Delighted that Dr. Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan has been awarded the Padma Shri, a richly deserved honour and one which elevates the status of the award.
I was a child when I heard her for the first time in a special TV programme of folk music broadcast on the Tamil New Year which was presented by Dr. Vijayalakshmi, her husband Dr. Navaneeethakrishnan, and their students of folk art. It was the first time that I heard a folk song. As the programme concluded after two hours, I remember falling silent, mesmerized by the haunting notes of the music that was so different from the classical ragas that usually filled the house. Later in life, I sometimes thought about how the pure notes of those folk songs had enchanted me, wondering if folk music was more than the simplistic songs and dances that are usually attributed to it in popular culture. I was fortunate to get the answers from Dr.Vijayalakshmi herself during an interview in which she explained about her findings on spirituality in folk art from her research of a lifetime in the subject. An edited version of this article was published in a new age magazine Life positive in 2010.
THE SONGS OF THE EARTHY GODS
Spirituality in Folk Art – Interview with Dr. Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan
Looking resplendent in a magenta sari with golden flowers worn in the traditional Tamil kosavam style with matching ethnic jewellery, Dr. Vijayalakshmi Navaneethakrishnan reminded me of a village Goddess of her songs. Her music has an otherworldly quality to it. When she began to sing, the earthy, vibrant notes turned the surroundings into the pastoral settings of a quiet village. The idyll vanished when she resumed the conversation in soft, scholarly tones that she must have used in hundreds of her class lectures and we were back in her large, comfortable guest room lined with photographs and several awards that she had received for her contribution to Tamil folk art.
“There is a deep underlying thread of spirituality in folk music. 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 so many millennia ago. In these songs that contain the core of the ancient Dravidian culture, you can read the complete story of a civilization” said Dr. Vijayalakshmi.
My carefully prepared list of questions went out of the window as she went on to talk about the spiritual, social, scientific, religious, cultural and anthropological aspects of folk music and dance, every now and then demonstrating her points with a few lines of song or a few dance steps. The music transported us through space and time to the remote villages of old where life was simple and lived as a song and dance of joy.
Professor 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. Coming from an educated and accomplished family of doctors, engineers, and other professionals, the Navaneethakrishnans decided early in life that their mission was to promote Dravidian folk art. 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 for artists to continue the tradition and also for want of audiences to appreciate them. Years after retiring as professors in the Department of Folk Arts and Culture at the Madurai Kamaraj University, the couple continues their studies and along with their troupe, conducts stage performances that are sought after by connoisseurs and lovers of folk music around the World.
“We realized long ago that to collect and preserve as many folk art forms as possible for posterity and to share 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 who had just returned in the morning to Madurai, from Chennai where she had been felicitated with yet another award in recognition of her contribution to the field.
Timelessness of Folk Music
Folk music is often called as the purest form of music. It is music that is perhaps as old as language itself, music which originated from the everyday lives of people and has been passed by word of mouth through countless generations. Composed in one of the ancient classical languages of the world, Tamil folk music is alleged 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.
“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, worship of nature etc. 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
The 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 which is formed in around ten months. Without realizing the nature of his self and the purpose of his life, man then indulges in materialistic pleasures, dancing away his days in gay
abandon until he destroys the divine gift that is the human body.
“Even the folk songs sung by small children during their games 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 is an allusion to the four stages of life, the circle of teasing implying courtship
and marriage, the circle of wailing referring to the arrival of children, the circle of weariness referring to the exhaustion which comes from bearing worldly responsibilities and the last circle being the realisation that all of samsara is but an illusion of Maya.
Song and Dance with purpose
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 by Ramana or Vivekananda. Like those very saints, they instinctively walked the spiritual path practicing 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 gave birth to our children”
This would be followed by a series of rhythmic steps with the bullocks walking behind him, the bells tied around their necks jingling, keeping time with the beats of the song. As they turned back, 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 which would then be followed by the next stanza:
“In the earth we trusted and we gave birth to our children” going forward, and
“When will the earth flourish with crops, when will our children be fed?” while returning.
The song was more than a diversion for the farmer to ease the burden of his 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 also formed a plea to the nature Gods for the much awaited rains. There were similar songs that were sung while cutting rocks, ploughing the fields, sowing seeds, transplanting saplings, harvesting, winnowing grain, grazing cows and milking cows among others. There are spiritual associations in many of them.
For example, the cowherds of old used to take two flutes with them when they went to the forests or meadows 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 and wide 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 practice that has been followed by cowherds for centuries is referred to during the worship of the God Krishna at the Azhagar temple in Madurai.
In the hollow of the fig tree
The King of the Cowherds
Places the veinkuzhal
He then plays on the seenkuzhal
And the entire world ripples in its music
The Tamil verse describes how the God Krishna, referred to as ‘the King of the cowherds’, plays on the seenkuzhal, 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 can charm even 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?
Special songs were sung to the cows while milking in order to relax the cows and to help them release the milk freely. Dr. Vijayalakshmi narrated an incident when a psychiatrist friend after hearing the cow-milking songs, requested her to create a special tape of the songs, which he then started using as part of holistic therapy in alleviating stress and depression in his patients. Folk songs that were sung during work were also a means of calibrating the activities and determining the amount of work involved in tasks that involved long hours of repetitive actions such as measuring out water for the crops, digging the fields, husking paddy, and pounding rice. The songs helped the 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 often illiterate villagers in touch with the concept of the divine through references to the scriptures and religious stories.
Folk Songs as a means of bonding with the family and community
Folk songs and dances served to foster harmonious interpersonal-relationships, inter-dependence and cooperation 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 faith and belief. The housewife’s song as she drew kolam designs in front of her house in the early hours of the morning 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 recollected 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 some time back. Sadly, her granddaughter had not cared to learn the song and had offered to sing film songs instead.
The kolam song is similar to the practice in Japan during the spring Setsubun festival, when people throw soy beans out of the door, chanting ‘Demons out, Luck in!’ Dr. Vijayalakshmi pointed out that the indigenous culture and traditions of most ancient civilizations in the world have a number of striking similarities which can be seen in the traditional songs and dances of the Egyptians, Hebrews, Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Japanese and Babylonians, many of which have parallels in the Dravidian folk culture. She cited how the Sapta Matrika worship, evidence of which has been found in the Indus valley civilization is still in practice in a small village called Vellalur near Sivagangai.
Esoteric Folk Songs
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 folksongs to drive away evil spirits. The Siddhas, the ancient Tamil mystics had their own repertoire of folk songs that sounded very simple and yet 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 drums when a person in the village passed away, for the belief was that the Heavenly Gates opened at the sound of the beats.
Some of these mysterious old songs continue to be used in practice even in recent times, said Dr.Vijayalakshmi citing the example of 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 of the Mother’s womb 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 Nayakkar people and involves a rendering of the Ramayana, literally means the dance of service to God” 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. There is a temple in Kurangani near Thirunelveli where Sita is believed to have thrown down her pearl necklace as she was being carried away by Ravana in his flying chariot. To this day, the villagers there worship her as Muthu-malai Amman, the Goddess of the pearl necklace. The Tamil version of the Ramayana composed by the poet Kambar has references to the folk songs of the period, with some of its verses being set to folk beats.
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 fourteen lines in the form of a folk lullaby. The song invoked an instant feeling of drowsiness and total relaxation. Just as my eyes began to droop, 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.
The Down-to-Earth Folk Deities
In almost every ancient civilization, 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.
“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 fulfills all worldly desires of her devotees in the Vedic temples takes on a totally different form in the 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 typically 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. There are several village deities such as Ayyanar, the God who protects the village boundaries and ensures that it rains at the right time, aggressive Gods such as Karuppusamy and Sudalaimadan and village Goddesses like Esakki Amman, Pecchi Amman, Rakki, Periyachi etc. Each has their own legends, stories and symbolisms, and distinct modes of worship. The idols of these Gods are usually 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 folk 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 rituals of worship are known only to the potters, folk singers and village priests of each village who pass this information orally to the next generation in their respective families. There are scientific reasons behind the rituals 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 source of water was likely to pollute the water supply of the entire village.
Dr. Vijayalakshmi mentioned about a folk musician who enacts the role of the Narasimha avatar of the God Vishnu 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 fifteen 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. She explained, “The folk deities are concepts defined around powerful sources of natural energy. If they perform the rituals correctly, the village priests can tap directly into these energy sources and channelize 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 in the Hindu scriptures” Dr.Vijayalakshmi said, concluding the interview.
“We have merely scratched the surface of the subject,” Dr. Vijayalakshmi said with a smile as I got up to leave, “There is so much more to folk art that we could talk for days about it, write several books and still there would remain much to be discussed. We are looking at a subject that has evolved over thousands of years”. Dr. Vijayalakshmi and her husband have co-authored six books on the subject, and have brought out several albums of authentic folk music.
The current trend in what goes by the name of popular folk music was disappointing, she said, citing examples of how the inherent meaning of certain folk songs were twisted in order to give it a romantic angle in order to enhance its marketability. Improvisations in folk songs to reflect changing times has happened since time immemorial as the song is orally handed down from one generation to the next, and while changing a ‘bullock cart’ to a ‘motor car’ in a folk song may be acceptable, it would not do to change a song advocating abstinence between the husband and wife on certain days into an invitation for a romantic tryst, which changes the very concept of the song and renders it meaningless.
Dr. Vijayalakshmi invited me to see her Puja room before I took leave of her. Beautiful idols of folk Gods and Goddesses looked on gravely from their pedestals in the altar of the large and spacious room, the walls of which were covered with framed pictures of the many Gods and Goddesses of whom she had been singing a while ago. As I thanked her for the interview, Dr. Vijayalakshmi blessed me. The blessing was partly an invocation to the various folk Gods and partly a series of benedictions that went on for around five minutes in an arcane Tamil chant. I sensed an air of serenity in the room had that was different from the general feeling of controlled calm that one finds in the temples. The room bore the tranquillity that is usually found in the depths of nature, the quietude that is a part of snow-capped mountains, flowing rivers, oceans, deserts and sylvan forests. I wondered if what I sensed were the vibrations of the Gods of the Earth.