How Kerala man’s art forum has revived long-lost folk music of Attappadi tribals

Pazhaniswami says identifying Nanjiyamma, a tribal woman whose song featured in Prithviraj-starrer ‘Ayyappanum Koshiyum’, helped revive Attappadi’s folk music.
How Kerala man’s art forum has revived long-lost folk music of Attappadi tribals
How Kerala man’s art forum has revived long-lost folk music of Attappadi tribals
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There was a time when young drummers from Kerala’s tribal heartland, Attappadi in Palakkad district, had gained popularity across the state, especially at annual temple festivals, public events and socio-cultural programmes. Known widely as the Attappadi tribal drum, the peculiar instrument and its performers evolved over the years as the musical identity of the backward region.

However, according to Attappadi’s popular folk music expert S Pazhaniswami, this tribal drum is not part of the region’s traditional musical identity. In fact, he has been making constant efforts, through an art forum called Azad Kala Samithy, to revive Attappadi’s folk music. An example of this can be seen in the latest Malayalam movie, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, starring Prithviraj and Biju Menon.

The movie features the folk song ‘Kalakkatha’, sung by 64-year-old folk music singer Nanjiyamma from Attappadi. Even before the movie was released, Nanjiyamma’s song was watched and appreciated by millions on YouTube. With the film turning out to be a box-office success, Nanjiyamma has turned into a star. And with it, the traditional music of the tribal region is on the road to recognition, says 45-year-old Pazhaniswami.

Why it was vital to revive Attappadi’s music

Until a few years ago, youngsters who performed these high-decibel Attappadi tribal drums were paid well by event organisers as the very mention of the Attappadi drum attracted a large number of spectators. Besides, it added to the charm of the festival.

A tribal person from the Irula community, Pazhaniswami said that the traditional music of Attappadi tribal community never used any high-decibel drums.

“The drums had no tribal connection, they are actually instruments once used by the Chakkiliyan community (Scheduled Caste) in Tamil Nadu,’’ says Pazhaniswami, who started Azad Kala Samithy as a protest against the false notions about Attappadi’s musical tradition created by the young drummers.

“Some outsiders had imposed the Chakkiliyan drum on our people and many youngsters got attracted to it because of monetary reasons. In the process, the whole tribal art of Attappadi faced extreme neglect,” claims Pazhaniswami, who is also a member of the wild elephant chasing squad of the Forest Department in Attappadi.

“As in the case of aborigines in other parts of the world, we had a rich tradition of dance and music. But with changing times, the traditional lifestyle of our people also changed. A number of burning issues – ranging from the alienation of land and loss of livelihood to deteriorating health and social conditions – also caused a near-total detachment of our people from our rich tradition and culture,” he says.

Folk songs of the Attapadi tribal area are distinct and more folk in nature than the songs prevailing in the tribal areas of Wayanad and Idukki districts. Their songs feature lullabies and songs to accompany weddings and funerals, and the lyrics are in Tamil.

The revival project

Pazhaniswami describes identifying Nanjiyamma, a tribal woman from the Nakkupathy Pirivu tribal settlement, as his greatest achievement. Pazhaniswami and Nanjiyamma are neighbours. Nanjiyamma, who ekes out a living by grazing goats and working in the fields of local landlords, has been a part of the Azad Kala Samithy since its inception in 2009.

"As is the case everywhere, tribal songs are preserved by passing them orally from one generation to the other. Their accuracy depends largely on the memory power of people. We have struggled a lot in the last one decade to record all the tribal songs of the region without losing their authenticity and charm,” recounts Pazhaniswami, who also donned the role of an excise sub-inspector in Ayyappanum Koshiyum.

Today, Nanjiyamma and other singers of Azad Kala Samithy can sing over a hundred tribal songs.

The forum has already taken her and about two dozen other tribal singers and dancers from Attappadi around the country to perform in front of interested audiences.

Pazhaniswami (extreme left), Nanjiyamma (purple sari) and other singers

Nanjiyamma’s tryst with the silver screen started in 2015 when Sindhu Sajan, a teacher at Agali Government Higher Secondary School, made a short film, titled Aggedu Nayaga, on Attappadi tribals. The short film featured some of Nanjiyamma’s songs.

The short film, which was about the language rights of tribal students, won the 2015 state television award. Interestingly, Pazhaniswami had also acted in the short film and also worked with the crew.

In the subsequent year, Nanjiyamma sang five songs for the award-winning movie Velutha Rathrikal (White Nights), directed by Razi Muhammed. This movie was again based on Attapadi tribals.

“As Ayyappanum Koshiyum was set in Attappadi, its director Sachy wanted tribal songs to be a part of the film. So he contacted our art forum. After listening to Nanjiyamma, he took an 11-member team from our troupe for a session in Kochi. Later, the songs were recorded in Chennai,” recalls Pazhaniswami, who divides his time between folk art promotion and scaring away wild elephants that raid farmlands.

Slow but steady recognition

When Nanjiyamma introduced the 'Kalakkatha' song – Kalakkatha sandana maram vegu vega poothirikka, poo parikkan pokilamo vimanathe paakkilamo... (Shall we go and pluck flowers from the sandalwood tree that has bloomed in the east, apart from seeing the aeroplane) – to the music lovers of Kerala, it marked a change in one’s perception that the high-decibel drum is the musical identity of Attappadi, notes Pazhaniswami.

“Though we have been singing at state-level and national-level events, organised by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, over the years, we have been able to recapture our lost musical identity only now,’’ he says.

To the accompaniment of traditional tribal musical instruments like ‘chore’, ‘davil’, ‘kuzhal’ and ‘jaldra’, the troupe performs based on demand. It was only recently that the troupe released an album of the best tribal songs of Attappadi. In the last two years, the troupe has also been part of two dramas for All India Radio (AIR).

“We expect constant guidance and help from the Department of Culture as well as the Department of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Affairs of the Kerala government to promote the tribal music legacy of Attappadi further. If we have access to more resources, we can set up a music school under the leadership of Nanjiyamma,” says Pazhaniswami.

(The author is a Thiruvananthapuram-based freelance writer.)


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