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Rhyme without reason

The farmer's wife cuts the tails of three blind mice. Jack tumbles down a hill and suffers a skull fracture. What is the real scheme in these rhymes, questions S.R. RAMAKRISHNA

MANY GROWN-UPS who revisit nursery rhymes find them violent and disturbing. Humpty Dumpty crashes to pieces, Jack falls down a hill and breaks his head, Jill fares no better, Little Tommy Thin flings a cat into the well, and the farmer's wife uses a knife to dismember the tails of three blind mice.

Anxious parents wonder why ditties meant for children should depict so much cruelty and destruction. Some writers have tried their hand at rewriting rhymes with more pleasant endings, changing, for example, `blind mice' to `kind mice', and getting the farmer's wife to use her knife to carve out bits of cheese. These rewritten rhymes have not caught on in a big way; colourfully illustrated children's books still go by the older versions.But mercifully, thanks to English still being a language we understand only vaguely at that age, we in India may have a good chance of escaping the cruelty in such poems. A very popular teacher used to teach "Baa baa black sheep" with hand gestures that suggested the Kannada word `baa' or `come'. For many years, an English-medium educated, grown man lived with the impression that the rhyme had something to do with a famous godma.

For children in most City schools, the terror is more real: travelling in suffocating buses, autos and vans, and worse, having to face teachers and principals who take pride in being disciplinarians. `Strict' is a flattering description of teachers, and many try to live up to this reputation by becoming compulsively violent in their dealings with children.

Rhyme without reason

I studied in a school where the portly principal spent the first hour or two of every working day vigorously caning children for various `crimes' (wearing faded shirts, looking drained out during PT, not paying fees, etc.). The children could hardly be blamed if their parents couldn't afford to buy them new shirts or pay their fees in time, but the principal had no qualms about using his wards to get at their parents. Children in such circumstances have no choice; they bore the brunt of it all stoically, and the violence in their poetry books is less terrifying than the real violence they encounter.

What about rhymes in Kannada? The most common Kannada song for children is Govina Haadu. This simple and moving folk song ends with a moral about the triumph of truth-telling. Arbhuda, the hungry tiger, chances upon the gentle cow Punyakoti. The tiger is delighted and gets ready to devour Punyakoti, who pleads for an hour's reprieve so that she can bid goodbye to her little calf. Arbudha is sure Punyakoti will never return, but still lets her go. Punyakoti feeds her calf, asks her sister-cows to treat the orphan as their own, and dutifully returns to the tiger's den. Arbudha is stunned by this act of honesty, and, stricken by guilt, chooses to jump off a cliff rather than eat Punyakoti.

K.V. Subbanna traces a Gandhian idealism in this poem, an idealism that aspires to defeat cruelty with the power of truth. The poem upholds virtuous suffering where deceit and killing are an option.Purandaradasa composed simple songs like "Kereya neeranu kerege chelli" with children in mind. These geetes are classics of simplicity. He used simple words and created songs that could be enjoyed, learnt, sung. He is a model to this day for writers and journalists who need to write brief, direct sentences.

Rhyme without reason

His songs could serve the double purpose of introducing children to language and music. But no school has ever cared about his pillari geetes.

Do rhymes in English disturb children? Many people are convinced they do. But for most of us non-native English speakers, these rhymes remain fascinating syllables, and nothing more.

"Time and tide wait for nomad," wrote a teacher in my copybook when I was in primary school. No matter how hard I tried, I could not figure out the meaning of this line. No one else seemed bothered by the absurdity of the sentence. It was only much later that I realised it had to be "no man" and not "nomad". Similarly, most English rhymes we learn turn out just exotic sounds we mouth without giving much thought to their meaning. They excite us with their musicality, their rhyme schemes. "Ring a ring of roses" is always sung cheerfully as "Ringa ringa roses".

Rhyme without reason

How many know that it is about catching the plague, sneezing ("ait-choo, ait-choo") and falling down dead?The Agnostic Church has debated the question whether nursery rhymes should be purged of violence.

"Do depictions of proscribed conduct cause proscribed conduct?" it asks in a document posted on the Web. Its answer: "Depictions of violence permeate our society. An analysis of something as simple as children's nursery rhymes shows a high violence content.

"While some sports are more violent than others (boxing probably being the most violent), even something as simple as play among very young children can have bursts of violence in them.

"Most cartoons are based upon depictions of violence. Because few proscriptions upon depictions of violence have been in place up to now, there would be virtually nothing left of our various entertainment media if all depictions of violence were totally eliminated, even for children.

Rhyme without reason

"How would you even allow Christians to openly display depictions of Jesus on the Cross if all depictions of violence are to be kept from children?" In conclusion, the church refuses to classify violent nursery rhymes as "dangerous knowledge".

An informal survey found that children love rhymes with tingly, scary storylines, and rated them better than "icky, kissy" stories.

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