By Indu Nair May 2010 Folk art is a repository of spirituality that enables the villager to bring harmony into his life, build bonds between him and others and above all, instruct him on the truths of life, death and God Dr Vijayalakshmi with a folk singer Looking resplendent in a pink and gold sari worn in the traditional Tamilian style with matching ethnic jewellery, Dr Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan reminded me of the village goddess of her songs. Her music has an ethereal quality about it. When she began to sing, the earthy vibrant notes made me feel that I was sitting in the pastoral settings of a quiet village.“There is a deep underlying thread of spirituality in folk music,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi. “These songs and dances that appear so deceptively simple contain a wealth of inherent meaning about the world, the meaning and purpose of life and scientifically prescribed rules on how to live. Between the lines of folk songs lie glimpses of a way of life that was established by our wise ancestors centuries ago. In these songs that contain the core of ancient Dravidian culture, you can read the complete story of a civilisation.”Dr Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan is a renowned exponent of Tamil folk art. Together with her husband Dr M Navaneethakrishnan, she has conducted several years of research and study on Tamil folk music and dances. They have devoted a lifetime to painstaking research, collection, revival, and documentation of ancient folk songs and dances, many of which are fast becoming obsolete for want of artists to continue the tradition and audiences to appreciate them. Years after retiring as professors in the Department of Folk Arts and Culture from the Madurai Kamaraj University, the couple continue their studies and along with their troupe, conduct stage performances that are sought after by connoisseurs and lovers of folk music around the world. Dr Navaneethakrishnan Thevarattam performs “We realised long ago that collecting and preserving as many folk art forms as possible for posterity, and sharing the wealth of this knowledge with the world was our calling in life. Our work and our studies are part of our service to society,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi enthusiastically explaining the many dimensions of folk art.Timelessness of folk musicFolk music is often called the purest form of music. It is perhaps as old as language itself – music that originated from the everyday lives of people, and has been passed on by word of mouth through countless generations. Composed in one of the ancient classical languages of the world, Tamil folk music is said to be thousands of years old. References to folk songs of the period can be found in Tamil literary compositions dating back to the Sangam era more than two thousand years ago. Dr Navaneethakrishnan Kolattam (right) in mid-dance Folk songs generally focus on the world and various activities of worldly life such as the forces of nature, the changing seasons, birth, marriage, work, festivals, death, and worship of nature.Yet a strong undercurrent of spirituality runs through them, as in the old Siddha song, Nandavanathil oru aandi – the mendicant who lived in the garden,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi.The mendicant who lived in the garden sought The potter for six and four months And thus got himself a pot.With which he danced and danced In such gay abandon, that he broke itThis song alludes to human life. The soul or the jivatma is the mendicant who seeks human birth from the Divine who is referred to as The Potter, and obtains a ‘pot’, which refers to an earthly body that is formed in around 10 months. Without realising the divine nature of his self and the true purpose of his life, man then indulges in materialistic pleasures and destroys the divine gift that is the human body.“Even the folk songs sung by children during play have deep meaning,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi quoting a folksong sung during a popular children’s game that refers to four circles – the circle of teasing, the circle of wailing, the circle of weariness, and the circle of illusion. The song refers to the four stages of life, the circle of teasing implying courtship and marriage, the wailing referring to the arrival of children, the weariness to that which comes from bearing worldly responsibilities and the last circle being the realisation that all of samsara is but an illusion of Maya.Purposeful expressionThere is a purpose to each of the innumerable kinds of folk songs and dances. These were meant to assist people in performing different kinds of work as they went about their daily lives, to express their emotions at various events and everyday situations and above all, as a means of forging a connection with the Divine. The ancient folk songs and dances were not meant merely for entertainment, sensual indulgence, or momentary gratification.As saint Thayumanavar said,“To sing and to danceAnd to seek you in joy,These are the ways of your devotees,O Lord of the Universe”The simple villagers of yore inherently knew this great truth. They did not have to read books on self-realisation or volumes of philosophy of Ramana or Vivekananda. Like those very saints, they instinctively walked the spiritual path practising karma yoga and bhakti yoga unconsciously in their lives.It is this feeling of joy that arises while performing one’s natural duty in the world, and the sense of total identification with the Divine that manifests in most folk songs.To be able to sing and dance without any inhibitions, a person has to be free from ego. This egoless state of being came easily to the villagers who were karma yogis in the true sense of the word. For them, folk music and dance acted as spiritual practices on their path to the Divine.Songs of work as worshipSpecific songs were sung while carrying out different activities in the villages of old. For example, kamalai paadalgal or water-drawing songs were sung as the farmers and the bulls together drew water from the wells for irrigating the fields. As he guided the bulls forward to bring up the water, the farmer would sing, “In the skies we trusted, and we had our children.”This would be followed by a series of rhythmic steps with the bullocks walking behind him, the bells tied around their necks keeping time with the beats of the song. As they turned to walk backwards, the farmer would sing again, “When will the skies grow heavy with rain, when will our drought be quenched?” Followed by another set of steps in rhythm which would complete a full cycle that would then be followed by the next stanza, “In the earth we trusted and we had our children” while going forward, and “When will the earth flourish with crops, when will our children be fed?” while coming back again.The song was more than a diversion for the farmer to ease the burden of the gruelling task. The rhythm of the song created a bonding between the man and the animal working together and brought harmony into an act as mundane as drawing water for the fields. The words of the song conveyed the man’s sad story, and formed a plea to the nature gods for the much-awaited rains.“There were similar songs sung for rock-cutting, ploughing the fields, sowing seeds, transplanting saplings, harvesting, winnowing, grazing cows, and milking cows among others. There are spiritual associations in many of them,” said Dr. Vijayalakshmi. For example, the cowherds of old used to take two flutes with them when they went out to graze the cattle. In the mornings, the cowherd would play the first flute, the veinkuzhal, the music of which would send out the cattle far in search of fodder. At dusk, the cowherd would play the second flute, the seenkuzhal, on hearing the notes from which the cows would return from their grazing. The seenkuzhal has only four basic notes and is played at a very fast pace. The music that issues forth from this flute is extremely powerful and creates a deep and instant yearning to return home in the minds of all who hear it. This particular practice, which has been followed by cowherds for centuries, is referred to during the worship of Lord Krishna at the Azhagar temple in Madurai. The Tamil verse describes the Lord playing on the second flute as he drives the cows back home, inferring to the devotees responding to the music and turning towards the Divine. When the music charms birds and animals to seek to return to the place from where they came, how can a human being not heed the call to return home when he hears it? Dr Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan and Dr Navaneethakrishnan Thevarattam Songs were also sung while milking the cows in order to relax the cows and help them release the milk freely. Dr Vijayalakshmi narrated an incident when a psychiatrist friend requested her to create a special tape of the cow-milking songs, which he felt would be useful in alleviating stress and depression in his patients.“Folk songs sung during work were also a means of calibrating the activities and determining the amount of work involved in tasks that involved repetitive actions such as measuring out water for the crops, digging the fields, husking paddy, and pounding rice. The songs helped the illiterate villagers to remember the steps involved in the work, assuaged the strain of manual labour, and made it easy to teach the work to others, and, above all, kept the illiterate villagers in touch with the concept of the Divine, through the eferences to the scriptures and religious stories.”Melodious bonding Folk songs and dances served to foster harmonious interpersonal relationships, interdependence, and co-operation among the people in a family, and within a community. This was very important in those days when a small hamlet was a world by itself, and had to be
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