Folklore in general has been described as man’s dialogue with Nature. Interestingly, its communication assumes varied dimensions with change of seasons. Perhaps, Pulluvan Paattu is a striking paradigm.
August 17 marked the birth of Malayalam new year and the month of Chingam, which is considered auspicious. To welcome a year of prosperity, Pulluvan paatu, a traditional folk song rendered by the members of the Pulluva community, is sung through the month of Karkidakam, which is considered as the month of rain and poverty. Pulluvan (male member of the Pulluva community) and Pulluvatti (woman) would render the songs to the accompaniment of Pulluvan vina, (single string fiddle with a bow), played by the male singer, and Pulluvan kudam (earthen pot with a string attached).
The duo visits houses, mostly in the rural areas, to present the songs, for which they will be given rice and other items as a token of gratitude. For the Pulluvans, majority of whom live in abject penury, such presents are really a treasure.
The Mahabharata connect
Pulluvans are snake worshippers, who render the songs extolling the serpent deities. Excerpted from the epic Mahabharata they describe the lineage of the serpent deities Interestingly one of the songs narrates the birth of 1000 serpent sons of Kadru, who was one of the two wives of sage Kashyapa. Other songs include king Parikshit’s death due to a snake bite; Janamejaya, the son of Parikshit performing a sarpa sacrifice; the encounter between Krishna and Kaliya; serpent Ananta’s penance and his becoming Mahavishnu’s recliner.
The songs are rendered to the accompaniment of the pulluvan vina. The body of the pulluvan vina contains a resonator made of light wood and covered with a lizard’s skin.
The pulluvan kudam, the earthen pot, is used to amplify the sound of the string that is held taut with the help of a bamboo piece called kudathum kuzhal and a carefully designed stick. The string is made of two twisted leather thongs. The artiste holds this pot to his left and the string is plucked with the vayanam, the plectrum.
Though opportunities to perform Pulluvan Paatu are rare, it is encouraging to note that the artistes are being invited to tourism festivals and fares. Recently Ambujakshy, a septuagenarian from Attoor in Thrissur district, was invited to ‘Mazhamizhi’, a government initiative started with an aim to help artistes affected during the pandemic. The performance was staged at the Koothambalam, of Kalamandalam.
On such occasions, the performance is done in front of the kalam (drawing on the floor) of the ashta nagas (eight serpents). Amabujakshy, who played the kudam and rendered the songs, was accompanied by her son-in-law Radhakrishnan on the vina, with her daughter Jyothilakshmi and son Vaisakh providing vocal support. The songs had traces of ragas such as Sankarabharanam, Sri, Kalyani, Yadukulakamboji, Chenchurutty, etc.
Ambujakshy, a recipient of the Kerala Folklore Academy award, expresses her concern about the future of this folk tradition due to lack of patronage. The meagre amount that she earns through her performance, which is rare, is not sufficient to make ends meet. Both the fabrication of the instruments and their maintenance demand expenses that she can hardly afford. Similar reasons have forced many from her community take up other jobs to sustain their lives.
The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.