History & Culture

Gujili paatu, the forgotten songs of Madras

As the songbirds at My Lady’s Garden in Periyamet signal dusk, Monali Balasubramaniam’s melancholy voice resounds in the air. She is singing about a fire that took place in this very place in December 1886, killing nearly 402 people.

The song is a gujili paatu, a type of subaltern literature that existed from the mid-19th Century to the 1950s. Written by the common man, they recorded important news events — be it the first train that rolled out in Royapuram, the introduction of the tram network, or the Madras famine. Historian Nivedita Louis has collaborated with singer Monali to bring these songs to life. Their recent lecture demonstration at My Lady’s Garden, organised by Greater Chennai Corporation and UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, as part of the Concerts at the Park series (powered by Aanmajothi), is an attempt at the same.

“Researching on gujili paatu, I have gone through whatever literature is available on them. Some of these songbooks have been preserved in the Connemara library,” says Nivedita. The songbooks she is referring to are the ones that escaped being burnt during the British rule. “The British government was afraid they would stoke feelings of patriotism, and ordered a ban on them,” she explains.

Gujili paatu gets its name from the Gujili market in George Town, where the songbooks were sold. A typical songbook had not more than 10 pages, and was penned by the layman. “The songs gave accurate information about events that unfolded, from a common man’s perspective,” she says. The fire song, for instance, gives statistics on how many died, how many were injured, and of them, how many were men, women, and children. The songs were also very visual: one on the first train at Royapuram captures the joy and surprise the narrator felt, as he compares the engine expelling steam, to that of an elephant trunk. Given that they were written in colloquial Tamil makes them even more relatable.

Through these songs, Nivedita and Monali took the audience through the history of Madras, and the very park they were at. “This place was known as People’s Park. It was spread across 116 acres and had five to six ponds. This is where the zoo was, before being shifted to Vandalur in 1985,” Nivedita informs us.

Not all the songs are about major historical developments. Noticing one of the audience members irritatedly swatting away at mosquitoes, Nivedita and Monali regaled them with a song ‘Sottai thalaye kosuve’, cursing the mosquitoes to go away. Another interesting one is on a fight between a mother and daughter-in-law, written in the form of a conversation between the two.

While Nivedita found these songs written in books, it was Monali who set them to tune. “We had to bring in our own creative inputs. Songs like the ones on train journeys, and first flights needed to be lively and joyful, with fast beats. And for those like the one on the famine, we chose raagas which showed pathos and melancholy,” explains Monali.

Surprisingly, though these were written by the common man, some of them specified which raaga and taala was to be used with them. Most, however, were free-flowing.

And it is in that way that the gujili paatu can be called the predecessor of the modern gaana, feels Nivedita. While the songs eventually faded away with the British ban, and the advent of newspapers and magazines, their spirit lives on in gaana music.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 10:27:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/gujili-paatu-the-forgotten-songs-of-madras/article30320526.ece

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