Lec-dems at The Music Academy 17 December 2013
By Siddhartha Jagannath
This year’s annual conference at the Music Academy began with a thrilling lecture on the folk music of Tamil Nadu, presented by Prof. K A Gunashekaran. His troupe consisted of Venkatesan on the tavil, flute by Mohan, vocal by Dhanalakshmi, and nagaswaram along with traditional folk dancer Pandiammal. Pandiammal’s head was adorned with a ringed feather crest. Nestled in the middle was a traditional brass water pot, which she carried with total confidence as if it were a natural extension of her head.
At first, this genre of music might have seemed rudimentary to the classical Carnatic senses, as it seemed to lack structure at every level. There seemed no concept of sruti or tala, or for that matter, even lyrics. But as Gunashekaran gradually unravelled the art form, it became evident that these were real stories straight from the heart of the ordinary man expressed in an unbridled fashion. It gave the audience a complete sense of freedom, and a licence to emote freely without worry of any sort. These could be the stories of each one of us, despondent souls reaching out helplessly. These stories touched the listener and the performer in equal measure – Gunashekaran wiped tears from his eyes as he sang of the woes of a desperate farmer who had a meager harvest and pleaded with every known deity for divine intervention in vain. He said that such aspects as ragam and sruti were not prominent elements of Tamil folk music. It seemed as if this style had a specific therapeutic task and was used to express joy, sorrow, depression or news, and mourn, calm, or enliven.
The contents of these songs were mainly stories of village life in Tamil Nadu. For example, the professor sang a few compositions that a traditional bullock - cart driver would sing. He also gave an example of a song that a person selling bangles would sing to entice a young woman with his wares. To make repetitive tasks like drawing water interesting, village folk sing songs to the rhythm of the rising and falling of the bucket and so on. The duration of the task at hand matched the phrases and made mundane chores a delight. Music was also used by villagers to express their problems. Even the almighty was not spared as He was chided and blamed for all the problems of the common man.
This musical form has beauty in its simplicity. Gunashekaran gave a touching example, singing about a farmer talking to his mama. He says that he has tried everything he can for thirty years to grow rice and that he has failed. He needs to pay back a loan that he had taken for the purchase of the seeds. In an attempt to procure divine intervention, he says he has offered a goat to Mariamman, gone to Palani for “four mottais”, carried a kavadi and gone to Sabarimala wearing the traditional irumudi. He concludes by saying that in the end he barely has half a measure of rice. Thus we see the difficulties experienced by villagers on a daily basis. There are so many variables in life that need to align in order to reap the fruits of one’s labour. The simple farmer somehow seems to have a deeper understanding of life than most city folk. He cries from his heart, pours his emotions out, as onward he moves.
Dr. Gunashekaran went on to talk about the different types of compositions in Tamil folklore. He demonstrated the different chindus like the Nondi Chindu and Kummi Chindu. He explained the story behind the Nondi Chindu (mentioned in ‘Tolkappiyam’) while answering an experts’ committee member.
We also witnessed compositions about famous kings and queens. Aravalli and Sooravalli are example of such compositions. Temmangu, Pallu (a composition for the nagaswaram alone), taalattu and oppari are some of the other types of compositions that Prof. Gunashekaran touched upon with wonderful demonstrations.
Gunashekaran then went on to talk on the importance of pakkavadyam in folklore. In Tamil folk music, pakkavadyam really supports the singer. Since there are no rules regarding sruti in folk music, the accompanists help keep the tune going when the singers swing from one sruti to the next. For instance in a high sruti it is up to the flute to keep the tune going, while in the low srutis the nagaswaram takes over.
The professor stated that parampara did not have a specific role in folk music. Though most practitioners stick to traditional patantharas, a few change the tunes and stories in the songs. Ragas were mainly absent and most of the songs are set to traditional tunes.
Improvisation in folk music is freer than in Carnatic music, with singers humming to fill up lyrical gaps.
As the lecture came to a closing, Gunashekaran stated that the content of all these songs were the “complete truth”. He left the audience wondering if these traditions would live on. The Tamil movie industry has benefited from these traditions without giving traditional artistes due credit, Gunashekaran charged. Since this music is directly related to the daily routine work done by villagers in rural areas, the present generation of young villagers cannot relate to it at all, as most wish to work in the cities or do not perform work using traditional methods. The question “Will we let modernization ruin our precious traditions?” lingers.