Even the natives of Australia wept when South African reggae and Rastafarian musician Lucky Philip Dube died. An elderly Australian wrote on a tree: “You will always be in our hearts with your music”. There have been times when the songs of non-Caucasian people have taken over the world. Country songs and work songs were the defense songs of African slaves, cherished by future generations. “Kalakkatha”, the song in the Irula language sung by Nanjiamma, a tribal woman, for the movie Ayyappanum Koshiyum, is one such song that has crossed national and cultural boundaries and thrilled the world. Its global flavors have allowed it to resonate with the heartbeats of music lovers around the world.
The story of Ayyappanum Koshiyum revolves around the conflict between wealthy ex-havildar Koshi Kurien and Sub-Inspector Attappadi Ayyappan Nair, the son of a tribal woman. Since the film is set in a tribal setting, it was director KR Sachidanandan’s decision to have an Adivasi singer perform a song in an Adivasi language, which brought singer Nanjiamma into the film. The film’s title track “Kalakkatha”, composed by Jakes Bejoy, rose to popularity after it was released on YouTube, receiving over 10 million views within a month. He won Nanjiamma, who belongs to an Irula tribe, the National Award for Best Singer and the Kerala State Special Jury Prize.
Irula is a Dravidian language spoken by the Irula tribes who inhabit the Nilgiri Mountains region in the states of Tamilnadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The Irula language is rich in customs, legends and folk music. Even before vehicles like buses and cars reached Attapadi, a tribal block in Palakkad district of Kerala, the Irulas could see planes flying overhead. Nanjiamma’s song is about a mother Irula tricking her child into eating rice by telling him that she will show him an airplane.
Nanjiamma, the singer, is not the creation of director Sachidanandan, but the product of a socio-cultural revolution that has been going on for ages. She made her singing and acting debut in the film Aggedu Nayaga (2015), directed by Sindhu Sajan, a teacher and human rights activist. She has long made a great contribution to Kerala as a folk artist in tribal artist Palani Swamy’s Azad Kala Sangam.
The historical studies that have emerged among indigenous communities have become the harbingers of significant changes in the socio-cultural world. Talents like MN Thankappan, CJ Kuttappan, Mariamma John (Mariamma Chedathi) and Kalabhavan Mani have brought significant changes to the popular culture of Kerala. Popular artists like PS Banerjee and Mathai Sunil made these forms more popular. These songs were heard all over Kerala through music collections that had, until the 1980s, ignored tribal art forms.
It has become clear to the general public that there is a large indigenous population beyond the orthodox Malayalam language and temple culture. It is obvious that any account of the “socio-cultural and political history” of Kerala will not be complete if the ideas put forward by the indigenous communities are ignored.
Art is an ubiquitous feature of tribal life: during work and rest, for ceremonies such as birth and death. Nanjiamma became a folk singer because she belonged to a group where music is inherent. His entry into the hegemonic caste seat of Malayalam cinema is remarkable.
Even today, tribal women are among the most vulnerable to abuse. The fact that Nanjiamma is a woman of a class that has no privilege should be clearly marked. When Nanjiamma wins a national award, it also represents her community – a community that has no authority over the land. Due to a lack of authority over the land, these groups were unable to rise socially, economically and culturally. Therefore, the cultural awakening of this community through the award won by Nanjiamma is remarkable. She is now raising her voice for not getting the land she deserves despite being a national award winner. No other National Award winner has faced such a situation.
Kerala generally places importance on Orthodox temple arts and classical songs. Asia’s largest arts festival, the School Arts Festival promotes educated students with the support of teachers. Students from Dalit and tribal communities, who cannot afford to study under a guru for many years, are often left behind in these competitions. The winners of the School Arts Festival are found in films where classical music is promoted. Therefore, there is a natural exclusion of communities of less privileged communities from these areas of art. They are forced to become culturally invisible while being physically visible. Nanjiamma’s national award is an inspiration to many of these people.
Music has no language, no barriers. It can bridge the gap between east, west, north and south and win the hearts of all mankind. All music is born from the earth. Technique and practice came later. Nanjiamma’s song has gone to our hearts because of its uniqueness, not because of its technique. Let’s sing it too with our hearts
(The writer is a Dalit activist and lyricist who wrote a song in the Paluva language for the Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen)