How Nanchamma’s National Award sets the record straight for the music traditions of Attappadi

Kalakkatha sandana maram vegu vega poothirikka
poo parikkan pokilamo vimanathe paakkilamo
(The sandalwood tree to the east has blossomed…should we go pluck the flowers and watch the airplane…).

This arresting and evocative ditty in director Sachy’s Biju Menon and Prithviraj-starrer Malayalam action thriller, Ayyappanum Koshiyum (2020) (Ayyappan and Koshi), which has been sung by Nanchamma – a 64-year-old folk singer from Palakkad’s Attappadi – is the story of a woman feeding her child. Kalakkatha in Irula – the language and tribe of Nanchamma – was imbibed by her as a young girl growing up in Nakkupathy Pirivu, a tribal settlement, where it was often sung at home, along with many lullabies and work songs about farming that were orally passed down generations.

Kalakkatha is a simple, homely melody from the community, sung to traditional drums. It’s familiar yet from a far-off place that one had visited sometime in a dream. Though Nanchamma would sing these songs at home or while grazing her goats or working in the fields of the local landlords, she never imagined that what was a way of life for her would win her a National Award.

Last week, Nanchamma won the 68th National Award for being 2020’s Best Playback Singer (Female), a category that has seen winners such as Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, KS Chitra and Shreya Ghoshal in the past. The award was for Kalakkatha, besides two other songs in the film. There was Thaalam Poyi apart from Adakachakko, a duet with Memon and Prithviraj. While the credit for Kalakkatha’s composition, too, has gone to Nanchamma, the other two have been composed by Jakes Bejoy.

Though she has led a quiet life, since 2009 Nanchamma been a member of Azad Kala Sangham, an organisation that was started by Pazhani Swami, an officer of the Kerala forest and wildlide department, to preserve the indigenous arts of the Irula. The organisation was also started as a protest against distorted stories about the musical traditions of the place. The members of the group, including Nanchamma, have performed at Kerala government’s tourism festivals and Union Ministry’s national tribal dance festivals. She also sang the promotional song for one of Kerala government’s housing programmes. This was the first time that Irula was used as a promotional language in the state.

But what put Nanchamma and her talent under the spotlight was Aggedu Nayaga (The Mother Tongue), a short film by the Palakkad district panchayat. Directed by theatre activist and teacher Sindhu Sajan, the film talks about a traditionalist education system that does not account for any linguistic diversity, thus depriving an entire tribal community of their fundamental right to education. In this film, Nanchamma had sung a song that translates into “This is the kakkae (spinach) leaf… I’ll buy you karamadai, the shore where it grows”. The film won the 2015 state television award.

This was followed by five songs in director Razi Muhammed’s Velutha Rathrikal (White Nights), the award-winning film that was set in Attappadi and was a sensitive portrayal of bisexuality.

Since Sachi had set Ayyappanum Koshiyum in Attappadi, he needed a singer from the area. When he heard Nanchamma, he brought her to the Chennai recording studio, along with others from the troupe.

After Nanchamma won the award, Malayalam musician Linu Lal had put a Facebook video, saying that “the award should have been given to a good professional singer” and that Nanchamma should have been given the Special Jury Award. After his statement, many from the industry, including composers Bejoy and Bijibal, came forward to support the singer, calling Nanchamma’s music “pure” and how years of learning cannot deliver what’s rendered from the heart.

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