The widely popular adaptation of a Telangana folk song has reignited the debate over appropriation of folk music and oral traditions by dominant communities for commercial use.

Actor Sai Pallavi in the song Saranga Dariya on the left and singer Komala on the rightYouTube Screengrab
Flix Tollywood Tuesday, March 09, 2021 - 18:25

Ten years ago, Komala Totte, a folk singer from Telangana’s Warangal district, auditioned for a talent show with a song she had heard her grandmother sing while working in the fields in her hometown. Performing ‘Saranga Dariya’ on the TV show Rela Re brought her much appreciation and recognition. Komala, who has documented many such rare songs orally passed down through generations, later put out a studio recorded version of the song. An adaptation of the song from the upcoming film Love Story, featuring Sai Pallavi, has become an internet dance sensation over the past week, garnering more than 31 million views on YouTube over 10 days. In comparison, Komala’s studio version which was put out a year and a half ago, currently has about 3 million views. 

The director of Love Story, Sekhar Kammula, has acknowledged Komala’s role in documenting the song through posts on his Twitter and Facebook when the song was released. But, Komala’s name is missing from the official YouTube video which is now viral. The song was sung by another popular folk singer Mangli, and the lyrics are attributed to Suddala Ashok Teja, a National Film Award winning lyricist.

Watch Komala sing 'Saranga Dariya':  

Suddala was a judge on the show in which Komala had sung the song 10 years ago. According to Komala, Suddala had then assured her that he would take the song to a 'higher level'. While the song has now indeed become immensely popular even beyond the Telugu states, the way in which it has been adapted has been called into question.

The adaptation has also reignited the debate over the appropriation of folk music and oral traditions — which provide insights into gender and caste issues of a region, social and political issues, and are sometimes used as anthems of resistance in people’s movements — by the Telugu film industry which often profits from the music while using it in an entirely different context. 

Authorship of the song 

Though Komala initially said that she was pleased with the song becoming popular, in the past few days, she has been vocal about her discontentment with the way in which it was adapted. She has told the media that she only found out that 'Saranga Dariya' was being adapted for Love Story after the promo was released. Sekhar Kammula and Suddala then spoke to her only after she reached out to them, she said. “After listening to the promo (released two days before the full song), I called the lyricist and said that it was my song. He replied that the song has been with him even before I was born,” Komala said in an interview. 

Lyricist Suddala told Andhrajyothy that he had heard the song from his mother many years ago, when he was in school. “I had forgotten about it until Komala sang it on Rela Re. Later, Sekhar (Kammula) asked me to write the song for his film,” he said. While a few lines have been retained from the version that Komala documented, Suddala has rewritten the rest of the song. Speaking of authorship, Suddala said in the interview, “Artists of upper classes, like Tyagaraja, leave their signature in their compositions. But similar to the way god doesn’t leave a signature on his creations, rural folk do not leave their signature in their songs,” he said, adding that folk music belongs to everyone and no individual can claim it as their own. 

However, the adaptation is attributed to Suddala, who previously won the National Film Award for Best Lyricist for the song 'Nenu Saitham', from the 2003 film Tagore starring Chiranjeevi. 'Nenu Saitham' was based on  revolutionary Telugu poet Sri Sri’s work. At the time, there were objections about the award going to Suddala as his work wasn’t entirely original. However, Suddala has claimed that poets like Sri Sri and Atreya have also borrowed from others’ works and folk literature. “I was a judge on Rela Re and supported folk singers. When they have a right over the songs, so do I,” he said in the interview.

Lost in adaptation?

Suddala has rewritten and added several lines in the film version of 'Saranga Dariya', using words from the Telangana dialect. “There’s a problem when you use folk songs. They are written in a certain way, as the folk musicians are not educated. Society is their university, they don't have academic qualifications. When we take their songs, we shouldn’t show our mastery. We should use similar words as theirs,” Suddala said

The film version of the song, while describing the beauty of a young woman, also talks about how she is strong-minded and not easily 'attainable'. Suddala has defined the term 'Saranga Dariya' as someone who 'adorns the sarangi instrument'. However, Komala has said that according to her grandmother, the song is more about the righteousness and virtue of a woman than her beauty. “I found the meaning of the song from my grandmother and documented it. Sir (Suddala), who is a learned person, has interpreted the song differently,” she said. 

While claiming to stay true to the spirit of the original song, Suddala has also cited writers like  Sirivennela Seetharama Sastry and Tenali Ramakrishna — writers of a more ‘classical tradition’ —  as inspiration for the literary devices he has added to the song. “I have brought in new elements like ‘ninda stuti’, which wasn’t there in the original. Our ancestors and great people had employed these devices in great works of literature,” Suddala said in the interview. 

Suddala has also made some problematic claims. He has said that he tried to 'forget his proficiency' as a writer, and penned the song assuming the stance of a ‘folk writer’, implying a certain hierarchy in skill and stature.

Objecting to Suddala’s claim to being a part of the folk tradition, Dr Gurram Seetaramulu, an independent researcher and cultural critic, says that revolutionary intellectuals like Cherabanda Raju, Shiva Sagar and Gaddar, who took forward the oral tradition, gave importance to the essence of the songs. “When these poets’ songs were used in films, they were used with the goal of social liberation,” he notes.  In the case of adaptations like 'Saranga Dariya', however, “the makers are gloating about YouTube views, but how are they contributing to the rich oral tradition that the song is a part of?” Seetaramulu questions.

Folk music as ‘public property’?

Noting the role of folk literature in augmenting social dialogue, Seetaramulu says, “Folk musicians have used their skill and intellect to popularise the religious, spiritual and philosophical discourses of their time.”

A few years ago, a north Andhra folk song was used in SS Rajamouli’s 2009 film Magadheera starring Ram Charan. The song, ‘Yem Pillado Veldham Vasthava’, was a popular revolutionary anthem of the region in the ‘80s, written by revolutionary folk singer and co-founder of Jana Natya Mandali, Vangapandu Prasad Rao. Objecting to the use of his work in a dance song in the film, Vangapandu had said it was being misused in a 'vulgar' context, degrading its essence. 

Watch Vangapandu Prasad Rao sing the song and talk about it: 

North Andhra folk songs have often been used by Pawan Kalyan in his films, mainly in comical situations. The actor-politician, who contested in the 2019 elections from two constituencies including Gajuwaka in Visakhapatnam, had later sung some of these songs during his campaign meetings. He even sang Vangapandu’s ‘Yem Pillado Veldham Vasthava’, while speaking about environmental concerns in the Srikakulam region and his “love and respect for the dialect of Srikakulam.”

During a debate on the use of the song in Magadheera, Devi, a member of Praja Natya Mandali, was asked about the notion of folk literature as public property. “Folk songs are often modified and sung by workers in the fields. People have the right to adapt them according to their life needs, as it belongs to them and it is their medium,” Devi said. But, she called commercial use of folk music to profit from it as equivalent to robbing the people of their intellectual property. 

Representation and opportunities for folk artists  

The lack of credit and opportunities is a sore point with folk singers whose work is appropriated by the Telugu film industry. Komala reportedly told Suddala that she wished she had been given the opportunity to sing 'Saranga Dariya'. The lyricist allegedly told her to take it up with the director. “An Assistant Director called me and asked if it was possible for me to travel all the way for recording. They mentioned that the composer would have to fly in from Chennai,” she said. She also alleged that the team was reluctant when she asked for a few days’ time because of health issues, indicating that they weren’t enthusiastic about giving her the opportunity. 

She has since asked to be credited alongside lyricist Suddala. Suddala in his defence, has said that Komala has been acknowledged by the director on social media. “No one has done this before. In the case of ‘Ramuloo Ramulaa’ (from the 2020 film Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo starring Allu Arjun), credit wasn’t given to folk artists, but we did [for 'Saranga Dariya],” he said. 

‘Ramuloo Ramulaa’, another widely popular Telugu song in recent years, is also based on a Telangana folk song. While the film’s team has acknowledged the fact elsewhere, the official video on YouTube or the film do not mention it. It has also been pointed out that a couple of lines from the song ‘Gadi Thalupula’ in the 2011 film Mirapakay resemble the tune of 'Saranga Dariya'. Both Mirapakay and Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo have S Thaman credited as the music composer, and he has been accused of plagiarism on many occasions. 

Watch folk singer Sandhya sing the song which 'Ramuloo Ramulaa' is based on: 

'Ramuloo Ramulaa' ended up being used as a party song. Director Trivikram Srinivas has said that the Telangana dialect was used as people want to enjoy “our song and spice” instead of foreign music and rap. “We wanted to use native melody in a posh setup”, he said, adding that the details of the music video, including the clothes of junior artists, were meticulously designed to look rich, to be on par with the popularity of Bollywood music videos. 

Another controversy over folk music arose when Ram Charan’s Rangasthalam was released in 2018. The song 'Aa Gattununtava', sung by folk singer Shiva Nagulu, had become popular before the film’s release. But a different version sung by composer Devi Sri Prasad ended up being used in the film. While Shiva Nagulu expressed disappointment over this, the film’s director Sukumar said that he felt Devi Sri Prasad’s version was more emotionally suited for Ram Charan’s performance.  

Watch the version of the song sung by Shiva Nagulu: 

In contrast, in the 2020 film Palasa 1978, two folk songs were used without many changes, and the lyrics were credited as ‘Uttarandhra Janapadam’ (north Andhra folk song). The film itself is based in north Andhra’s Srikakulam and has been commended for its nuanced and authentic depiction of caste violence.The film’s music composer Raghu Kunche also provided a singing opportunity with credit to Asirayya, a folk artist from the region who was consulted while composing music for the film. Incidentally, Palasa 1978 also features one song written by Suddala. 

Watch the lyric video of the song 'Ye Ooru Ye Oore' from Palasa 1978

Penchal Das is another Dalit folk artist who has been prominently featured in recent years as lyricist and singer in films based in the Rayalaseema region, like Krishnarjuna Yudham, Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava and Sreekaram

Read: Why 'Palasa 1978' is an important Telugu film documenting Dalit resistance

Both 'Saranga Dariya' and 'Ramuloo Ramulaa' are among the most viewed Telugu songs on YouTube in recent times. In interviews, Suddala has said that he, along with director Sekhar Kammula, wanted to surpass their own records from another dance song 'Vachinde' (from the director’s previous film Fidaa, also featuring Sai Pallavi and written by Suddala.) “Within a few days, crores of people are listening (to 'Saranga Dariya'). Folks artists should be happy about it. I’m doing my service to folk culture,”  Suddala said.  

However, Komala has only been acknowledged separately on social media at the time of the song’s release (after she contacted the team on watching the promo), and she has said that this isn’t good enough. Dr Seetaramulu says that not crediting Komala is not just an act of appropriation but amounts to exploitation of folk artists. 

Komala has expressed hope that her name will be credited next to the lyricist's at the time of the film’s release in April. “I am hoping this leads to more film opportunities. I have more than a hundred folk songs memorised,” she said. 

 

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