of everything lost in the fire, right down to combs and unfried pappads!

Folk songs record history, and also how historical events affect the lives of the villagers. A song about World War II, after describing Hitler’s atrocities in Poland, Holland and Denmark, talks of the shortage of oil during the war. The villagers are forced to go out without lighting the lamps on their cycles. The police constable, who objects to this, is appeased with a tip. So the song, which begins with Hitler, ends with the corrupt local constabulary! The wry humour of folk songs reflects the grim realities of life.

Folk songs reflective of certain conditions of village life, disappear when the conditions that gave rise to them disappear, says Ramanathan. He has recorded a song, which is an appeal from a woman who is employed in breaking limestone for construction purposes. She begs to be let off, for it is five in the evening, and her feet are sore from blisters. Moreover, she has not so much as had a peep into the cradle in which she left her baby. “When I recorded the song in the 1970s, only a few old women in the villages knew the song, because chunam was no longer used in construction.”

Sometimes, a song lives on, although superficially it might seem as if it has lost its relevance. There is a song which laments that while a farmer toils in his field, it is the Vellaikkaaran (Britisher) who decides the price of the produce. The song is still in vogue. “Although we have gained Independence, even today, the price of grains is decided not by the farmer, but by the government. So the song is still relevant,” says Ramanathan.

Ramanathan classifies folk songs into eight types, based on their context- funeral dirges, celebratory songs, lullabies, songs that mark the milestones in a child’s life, songs sung while playing, while worshipping, while seeking alms or help, and while working.

There are songs which present various incidents from the Ramayana concisely. But it is the Mahabharata which is more popular in villages. The Mahabharata, mostly based on Villiputturar’s version, is narrated for over three months, the narrations being interspersed with folk songs, to the accompaniment of musical instruments such as pambai and udukkai. “In fact in Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts, the narrator of Mahabharatam is referred to as Bharati!”

Some folk songs seem to be inspired by stories from the epics, but a surprise twist is given to the story, says Ramanathan. “There is a song about two sparrows, which must have been inspired by the story of Rama asking Sita to step into the fire, to prove her chastity.” In the folk song, the male sparrow suspects his partner’s fidelity, and insists that she must walk through fire to prove she is untainted. The male sparrow too steps into the fire, with his mate. The female sparrow emerges from the fire, shining like polished gold, but the male sparrow turns white like a gold- plated ornament, which has lost its coating. The male dies, and the female sparrow wails, and says, ‘I warned you, but you paid no heed, and now you have lost your life’.”

Folk songs, with their amorphous structure, their rhyming lines, their droll wit, their anguished cries and their wisdom, exhibit a range that is testimony to the intelligence of our villagers. No wonder Ramanathan has spent more than 40 years recording and analysing folk songs.

Importance of folklore

Pointing to how the significance of folk literature is not often understood, Ramanathan says, “The Central Institute of Classical Tamil has departments for archaeology, anthropology, sociology and linguistics, but none for folklore. And this is a serious lacuna, because, without knowledge of folklore, one cannot comprehend Sangam literature.”