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Rhymes and reasons


Does `Ring around the rosies' and `Humpty Dumpty' have any meaning for the Indian child?


Can we sing "Rain, rain go away?"

While Indian writing in English has experienced an explosion in the past decade, there still remains an area that stays frozen in imperial times. While Indian writers in English have experimented with form, style and content, breaking and setting aflame existing modes and moulds, the English nursery rhymes our children repeat and recite, continue to harden in the deep freeze.

The format of a nursery rhyme came into existence long before it was named so. A simple song sung to a child would have been the genesis of the nursery rhyme. The structure of the song would have been uncomplicated. It would have contained simple lyrics, a refrain or two and would have been set to an easy tune. A Tamil Nila nila odi vaa, nillaamal odi vaa introduced the child to the feel of alliteration, repetition, metre and rhyme while at the same time taught him the name of the shining object in the sky. It was an introduction to structured language.

For centuries, nursery rhymes have been passed orally from generation to generation. Every culture has its own nursery rhymes, plus additional ones that have been adopted from other societies.

In India, a country where story and song form the intrinsic fabric of life, the number of simple songs and rhymes that every region has created is infinite. However, with the coming of the British and the institutionalising of education, English learning not only became mandatory but started displacing existing folk songs and rhymes in schools.

Seldom have we stopped to ask the value and significance of these English verses. Unchallenged, Jacks and Jills, Humpty Dumptys, London bridges and other colonial couplets continue to rule the classrooms and children's minds. Rhymes like the evergreen Twinkle twinkle Little star set to tune by Mozart himself are of much value. Do these English rhymes have any relevance to the Indian child? For one, several of these rhymes written for children seem violent. While many of them alluded to the monarchy's rise and fall in England at the time they were written, never at any point were they pertinent to Indians. Does a girl in drought and famine-stricken Tamil Nadu singing, "rain rain go away, come again another day" make any sense? A rhyme, that perhaps held meaning in the constantly wet England. An Indian childhood is filled with mangoes, music and monsoons. It has cricket, crows and colours. It is about extended families, fairs and festivals.

While some schools and individuals have made and continue to make attempts to introduce these subjects as rhymes, the task of bringing about a national reformation is not an easy one.

For one, replacing Jack and Jill requires a movement on a massive scale.

This movement can be set forth only when there is awareness that the existing condition is not just obsolete but also irrelevant. Second, only with this awareness comes the need to create new rhymes that hold meaning to the Indian child. Here, an attempt to create an Indian parallel will require the combination of tremendous creative, literary and musical talent, besides a keen understanding of communicating with very young children. And then finally, in order to reach these to the children, a strong commitment from educators and parents is called for.

Just as we have taken the legacy of the English language and transformed it in our writing into something that reflects India and Indianness, so must this happen with the literature we expose our children to. Even if it is something as basic as the nursery rhyme.

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