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“Fashioning a Filmi Folk: Dravidianism, Democracy, and Musical Stereotype

in Early Tamil Cinema.”

Society for Ethnomusicology Annual Meeting

November 12, 2010
Aaron Paige

As India approached its independence under the direction of the Congress-led

nationalist party, a powerful opposition was brewing in Tamil Nadu. Many South

Indians, especially Tamils, saw Congress’ claim to power as the advancement of a North

Indian Brahminic campaign to exercise political, social, and economic control over the

Southern regions of the subcontinent. A non-Brahmin regional movement, known as the

Dravidian movement, was established in opposition to Congress’ vision of an India

united under a Sanskritized Hindu spirituality and Hindi language. An outgrowth of the

revolutionary and radical ideologies of E.V. Ramasamy Niaker, Dravidianism sought to

articulate an autonomous racial and political identity for non-Brahmin South Indians,

offering a vociferous critique of the Congress party, and its bourgeoisie vision of the

Indian nation.

The advent of Tamil regionalism and the establishment of the Dravidian Progress

Federation (DMK) in 1949, constitute what I believe to be an important epistemic shift in

the relationship between Tamil folk cultural productions and South Indian identity

politics. Prior to the mid-20th century, Tamil folk forms, especially folk musics were

excluded from elitist representations of national and regional identity, both of which were

heavily invested in the creation of “classical” music canons, suitable for urban middle-

class audiences. By the mid-20th century however, largely because of the DMK’s

propaganda campaigns, Tamil folklore, especially folk music gained legitimacy in

academic institutions, visibility in the media, and attention at the highest levels of


The DMK’s political and social agenda sought to forge a new subaltern non-

Brahmin public, composed not of lawyers, academics, bureaucrats, and land-owners, but

of farmers, market-sellers, construction workers, and washer-men. Towards this end the

DMK developed a particular style of propaganda, or what in Tamil is known as

piracharam, which drew upon the everyday expressive traditions of non-Brahmics. It

was in this context that the tropes of “folk” or nattupura makkal, and village gramiya

found articulation in various forms of South Indian public discourse, including political

party songbooks, novels, and the cinema.

Film was a critical medium through which Dravidians were able to advocate their

social reformist ideas and spread their populist message. By the mid-twentieth century

prominent figures of the Dravidian movement, including C.N. Annadurai MG

Ramachandram, and M. Karunanidhi dominated the South Indian cinema system as

actors and screenplay writers. It was under their patronage and artistic direction that the

genre of the Tamil folkloric film was fashioned and popularized

As “village sequences” were introduced into Tamil cinema with greater frequency,

film directors were faced with the task of putting these scenes to music. Before the 1950s

the “village” had rarely been portrayed sonically in Tamil film. Without a dominant

filmic idiom of “folk music” to draw from, the Dravidian film industry constructed its

own, repackaging and retooling indigenous folk music practices into a single

commodified entertainment form; one that reflected the ideologies and agendas of the

DMK. In their attempts to depict the village on screen, Dravidian film directors favored
particular sounds and musical conventions over others, contributing to the musical

stereotyping of the folk or what Mark Slobin would call their musical leveling. Musical

leveling refers to the process by which complex musical cultures are reduced to basic

patterns and structures that reflect engrained supercultural assumptions and imaginations.

Through an examination of select musical figures including- “singing bullock cart

drivers,” “snake charmer’s tunes,” and “silent Dalit drums”- in several DMK propaganda

films released between 1950 and 1970, I hope to offer a critical reading of the sonic

devices that came to dominate the cinematic representation of the Tamil village and its

folk inhabitants.

Bullock Cart Songs

Bullock cart songs are one of the most common type of folk song to be heard in

early DMK cinema. Films like Veerapaandiya Kattabomman, Nadodi Mannan, and Baga

Pirivinai depict hero and heroine singing while traveling by bullock cart through the

countryside. These songs parody a genre of folk song in Tamil called maddu vandi

temmāngu or bullock cart songs. Though the verse structure and melodic contour of

these film songs fit the temmāngu song form, the instrumental accompaniment, up-beat

tempos, and singing female passengers have little to do with the musical life of bullock

cart drivers. Play example Traditionally, maddu vandi temmangu songs speak of distant

loved ones and sexual yearning, and are sung unaccompanied, by male drivers during

long and solitary overnight journeys. Not especially concerned with capturing an

ethnographically sensitive representation of this genre of folk song in their scores, music

directors reinvented the bullock cart song as an “assumed vernacular music passed off as
the genuine item. Using stereotyped folk rhythms, romanticized lyrics, and unidiomatic

instruments, they orchestrated a folk music for their audience that was imaginary, yet had


Scoring the Village

Investing every film with at least one folk song and dance sequence, in which an

entire village springs to life musically, was a convention established in the early

propaganda films of the DMK. All the films surveyed for this paper include a scene of

this type. Though there are slight variations from film to film, scenes depicting “the

village” are often represented acoustically through stock musical phrases, instruments,

timbres, and rhythms. While heroes, heroines, and other individuated characters in these

films are joined to a variety of musical expressions including karnatak, folk, devotional,

disco, jazz, flamenco, western classical, and Middle Eastern sounds, “the folk” are

usually limited to a select few. Common musical clichés that signal “folk” include the

invocation of snake charmer’s tunes and repeated drum motifs.

Snake charmer songs (mahudi pāttu), are traditionally performed by specialists

from Dalit and nadodi communities, and have a long history in Tamil Nadu. However, in

the context of films such as Madurai Veeran, Baga Pirivinai, Veerapaandiya

Kattabomman, Tirudathe and Nam Naadu, these tunes, divorced from their traditional

context, become nonspecific musical markers of the “folk.” The mahudi is a short double

reed instrument with a sharp and shrill tone color, closely approximating the North Indian

shennai and the Egyptian mizmār. Tamil music directors, well acquainted with

Hollywood film score idioms, may have chosen mahudi melodies not only for their local
and recognizable sound but also for their ability to evoke the exotic Orient. Reinforcing

this association, MGR in Tirudathe wears a fez, while singing a folk song accompanied

by this instrument. The sound of the mahudi, though distinctively indigenous, was used

by music directors as a general index of the village. In early Tamil film scores, it became

a sonic metonym for “the folk,” erasing a multitude of vernacular musical identities.

While the mahudi served as stock melodic accompaniment for folk songs in films,

the parai frame drum provides a similar function in the domain of rhythm. The parai,

also called the tappu, is the traditional instrument of Paraiyar and Chakiliyar Dalit

(untouchable) communities. In addition to performing the parai at their own temple

festivals and religious celebrations, Dalits for the last several centuries have provided

inauspicious religious services for higher castes, most notably drumming at funerals.

Because of its close association with death, both the drum and its players have often been

stigmatized by members of the upper castes as degraded and impure.

Symbolic of the oppression and exploitation of the lower castes, the parai’s

introduction to Tamil film was ideologically motivated. In tune with the Dravidian

movement’s staunch anti-caste politics, music and film directors overlooked the drum’s

controversial history, and reframed it as a celebratory object representing the greatness of

village life and the value of Dalit culture. Interestingly however, Dravidian propaganda

films were more concerned with representing the parai visually than aurally. In many

popular Tamil films produced after 1950, the figure of the parai abounds in village song

and dance sequences, often combined unconventionally with other percussion and

melodic instruments.1 In many cases these drums function as decorative props; dancers

spin them around, balance them on their heads, and use them to create complicated
choreographic designs. Within all this activity, however, the distinctive rhythms and

powerful percussive timbre of the parai are often missing and in its place is often be

heard the sounds of less stigmatized instruments such as the dolak, mrdangam, and tavil.

The rhythms or beats (ādis) of the parai, like those of many folk drumming

traditions in Tamil Nadu, are semiotically connected to individual rituals, rites, and

dances (Wolf 2000:14). Tamil Nadu’s folk musics make use of hundreds of ādis, each

with its own particular meaning and significance. Nonetheless, in early films this

incredible diversity and complexity of rhythm was essentially reduced to two ostinati and

their related variations. The first of these two has a compound-duple feel, with a strong

polyrhythmic texture.

R1 x - x x - x| x - x x - x
o o o o

V1 x - x x - x| x - x x - x
o x o o x o

V2 x x x x x x| x x x x x x
o o o o

The second ostinato is duple and usually played at an up-beat tempo.

R2 x - - - x - - - |x - - - x - - -
o o o oo o o o oo

V1 x - - - x - - - |x - - - x - - -
o o oo o o o oo

V2 x - x - x - x - |x - x - x - x -
o x oo o x oo

These two rhythms became the most prominent iconic markers of the filmi folk song

more than any other musical element. In simplifying parai drumming to two easily
identifiable rhythmic tags, music directors evaded the difficulties of having to negotiate a

wide range of locally embedded folk music practices.

The folk songs of early Tamil cinema are formulaic and predictable not only in

sound but also in lyrical content. Musical numbers that depict dancing and singing

villagers are often accompanied by lyrics that praise peace, hard work, harmony, and

togetherness. The song “Summa Irunda” from Madurai Veeran commends the daily

labor of the common farmer as equal in value to the government jobs and occupations of

the educated elite. The song’s chorus, “So long as we work hard we will all live together

happily,” glorifies the toil and difficulty of rural agricultural life. Similarly,

Kannadasan’s lyrics for Therodum, a hit song from the film Baga Pirivanai are as


The milk flows while women works in the fields.

The farmer plants seeds like small dew drops.
He pours mango juice as fertilizer.
The paddy fields grow ever so sweetly in South Pandi Nadu.
In our city of Madurai, where the temple car is drawn
We, the villagers dance ōyil āttam together and celebrate.2

The lyrics of folk songs in Dravidian films romanticized the village using tropes of group

solidarity and homogeneity and metaphors that stress the inseparable connection between

folk-life and nature. By assigning the village a unified voice and speaking on its behalf,

film lyricists and songwriters undermined the power of folk song as a medium for

individual subjective expression and as a powerful vehicle through which the

economically and socially disadvantaged can express resistance, formulate self-

narratives, and articulate personal desire (Appavoo 1986, Sherinian 1998, Deces 2005).

Translation done with the help of B. Balasubrahmaiyan
For the most part, Folk music heard in the pre-Ilaiyaraja films of the 1950s and

1960s is clichéd and lacks cultural specificity. Only a single scene in one of the films I

surveyed features folk music that sounds ethnographically accurate. Since this is a highly

unusual event, I’d like to examine the scene and the music in some detail.

The scene (Tenali Raman, 1956) begins with a panoramic shot of a nighttime

village festival. A group of villagers stands outdoors in front of a large statue of the

goddess amman. Dancing before them is a man (sāmi) wearing an elaborate headdress;

likely possessed by the spirit of the goddess. Shown providing the musical

accompaniment for the ritual is a group of pambai drummers and kombu (water buffalo

horn) players. As the ritual comes to a climax, the head pujari or temple priest shouts

out, “Bring the sacrifice!” Just before the priest raises his knife to cut goat’s throat, the

hero of the film (played by Sivaji Ganesan) interrupts the sacrifice, snatching the animal

away. He chastises the priest and villagers for offering the life of an innocent victim and

attempts to convince them to renounce their sinful ways.

The music that suffuses this scene sounds like pambai drumming and kombu

playing, the same instruments featured on screen though not precisely synchronized with

the musicians’ movements. The combination of these particular instruments could very

well provide musical accompaniment for a goddess kodai vizha (offering festival) of this

kind. Why in Tenali Raman is vernacular sounding folk music used to accompany this

ritual? The folk in this village are certainly not portrayed as model representatives of

peace and social harmony. Sivaji, then the cinematic voice of the DMK, in fact criticizes

these villagers and their practice of animal sacrifice as “crule” and “backwards.” This

place is the antithesis of the idyllic Dravidian village; the people do not dance together,
nor do they sing romanticized songs in a folksy style. Carefully chosen, the music

symbolizing this dystopia is the unmediated and prosaic folk music of everyday village


Although “Folk music” in Tamil Nadu was hardly uniform either in sound or

meaning, regional variation, diversity, and caste inequality were overlooked in Dravidain

films in favor of stereotypes that advocated unity and homogeneity. Rather than

recognize folk musics as hereditary practices attached to particular individuals, social

classes and castes, “folk” became a category, within which all non-Brahmin musics were

conveniently grouped and oversimplified.    Just as the Dravidain movement sough to

purify the Tamil language of substandard colloquial speech, composed of regional, caste

based and other wise marked dialects, Dravidain propaganda films attempted to create a

sanitized, proper and refined folk music, devoid of vernacular markers of difference and

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