At the bewitching precincts of the daunting Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, year-end tourist Renjith Marar and his family ask two Rajasthani folk musicians a naughty question: can you present a number from our native Kerala?
The turbaned duo is only happy to belt out a boat song thoroughly popular down the peninsula in God’s Own Country. Kuttanadan Punchayile begins the ditty, which the vocalist and the drummer begin to deliver with great enthusiasm under the wintry sun. “There were a few errors in pronunciation; but that least bothered me. The tune came out very well,” says Delhiite Marar, a young lawyer who practises in the Supreme Court.
“The musicians thought of singing something they knew, but I made them sing what I knew,” he comments later in the day (December 30) in a social media post that is being shared in a big way by Facebookians north and south of the country. On breaks back in Kerala, Renjith also plays the chenda—and ethnic drum that leads certain ensembles called melam. So, back along the Malabar Coast, how does the song sound when sung at the annual Onam-time snakeboat races? The words, presumably, can be tongue-twisters for the average ‘Hindiwallah’, though the item is actually just 50 years old. It was composed for a 1967 Malayalam movie (Kavalam Chundan) by the famed pair of lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma and G. Devarajan.
It’s not just people from India’s desert state who render songs of Kerala—backwaters-associated or otherwise. A jovial American’s rendition of another hit Malayalam song—from a film made much later—has for a while now been a hit on social media. Kerala people—residents of their state or not—have found fun in this trans-Atlantic youth’s presentation of the song from a 1989 Mohanlal-starrer. The Westerner, at a supermarket in Orlando (Florida), is seen trying a smattering of Malayalam before (and after) singing Kanneer poovinte kavilil thalodi:
It’s fun to notice (even for a discerning listener) the way the vocalist’s sound often tends to be freewheeling in the upper notes, where the Indian tradition is to hold back the throat and modulate it in a restrained way. The Western accent in pronunciation, if anything, only adds to the charm.
So, how does the song sound in the original track? Here is it, sung by M.G.
Sreekumar (in his years he was only beginning to gain fame) to a poignant tune set by well-known Johnson Master (who died in 2011).
To deliberately cut to something perhaps more serious, Kerala has its traditional Nangiarkoothu theatre. It’s a millennium-old female solo drama, where eyes matter a lot when it comes to expression of characters. Here is a look at the way an artiste (here Kapila Venu) does the exercise of the pupil:
In the east of the globe, the Japanese aren’t the people best known for size of eyes. Yet a set of dedicated artistes from the Oriental country has succeeded in well bringing out the aesthetics of the ancient Kerala art form, which is an off-shoot of the two-millennium- old Sanskrit theatre called Koodiyattam.
Seen here is Tomoe Tara Irino who began learning Nangiarkoothu at Kerala’s Natanakairali in Irinjalakuda (Thrissur district) since 1994. “Over years of exercise, she did succeed in enhancing the size of her eyes,” gushes her guru, Venu G, 72. Nangiarkothu evolved at a time when southern India had no socio-geographical borders between what later became states called Kerala and Tamil Nadu. That lends an excuse to see how a 1990 film has S.P. Balasubramanyam singing a number known simply as ‘breathless’.
For, this has two stanzas where the famed vocalist delivers the words without taking breath in between. The song, in the 1990 Tamil film song Keladi Kanmani (where the musician himself acts along opposite actress Radhika), caught the fancy of a Carnatic violinist. So much so, the maverick Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan sought to reproduce it on his instrument. How?
In his introductory talk, the (late) artiste speaks highly of the SPB song, and narrates how he will demonstrate them on the violin: the passage where he runs the bow unhurriedly without taking a break has to be deemed ‘breathless’.
Nine years have passed since Kunnakudi died, but the kind of spirit typical of his chat continues to light up Carnatic circuits. At Florida in 2015, a team of young Tamil boys and girls are into a fun talk, where they speak in an unmistakable US accent—about south Indian classical melody-types.
The highlight of the banter, perhaps, is a not-so- serious attempt to personify ragas. Hence, one girl “bright, bold and beautiful” in the small get-together comes across as Kalyani, while a boy around is like Kamboji because he is “happy even while being deep”.