“The Lantern!”

Warning: Slightly long entry, as I’ve waxed enthusiastic anout the subject matter. Also, those who read the title are automatically bound by the “Look-at-screen-can’t-switch-sites” spell, which means you’re going to have to read it. So there.

All right. Begin.


What does the word bring to your mind? Huge dusty tomes in large libraries, with dull golden spines? Bestsellers in bookstores? Well-thumbed and well-loved volumes in libraries, dusty or otherwise? Serialized stories that appear in weekly/daily/fortnightly instalments in the magazines you subscribe? The not-so-short stories that you buy, if you’re an avid reader of contemporary literature, abounding in sexual/violent/rural/urban/plot-what-plot themes?

All of the above is literature – but you already know that, I expect. We all do. We favour one or more of the above. And sometimes, we get into serious, throat-clutching arguments (the other person’s throat, I mean), about which exactly is literature, and which isn’t. (I haven’t, yet. But I foresee the day when I will.)

There is one other section of writing, which I, frankly, hadn’t counted on before, but to which I was introduced to on August 21st, 2006 at a beautiful little book and gift shop called Chamiers, as part of the Madras Day Celebrations.

It is (yeah, you guessed right) on Chamiers Road – a cute little place with a tiny cafe (yesterday’s special was ‘Eggs’), shrouded amidst a shrubbery-filled pathway that you might miss a little if you’re walking along like a horse with blinkers on. [Incidentally, the first reference I found to it online was Nancy Gandhi’s article in this very metblog site. Thanks, Nancy. :)] The idea, of course, is that you’re not supposed to be one. A horse with blinkers, I mean. But I almost was one. I was unused to places concealed in arty shrubs, and almost walked by, before stopping short at a discreet sign that simply said Chamiers. A few minutes ago, I’d had the misfortune of whizzing by in my auto, past the Amma Nana shop, and had been scrambling around for directions … so I heaved a sigh of relief and walked in. At a lobby in the gift store below, they directed me upstairs (after a helpful attendant kindly told me that my earring was dangling at a precarious angle, and was in danger of falling off, no doubt as a result of all the mad dashing about I’d been doing). I climbed up slowly, feeling a little weary (I’d had a full day in the office, after all), and came to a glass door that simply announced, “Bookshop @ Chamiers.”

Well. I’d come this far. I suppose it wouldn’t do any harm if I just … went in.

And so I did, feeling a little nervous.

A cool, wide room greeted me. To my right the room sort of bent at right angles and I could see biscuits through the corner of my eyes (Hunger pains, dear reader.). To my left was a table and a mike (for the speaker), and beyond that, a wall of books. In front of me, rows and rows of chairs.

I spent a few minutes admiring the spines of the books, and glanced at the four other people who were with me, wondering how I might strike up a conversation with them. Eventually, I gave up the attempt and chose a seat in the back row, dumped my bag and sat down.

People started trickling in.

First among those who came in were Dr. A. R. Vekatachalapathy, who was to speak on the topic, “Songsters of the Crossroads: Popular Literature in Colonial Madras.” I must admit that the phrase ‘Colonial Madras” got to me: I have a a fondness for the British Raj period, particularly as it pertains to Chennai and its chronicles. I was eager to know what these songsters might had to do (of course, I was familiar with the therukkoothu form of theatre, but this was something new) … especially in Colonial Madras.

More visitors came in (among them, Theodore Bhaskaran, and later, Kanimozhi). Hot, piping coffee was served, along with four kinds of biscuits (butter, sugar, chocolate and some kind of nutty biscuit) – and then we went on to serious business.

Dr. Chalapathy ( as he is called, and with whom I managed to grab a few minutes, to talk about his marvelous translation of JJ: Some Jottings) obviously knows his stuff. I must admit I waited with bated breath, wondering if this speech was to be like thousand of others, endless paragraphs, quotations, accompanied by a droning voice.

I was to be proven wrong.

Dr. Chalapathy began, by starting with “Muchchandhi Ilakkiyam – Literature of the Crossroads.”

Crossroads? Literature? What did they do, compose epic poems on streets?

Sort of.

Then began what I still think one of the most interesting hours I’ve ever spent in my literary forays. Caught as I was in the speech, I still managed to internalize what the Professor said. Here it is, for your edification, the way I took it all in:

Songsters of the Crossroads
Muchchandhi Ilakkiyam


The name says it all. Mucchandi Ilakkiyam is literature spawned by the illiterate mass in streets. It’s not the modern gana, which has its roots in urban living. This form of literature was the mainstay in colonial India. Picture a time when the nationalistic fervour was just beginning to stretch out its tendrils, devouring the populace. When leaders were beginning to fire their imaginations. A time when the popular publication, Sudesamithran was printed only in thousands …

In 1939, the famed Thamizh writer Kalki R. Krishnamurthy wrote novel called “Thyaga Bhoomi.” It was a trendsetter of those times: the movie was being filmed as it was serialized, and movie stills accompanied each episode in Ananda Vikatan. Kalki refers to this form in it: in the course of the story, a character, Sambu Shastri, receives a summons to court, regarding the “famous” Uma Rani case. The guy who delivers the summons casually mentions that the case is such raging news in the city, that’s being circulated in a spicy “Kaalanna book!”

This, was a pertinent example of what a kalanna book was, and the hold they had over old Madras: hundreds and hundreds of small books, often consisting of 4 to 5 pages, printed on flimsy, cheap paper albeit sprinkled liberally with grammar and printing errors. A western parallel to these would be chapbooks – sold in crossroads.

Songs in these little booklets were read/sung out by the one who authored it, inexpensively priced at ΒΌ anna or a half anna, maybe. Today’s parallel would be our cine song books – you know, the ones that feature MGR songs, blah blah (and which have, incidentally, given me many hours of joy.). Meant for the lower echelons of society, these are now available only in select places – the Tamilnadu Archives, for instance. They weren’t appreciated much; they were looked down upon. The most popular stories carried by these booklets were usually what were known as the “Periya Ezhuthu Kathaihgal” – literally, Stories in Big Letters, the Ramayana etcetera. And ‘literary magazines’ had a field day, ridiculing the stuff they published. These little books were often derided as “Kujili books.” But these Kujili Books were the ones that preserved topical events and current happenings, in a most graphic manner – even, with clarity and precision. Without these books, many political and literary events would have been irretrievably lost. Can’t really see the reason for the general tone of mockery among upper reaches of society.

Another interesting association of thoughts here: What was Kujili, any way? The later (modern) connotation, of course, has a not-so-palatable meaning: it’s something connected with loose morals.

Originally (said Dr. Chalapathy) the region around today’s KandhaKottam was called the Kujili Market – presumably, this name was derived from the original name give by the Gujarati merchants – Kutchiliyaar (my note: possible connection with Kutch?). Hawkers and peddlers haunted this market, sold these books until the 1950s and 1960s, hence these books earned the name Kujili Books. There’s even a story by the writer Vindhan, named, rather lasciviously, ‘Palum Pavaiyum.’ in which the hero is a bookseller in the Kujili market. Pretty controversial, eh? Amd around the middle of the 19th century, there was published a novel named ‘Dumbachari Vilasam’, which was later banned by the then British government: it detailed how the purohits did funerary rites, sold the dhotis that were gifted in the Kujili market. A. Madhaviah wrote a story called ‘Thillai Govindan’ in which he writes about someone who picks the pocket of the hero (obviously, in the Kujili market, where such things were prone to happen) and then, as is the custom at that time, went to the Railway Bazaar when People’s Park closed. More references!

Locksmiths plied here; the kind that indulged in slightly loose activities. Gradually, Kujili was used to refer to streetwalkers. A kind of pottu (bindhi) in dazzling colours or material was called Kujili pottu, as they were worn only by women of a certain class. [My mother recalls this, as she remembers seeing those dazzling pottus. Naturally, she wasn’t allowed to wear it.].

In the later half of the 19th century, anything ‘Kujili’ became a metaphor for loose morals. Quite saddening. But that was the way it was, in those times.

The stock-in-trade of Kujili Booksellers were the Periya Ezuthu Ramayana, Thalattu (Cradle Songs), Oppari (Laments) and other such stuff. Thodukuri Sastiram, astrological literature sold in plenty they’re typical samples of muchchandhi literature. Also, songs composed on the spur of the moment, mostly topical were the norm of the day. To give you an example of how topical they were, and the kind of events they wrote songs on: an important tragic event of bygone days – in the scale of Jalian Walabagh – is the Mapla tragedy, in which about 120 prisoners suffocated – in 1921. Were it not for the songsters of those days, little would be known about this event.

Murders – both political and otherwise, hangings, were recorded too: as Kolai Chindhu (literally, ‘Murder Verse.’ The chindu, as you know, is a form of writing Thamizh verse.). There were other chindhus by the name Nondi chindhu, Oyil chindhu etcetera. Most of these poems used stock epithets – they even, in fact, can be compared to the Homeric forms of composition – songs and rhymes that were composed in a catchy way. You ought to keep in mind that these were published at a time when The Hindu’s circulation was around 2000 copies and the famous Sudhesamithran’s was around 3000. It was written, aimed to reach an audience that wasn’t really literate. Repetitions occur, and there are even invocations to god – and right at the end, the author affixes his signature and even the price. And catchy rhythmic slogans were coined to advertise these books.

Here’s an example:

“Amsavalli casu, vilaiyo aaru kasu…”

(The lurid details of Amsavalli’s case come to you at the paltry sum of six paise!)

They were market-savvy, these people. Dr. Chalapathy managed to unearth about 100 kolai chindhus, and a lot of Oppari songs. The sellers used innovative selling methods to capture their audience and sell them: one bookseller was particularly resourceful – when he saw a young lady passing by, heedless of what he sang, he yelled at her: “Hey you, if you won’t listen to me, what are you going to sing when your mother-in-law kicks the bucket?”

Usually, the first page had an illustration – and the same was used for more than one book. Their collection shows an amazing repertoire: it was referred to as the Samvadham – roughly, a debate. Some examples were about the Renganayaki, divine consort of Lord Ranganatha, against Thulukka Nachiyar (supposedly another consort of the Lord, and incidentally, she happens to be a Muslim, so you can imagine what the arguments might have been like.) There was another, in which Gingily oil battled Kerosene, with Castor oil being the judge! (“Nallennaikkum Mannennaikkum Samvaadham; aamanakkennai madhyatham!”). A third was coffee versus Pazhiyachoru. All of them possessed plenty of play on words, and various sentiments.

Our Crossroads poets generally haunted the Kujili market or Chulai; their proximity to the working class was the key note. Large gatherings were often seen even in today’s Periyar thidal – which used to be the tram shed. A famous Kujili singer/poet was Sirumanavur Muthusamy Mudhaliar – called, reverently, as the Shakespeare of the place. So renowned was he, that others often composed songs, referring to themselves as his disciples! His themes were very topical, and hugely popular. In the 1920s, during the Independence struggle, when nationalism was the order of the day, one particular song made it even into the upper reaches from the jili levels:

“Motilal Nehruvai pari koduthome …”

(Alas! We have lost Motilal Nehru!)

Another example was “Kokku parakkudhadi …”

Many were the songs written on nationalist leaders. So prolific were the poets, when it came to the leaders that a new sub-genre sprang p, when Congress leaders were arrested: these songs were called “Arrest chindhus!”

Dozens and dozens of songs were written on Gandhi, who was something of an icon of thsoe times (as against people like Rajaji, who was, to say the least, very cerebral, and someone whom you can hardly write chindus about.) All that was noble, saintly and pious was given the brand name Gandhi – sometimes, even to not so pious things! Durng the twenties and thirties, cigarettes and beedies were sold under the Gandhi brand , so much so that Gandhi had to issue rejoinders that he didn’t approve these. And our songsters sold all kinds of panaceas and aphrodisiacs too.

One and only one person managed to eclipse the Gandhi phenomenon, among the songsters: Bhagat Singh. when this young martyr’s story came to light, songs written about him were so popular that for two years, he beat even Gandhi, in the songbook race. Remote places like Thuthukkudi and Madurai, so far from Punjab, gave kolai chindhus. 11 Kolai chindhus were available about Bhagat Singh’s death.

And this was when the Colonial masters finally woke up. Until now, they’d been concerned with policing only the moral content … but now, their attention was drawn to the fact that songbooks were permeating the peoples’ consciousness with songs on freedom – and something would have to done about it. They set up patrols, kept up records, confiscated matter as when they laid hands on it, but songsters were like jellyfish – they slipped through, somehow. When they were arrested, eventually, the British were baffled: these were not the rebel leaders and nationalists they were looking for. They were, in fact, ordinary people, looking for ways and means to write songs and maybe make a quick buck. They were the haberdashers of India, and they targeted the working class – the daily coolies – for after all, who else would consume their wares? Not the Ramaswamy Iyers or Bhasyam Iyengars of Mylapore.

U.Ve.Saminatha Iyer relates an incident when he was quite puzzled by the answer the Pudhukottai Diwan, Seshaiyya Shastry gave a songster, when the man asked for permission to sing a song: “Lanthal Pathiram!” Later, when he visited the scene of the song, and saw the scene a crowd thronging around the songster, he understood: The Pudhottai Diwan had been farsighted, urging the songster to take care of the lamp-post, which was Government property – as small boys, caught up in the enthusiasm of the song, would climb lamp posts to listen, and damaged it!

The British government was quite worried about these itinerant, nomadic groups. [An interesting note: The word “coolie” was given by Thamizh, to the world outside. 5 years as an indentured labourer was counted as expiation for patricide.] The government forfeited printed matter on a regular basis, but little could be done to stop the flow. What puzzled them a good deal was how so-called illiterate people actually could read the songs. The fact, of course, was that the songs weren’t really meant for reading, per se. When the professor went to Pudu Mandapam, in Madurai, which was an important locus for such things, he managed to glean the truth: People asked the bookseller to read them, identify the song they wanted, and then bought it. The bulk sale of Thalattu and Oppari songs were memorized by women (and this was the real purpose) – which must have been a nerve racking experience for those women, who had to memorize parts they couldn’t read.

The forties and fifties saw the decline of this genre – it fell victim to mass media. The growing popularity of the bigger and more organized papers soon swallowed it. In 1942, when The Daily Thanthi came out, the colloquial language used was derided as Riksha Tamil, but it served its purpose – its allure to the working class cannot be denied.

But after all, we are a land of contradictions. Centuries coexist in India. While the latest trendy publishers are making a mark, so are the songbooks. These days, they’ve taken a new avatar as cinema songbooks – obviously these are modelled after kalanna books of yester years. Some examples of how these songbooks adapted to later years: there were even songs on the Skylab, a phenomenon of the 80s. Beggars, who roamed the streets, made their own adaptations of them. These were called collectively, as “Pichaikkaran Pattu.”

There’s a saying that goes:

“Pichaikku Baskara das
Perumaikku Sankara das
Ichaikku Muthusami!”

Apparently, these people took the reach of this genre to new heights. songs were even adapted to suit the needs of various regions. North Tamil Nadu had no icons to boast of, but South Tamil Nadu composed verses on Kattabomman and Madurai Veeran, who were legendary heroes, and were eventually murdered. And each region, with its own particular hero in mind, would add a little of it own hero to increase his importance. They could be called as parallel to the ballad tradition, in fact. A good deal of the songsters songs survived only through the efforts of the British (ironic). They can be found today in three important locations: The Tamil Nadu Archives, The British Library, and the Roja Mutthiah Library.

Today, the Pudu Mandapam is no more, neither are its sellers. But they have a sort of eternal allure to them. They were simple, sweet, and touched a chord in the listener’s hearts.

The Singer may be long gone … but if you stand in a muchchandi and listen hard … can’t you still hear a song?

3 Comments so far

  1. G V Balasubramanian (unregistered) on September 17th, 2006 @ 11:09 pm

    Interesting post Pavithra Srinivasan. The present day Ghana songs which we see in Tamil Films and in TV Serials – Can they be called Muchandi Ilakiyam ?

    This evening I saw one Coffee Table Book ” Chennai not Madras” at Odyssey at Adyar by one Venkatachalapati with plenty of Madras / Chennai Photographs (Cost Rs 2500/-). Dr Chalapathy referred by you is the same person ?

  2. Nancy (unregistered) on September 18th, 2006 @ 11:16 am

    What a fascinating article! Sadly, I’ll never be able to read the originals, but I’m glad to have learned about them. (I was at Chamiers just last week, and never knew there was a bookstore there.)

  3. Pavithra (unregistered) on September 20th, 2006 @ 10:13 pm

    Interesting post Pavithra Srinivasan. The present day Ghana songs which we see in Tamil Films and in TV Serials – Can they be called Muchandi Ilakiyam ?>>>
    Thanks. I suppose yes – they’re rather watered down versions of what used to be. ARV rather made the same connection. Today’s TV serial songs …would that technically qualify as one? Hmm.
    >>>This evening I saw one Coffee Table Book ” Chennai not Madras” at Odyssey at Adyar by one Venkatachalapati with plenty of Madras / Chennai Photographs (Cost Rs 2500/-). Dr Chalapathy referred by you is the same person ?>>>
    Oh yes. It is. If you ever get the chance to listen to hi, do please. He’s a wonderful speaker. Incidentally, his book ‘Muchandi Ilakkiyam,” is a Kalachuvadu publication. You could get that, if you liked.
    What a fascinating article! Sadly, I’ll never be able to read the originals, but I’m glad to have learned about them. (I was at Chamiers just last week, and never knew there was a bookstore there.)>>>>
    Thanks so much. I’m glad you liked it. The reason I post about Thamizh stuff is because I know there’re people who’d like to know about it, even if they’re unfamiliar with the language. I enjoyed it … and I wanted everyone who read it to enjoy it too. :-)

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