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Our songs and the stories they tell

Known Unknowns
Last Updated 14 May 2022, 21:56 IST

Songs have a way of uniting us across space and time. Ali Sethi describes how his Punjabi song Pasoori, meaning conflict or difficulties, was triggered by a brightly painted truck he saw in Punjab, Pakistan, lettered in even brighter colours Agg lavaan teriya majbooriya nu – set fire to your constraints. This beautiful song has travelled the world, attempting to create a non-binary Asian identity.

This year, we also heard the song Kacha Badam – meaning raw peanuts -- go viral after an amateur recording of a peanut seller bartering his wares while singing this song was uploaded on social media. The Bengali peanut seller, Bhuban Badyakar was also the lyricist of this catchy song with no pretences other than providing a menu of what he would accept as a barter in exchange for an equal weight in raw peanuts!

Another recent song with a pan-Indian appeal was the Naatu Naatu song, meaning local village style dance. The lyricist, Chandrabose, uses rural words to describe the high-energy freestyle dancing typical in South India. Of course, last year, we also enjoyed the viral Sinhala love song, Manike mage hithe, from Sri Lanka.

Humans have always been storytellers. Some of the most enduring stories have been crafted into songs, giving these stories even longer lives. Songs also document cultures and languages. Recently, on a long drive to a customer site, a colleague asked me if I believed in preserving the purity of languages. The difficulty is, of course, agreeing on what is pure. In South India, are the dialects of the villages with only Dravidian vocabulary pure? Or is it the court languages that gracefully integrated Sanskrit vocabulary that need to be promoted? We agreed that the best thing to preserve might be our songs, whatever be the vocabulary used, from their time and in their lands.

There is so much joy that a well-crafted song gives us. Sometimes, as in classical music, the song is just a vehicle to preserve the raga, and sometimes, the role of the tune is just to preserve the lyrics. I enjoy the lyrics, but I am not gifted enough to understand the nuances of the raga. That is the reason I write about the stories that our songs tell and the languages of the lands where they were written.

There is a Telugu song, written by Annamacharya more than 500 years ago, which celebrates the bride of the beloved Lord Venkateshwara. This song is a great example for having preserved language and culture while telling a story to many generations. The refrain in the song is Pendli Koothuru – the bride.

Annamacharya uses several words starting with the syllable ‘Pe,’ demonstrating his artistry with the language. As an example, just in one small stanza, he uses the word Peru, in the context meaning a necklace (Peruna), a gathering of women (Perantam), and a name (Peru). In another stanza, he uses the word Pettina, in the context meaning wear (Pettene), gift (Pettedu), and give (Pettina). His song describes a segment of the wedding, which is exactly how the Telugu wedding is conducted today with the ritual of the bride and groom showering each other with Talambralu, or rice coated with turmeric which is used as a blessing of prosperity.

Again, from a language standpoint, the word Talambralu is a compound word with tala meaning head, and ralu meaning to roll-off – signifying the rice rolling off the head. Gender matters are also playfully included in the song, with the bride being described as more popular and more qualified than the groom. The language used from 500 years ago translates very well into the present day.

For me, there is so much joy in understanding languages, and the ability to relate to cultures from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Bangladesh to Sri Lanka and to India across the many centuries. There is so much to learn from listening to songs, grasping new words, and understanding that the same words have entirely different meanings across borders. There is so much to celebrate through our songs – our differences as well as how similar we are.

Here is to Ali Sethi’s dream of one non-binary Asian identity and Agg lavaan teriya majbooriya nu!

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(Published 14 May 2022, 19:01 IST)

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