Folk to film: How the true Tamil heart is in sync with music
Every year, the Madras Music Academy confers the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award on people who are contributing to the field of Carnatic music. Photo: The Music Academy

Folk to film: How the true Tamil heart is in sync with music

Over the years, Carnatic music has become isolated and was learnt and taught only by a certain community. About 50 years ago, it was a common scene among Brahmin families in Tamil Nadu to send their children to ‘Gurukula Vaasam’ to learn music

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Paattaaley Buddhi Sonnaar

Paattaaley Bakthi Sonnaar

Paattukku Naan Paadu Patten

Andha Paattukkal Palavidham Thaan

(They taught good morals through songs

They taught about God through songs

I worked hard to produce such songs

And that songs are of different kinds)

So sang music composer Ilaiyaraaja. The songs are not only entertaining, they also act as educational tools. As the above-mentioned song rightly says, moral values, religious thoughts and general public awareness continue to be taken to the masses through songs. When those elements are said through film songs, they easily get registered in one’s mind.

“One of the most striking features of the cultural history of Tamil Nadu in the past few decades is the growth and dominance of film music. It is all pervasive and enjoys a popularity that has only a few parallels in the history of music,” says renowned film historian S Theodore Baskaran in his Music for the Masses: Film Songs of Tamil Nadu, in an article published in Economic and Political Weekly in 1991.

It is because of the proliferation of film songs and other non-film songs that many a people has been attracted towards them. TV reality shows provide a platform to express singing skills. It is probably because of this reason there are so many Tamil singers. They do get opportunities to sing in films. Most of them are one-time wonders. Even then, Tamil Nadu has a huge number of singers than any other states.

However, more than the reality shows, the innate social culture of the state has helped to produce singers. But why?

Voice culture of Tamil Nadu

When we start looking at the voice culture of Tamil Nadu, the act of singing either as an amateur or professional can be traced to the Sangam Age. Female singers (Paadini) and male singers (Paanar) were considered custodians of music.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Tamil Nadu is an epicentre of music and singing, given it was here the Trinity of Carnatic Music – Shyama Sastri, Thiyagarajar and Muthuswami Dikshithar born – was born. It was here that the renowned musicologist Abraham Pandithar authored Karunamirdha Sagaram, a seminal work in the field of music. He organised six music conferences in the state between 1912 and 1914, through his ‘Sangeetha Vidhyalaya Mahajana Sangam’. Given such roots, it is natural that the state would produce more singers,” said Ravikumar, a music artist.

Over the years, Carnatic music has become isolated and was learnt and taught only by a certain community. About 50 years ago, it was a common scene among Brahmin families in Tamil Nadu to send their children to ‘Gurukula Vaasam’ to learn music.

“The only way to learn music in those days was following guru-sishya tradition,” said violinist-siblings Lalitha and Nandhini.

A student should stay in the house of a music teacher and learn their techniques by observing. Students were not taught music 24 hours. There would be allotted time, when the teacher take classes only for a particular student. During the remaining period, the student should watch what the teacher is practising, they said.

“However, later, the tradition vanished and now teachers go in search of the students. Also, the state has many government-run music schools and colleges, where students can learn music as an academic subject instead of just being extra-curricular activity,” said the violin sisters.

But not only caste, even gender played a role in deciding who should sing in the temples. Until 1941, women singers were not allowed to perform in Thiyagaraja Aaradhana, held annually at Tiruvaiyaru, Thanjavur district, in memory of Thiyagarajar. It was after the struggle carried by Bengaluru Nagarathnamma that the women singers got an opportunity to perform. Even today, the male singers sit on one side and the female singers sit opposite to them and render their performances.

J. Vijaya Ratna Kumar, assistant professor, department of visual communication, Loyola College says in his doctoral thesis that in cultural aspect both music and dance today echo the hierarchical social order of India’s popular religion, Hinduism.

“In the West, extraordinary talent and expertise can lead to celebrities with fortune for artists regardless of their social background. Whereas in the Indian subcontinent social class and caste plays a vital role in defining the limits of an artist’s expectations and opportunities, with the possible exception of the popular music industry,” Dr. Ratna Kumar says.

Folk songs

Before film songs caught on, folk songs were Tamil identity.

“A nation is best known through these arts for they form the nucleus and quintessence of its culture. Folk music and dance are only a spontaneous expression of the people’s feelings of joy and sorrow, hope and aspirations and disappointments. These emanate naturally from the very life of the rustic folk. They are simple, natural, unsophisticated and free from any kind of inhibition just as the people themselves are. People, irrespective of caste, colour or creed take an active part. These folk arts of the Tamils have had a great part to play in the all-round development of the Tamil country from time immemorial,” writes Shyamala Balakrishnan, former professor and head of the department of fine arts, Gandhigram University, in the journal Sangeet Natak.

According to her, folk songs can be classified into four types such as occupational songs (which are sung during farming, etc), festival songs (sung during temple festivals and other festivals like Pongal, etc), recreational songs (like villuppaattu, kummi, therukkoothu which are also sung during the festivals) and women songs (sung only by women like lullabies and dirges).

She adds: “The folk music, dance and drama of Tamil Nadu had a wholesome influence in shaping and developing the cultural traditions of the people. The people have always had a creative faculty and whenever they were impressed by something new they were inspired by it and did not blindly imitate it. Now, times have changed. They are becoming passive spectators of films as a result of which they merely imitate and try to follow. Their creative faculty is fading and their participation is necessarily passive. This gives them only monetary satisfaction which is positively injurious to them individually and to the community in general.”

This she says in 1969. Unfortunately, the condition of imitating still continues. Besides, talented people are migrating to cities because of political, economical and sociological reasons, which create a vacant in the villages. Those vacant spaces are now being filled with film songs.

It is important to note that, in Tamil Nadu, folk songs are highly practised in villages of both northern and southern districts of the state. While in rural areas the folk songs made the people happy, in the urban areas, particularly in Chennai, it is the ‘gaana’ songs — urban folk song — that showcase the city’s voice culture.

“The professional Gaana singer would not get the offer of recitation of Gaana songs thought a year. Therefore, they prefer signing as a part-time job in addition to their regular jobs. Some times, people in regular jobs like auto drivers and other blue collar workers do sing Gaana songs. Mostly the college students are attracted by Gaana songs,” added Vijay.

Activist-priests like Theophilus Appavoo of Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai district popularised Carnatic Christian kirtanais or songs among Dalits. He had also written the Church liturgy in the form of folk songs. So the churches also play a role in making singers.

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