By Indu Nair
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 music
Folk 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 it
This 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.
There 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 dance
And 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 worship
Specific 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.”
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 self-sufficient.
Singing of ‘The God with the conch and the chakra who comes dancing’ to her toddler, the mother introduced the concept of God to the child and imparted the child’s first lessons in aith and belief.
|These songs and dances that appear
so deceptively simple contain a wealth
of inherent meaning
The housewife’s song as she drew kolam designs in front of her house in the early mornings was a means of stating positive affirmations for promoting the well-being of the home and the family.
Creating aesthetically pleasing designs on the threshold of the house before sunrise, singing benedictions for the entire household was surely a good way to start the day.
Dr Vijayalakshmi recollects travelling to a remote village, Devathanam, in search of the kolam song which goes “Goddess of Prosperity, come in! Goddess of Sloth, go out!”, only to find that the only person in the village who knew the song, an old woman, had passed away sometime ago. Sadly, her granddaughter had not cared to learn the song from her and had offered to sing film songs instead.
The ancient Tamil epics mention folk songs that were used for extraordinary purposes. The wives of soldiers wounded in battle sang healing songs to restore their husbands to health. There were special songs to drive away evil spirits. The Siddhas, the ancient Tamil mystics, had their own repertoire of folk songs that sounded simple, and had deep philosophical implications.
There were notations of drumbeats that were believed to have the power to raise the spirits of the dead to the heavens. The tappu artists would play the Vaikuntha parai when a person in the village passed away, the belief being that the heavenly gates opened at the sound of the beats.
Some of these esoteric songs continue to be used in practice in recent times, said Dr Vijayalakshmi citing the example of the Devakottai aachi, a grandmother in Chettinad, who knows a song so powerful that it can induce a child stuck in the womb to come out on hearing it. The aachi is particular about maintaining the sanctity of her art, and uses it only during difficult cases of childbirth, to induce the birth process naturally without the need for surgery.
Influence of the epics
“Folk dances performed in honour of deities were considered as service to the Divine. The Sevai-attam, a form of dance performed by the Kambalatthu Nayakkars that involves a rendering of the Ramayana literally means the dance of service to the Lord,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi, and went on to elaborate on how references to the Ramayana and legends associated with the story of Rama can be found in almost every remote village in India.
Dr Vijayalakshmi’s many performances include a presentation of the Ramayana in the form of a folk dance drama at the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam in Kanchipuram. She sang a few lines from this specially researched presentation, rendering the Ramayana in 14 lines in the form of a folk lullaby. The song invoked an instant feeling of drowsiness, and total relaxation; it was an incredible experience. Just as my eyes began to droop with sleep, I was jerked awake for the atmosphere had changed yet again, as Dr Vijayalakshmi began to speak and sing of the vibrant characters from the Mahabharata, who were portrayed in therukoothu (street folk dances) and pakalvesham.
Inspired by nature
In almost every ancient civilisation, the first perception of the Divine was in nature. So obeisance was made to the Sun, the rain was regarded as a direct blessing from the heavens, mountains and forests were considered so powerful, that it was enough for a person to swear on them in order to be believed. Rocks and trees were considered symbols of the universal spirit and offerings were made in their honour. So were the powerful men and women who lived in the community, whose spirits were considered gods and worshipped as such after they passed on.
|Dr Vijayalakshmi in conversation|
The gods of the villages differ considerably from the Vedic gods in the big temples,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi. For example, the Goddess Kamakshi whose name means, ‘she whose eyes awaken desire,’ and who is worshipped in the form of a benevolent mother goddess who fulfils all worldly desires of her devotees in the Vedic temples, takes on a totally different form in folk songs. The Kamakshi of the villages is a renunciate goddess who meditates in the middle of a dark, dense bamboo forest in the form of a serpent, her eyes blazing with the fire of penance having attained the dispassionate brightness of having overcome all desire.
Unlike the Vedic deities, folk gods are not shown as having spouses. The folk gods and goddesses are generally portrayed as mother and son, sister and brother, or as a couple of brothers, highlighting strong parent-child and sibling relationships.
The idols of these gods are made of clay and are renewed with the seasons, made afresh periodically by the village potters. Their place of worship is usually in the open air for the village deities rarely need a roof over their heads. Nor do they need to be carried around in chariots or palanquins like their Vedic counterparts. They are the gods of the Earth who prefer to walk in the dark hours of the night, sustaining life as per the laws of nature. The specific shape of each idol, their stories, and related rituals of worship are known only to the potters, folk singers, and the priests of each village who pass this information orally to the next generation in their respective families.
There are scientific reasons behind the rituals involved in the worship of the village deities. For example, animal sacrifice is not done to the Ayyanar idols that are usually placed by the side of lakes, springs, or riverbanks, as shedding the blood of an animal near the sources of water was likely to pollute the water supply of the entire village.
Dr Vijayalakshmi mentioned a folk musician who enacts the role of the Narasimha avatar during the annual folk dance drama festival conducted at Melattur and Saliyamangalam in Thanjavur district. The septuagenarian fasts and prays for forty-eight days before the performance in order to invoke the spirit of the god within him, and performs feats like jumping from a height of 15 feet during his act, actions that he would not be able to repeat later in real life. Many of the people watching the performance would go into a trance, said Dr Vijayalakshmi, which is again a common phenomenon that occurs in villages during the worship of folk deities. “The folk deities are concepts defined around powerful sources of natural energy. The village priests can tap directly into these energy sources if they perform the rituals correctly and channelise it to the believers, who in turn are able to receive the energy at once owing to their open minds and absolute sense of faith and surrender.”
“For the purpose of all folk art is to ultimately create an association between the self and the universal spirit. Even the syllables used in the refrains of folk songs carry deep meaning. ‘Ta-na-ne’, a common refrain of most South Indian folk songs comes from the mystical Siddha songs and is a colloquialism of the phrase ‘Taan naan aanane’, which means ‘He became I’ or ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ which is one of the great universal truths inthe Hindu scriptures,” said Dr Vijayalakshmi.
“We have merely scratched the surface,” said Dr. Vijayalakshmi with a smile, “There is so much depth in the subject that is yet to be tapped. We are looking at a subject that has evolved over thousands of years.” The couple have also co-authored six books on the subject, and brought out several albums of authentic folk music.
Indu Nair is a software professional, writer and seeker based in Trivandrum. Her blog is firstname.lastname@example.org
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