January 18, 2012 By Jameel Ahmad

Mappila Songs: As pendulum swings between the Past and Present


Each community does have a distinct musical sub-conscious and the task of a critic is to demarcate the distinctiveness. The musical sub-conscious will get reflected in their slang, dress, cuisine and other features. The musical sub-conscious of the Mappila community can be analyzed by dissecting the lyrics and structures of Mappila songs. Such an analysis, if it is extended to other social and cultural discourses, will help us have a grasp of the aesthetics of the Mappila community.
Rhythm of songs should be analysed in two ways. The first is the rhythmic structure of a song formed while the lyric is penned. The second is the rhythmic structure the song develops, when it is performed. Though both the structures are different from each other, they have similarities. The internal rhythm often becomes a decisive factor of the external rhythm. But the external rhythm does not affect the appreciation of a song as such. The rhythm a song acquires during performance is merely an ornamentation or addition. The reason why the Mappila songs have fallen from its once-iconic popularity is the predomination of the external rhythm over the song itself.
Mappila song is a popular cultural form closely aligned with literature. So, internal and external rhythms play an important role in it. Mappila songs will not yield to prose, and, in its very essence, is poetic. The rhythmic convention of Mappila songs is so decisive and rigid that new rhythms are often found intrusive to the very tradition. Language, rhythm and Ishal (tone) are the triads in the tradition. The rhythmic convention is such that it backs up the lyrical and tonal features of a song. There is no strict prescription on what instruments should be used during the performance. Chenda, Maddalam, ghatam, mizhav, idakka – the instruments widely used in the traditional music- are not commonly used for the performance.
It is less than a century since Mappila songs have been named as such. It is the topic of a book-length historical analysis whether there had been any convention of singing among the Muslims in Kerala before the Mappila tradition came to exist. Mappila songs have similarities with the songs of tribal communities which at a point of time accepted Islam and became Mappilas. Balakrishnan Vallikkunnu, a leading researcher of Mappila songs, observes that behind the formation of Mappila musical tradition there is the communal give and take of thottam songs, pulluvan songs, velan songs, vattakali songs, and poorakkali songs, which were all the cultural expressions of the tribal community in Kerala. The internal rhythm of Mappila songs has evolved from the rhyme schemes in the traditional folk music and Dravidian poetry.
Kuttikrishna Marar, a prominent literary critic in Kerala, has released the metrical patterns of Malayalam, the language spoken by the people of Kerala, from the rigidity of Sanskrit and paved the way for Dravidian metrical system. While composing Dravidian meters, Marar also considered Mappila Songs, which was then deemed revolutionary.  But some meters in Mappila poetry have similarity with the Arabic meters. So an analysis of the isals (tones) of Mappila songs needs to be based on the folk musical tradition in Kerala and the metrical patterns of Arabic.
Listen to Thudare Madhalam,  (http://www.4shared.com/get/tN9tWr-y/thudare_maddalavum_-_mappila_s.html;…) penned by none other than Moin Kutty Vaidyar, the Mappila poet laureate about the preparation of the battle of Badr between the Muslims and the Makkans; it gives several hints at the beauty of internal rhythm of Mappila songs and the indifference of Mappilas to the external rhythm.
The army of the Makkans (Khuraysh) which makes an elaborate proceeding is vividly described in the song. The Khuraysh progresses with the artists who accompany the army with instruments such as Madhalam, Bhaja, Kaimani, Pall (Flute), choola (pipe), Komb, and Shamg (conch). It is remarkable that these instruments are part of the elite Hindu culture of Kerala, which the traditional Muslim scholars considered impermissible. Vaidyar also equated the sartorial mannerism of Abu Jahal to that of the elite Hindu kings, which is symbolic of community consciousness of Vaidyar.
Though Mappilas are indifferent to the instruments used by the artisans belonging to the elite Hindu culture, there are variations of such instruments in some Mappila art forms like Cheenimuttu. That background score was done in Mappila songs without sophisticated instruments is attested to by the variations like kolambippattu and vattappattu. Kolambippattu is a blend word formed by the words kolambi (spittoon) and pattu (song). A hand fan is beaten on a spittoon with several variations as per the nuances of the song. Clapping is another technique, especially in wedding songs and oppana (a dance performed usually by women at the night before the wedding). There is a particular clause in the Shafi jurisprudence instructing women to use ‘clapping’ to remind the imam who leads the prayer of something s/he has forgotten. Sound of clapping a woman makes was socially more acceptable than her voice.
Mappilas used rhythms to announce important events like lunar sighting and to wake people for pre-dawn meals during Ramadan. There is a tradition about the Prophet instituting the system of azan for announcing the time of prayers. During the consultation about the best method possible for the announcement, the followers put forth several suggestions like ringing bells and beating drums etc. Prophet accepted the suggestion for azan. In Kerala, where the mosques were far away, azan was not sufficient to herd people on the mosque. Some Mappilas went back to the custom of drum beating, which one of the followers had suggested to the Prophet. Drum, thus accepted here in Kerala, was called ‘Nakara’. Nakara was beaten not only to invite people to prayer, but to announce casualties like death and special occasions. In some mosques, we can still see the Nakara, spattered with dust.
Now traditions are slowly undergoing change especially owing to the influence from abroad. There was a distinctive style for the recitation of the Quran and vahl(religious instruction) among Mappilas in the same way that the community had a distinctive font for writing the Quranic text (the Ponnani font). Just as the Ponnani font gives way to the Usmani script sanctioned by the government of Saudi Arabia, the oral traditions are being steadily configured by alien influences. Now we hear the Quran being recited not in the traditional Malabari rhythm. This was mainly caused by the migration of Mappilas to the Persian Gulf. Also, the sonorous way of religious instruction (vahl) undergoes change owing to the standardization of language to the elite discourse.
Though we can’t say that religious pronouncements have affected Mappilas as regards music, they have tried their best to keep cultural distinctiveness and integration in the same way they did in their sartorial and cuisine culture.

Courtesy: Campus Alive Students’ Magazine

Dr Jameel Ahmad works as the assistant professor in the government college, Malappuram

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