India’s musical heritage is as vast as it’s diverse. Each region boasts of its own folk music. A part of the country’s rich cultural heritage, these disparate melodies are redolent of the scent of the earth from whence they arise. Traditionally, folk music is closely associated with seasons, local festivals, harvests, etc. It’s also closely woven into the tapestry of life — occasions such as weddings, births, etc. are fertile ground for these melodies. India also has a rich oral tradition; travelling bards used the medium of folk music to record history, to glorify brave deeds, and to pass on information from place to place and generation to generation. In current terms, folk music is ‘infotainment’ — a perfect melding of entertainment and information.
Whether religious hymns or wedding melodies, harvest songs or a snake charmer’s tune, India’s folk music has something for everyone. Here’s a selection of folk music from different states in India, ranging from the catchy and foot-tapping to the romantic and melancholy.
From the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu comes the Kummi pattu, a selection of folk melodies in which the men keep time by beating sticks. It is closely associated with the ‘Kummi attam’, a women-only dance, where the time is kept by the clapping of hands. The beating of the sticks and the clapping of hands are perfectly synchronised with the dance steps. Kummi pattu and Kummi attam are usually performed during harvest or temple festivals, or family functions.
Literally meaning ‘the music of emotion’, Bhavageethe is one of Karnataka’s most important forms of folk music. It’s characterised by short, emotional verses that are easy to sing. As its name suggests, the most important aspect of this genre of music is the expressiveness of the singer. The poetry in these songs revolve around love, nature and philosophy. Contemporary musicians are reviving this ancient musical form by drawing inspiration from modern Kannada poets.
Music is an integral part of Naga life. So is folklore. And so, Nagaland keeps its oral traditions alive through its songs and music. Zeliang music is both romantic and historical — the songs eulogise ancestors, sing of the brave deeds of warriors and traditional heroes, and immortalise legendary love stories. Zeliang intersperses music with dialogue. Accompaniments include various string and percussion instruments made with locally available resources such as bamboo, animal horns and skin, wood, etc.
Performed by the Mala tribe of Andhra Pradesh, this music form uses a unique percussion instrument known as the Jamidika. Traditionally, a jamadika was an earthen pot covered with ox-skin. The spinal nerve of the ox was used as a string. Today, this has been replaced by wood and metals. The Mala Jamadika traditionally narrate the stories of Goddess Yellamma, also known as Renuka, the wife of sage Jamadagni.
Bhatiali music brings to life the rivers and river communities of Bengal. For the boatmen of Bengal, Bhatiali songs are a melodious way to break the monotony of their lives. These songs, somewhat melancholy in their rendition, traditionally consist of metaphorical lyrics about flowing waters and capsized boats that hide stories of love, loss and loneliness.
One of richest forms of folk music in Rajasthan, Maand was originally sung in the royal courts. Nomadic bards or court-appointed singers would sing in praise of the rulers or local heroes. With the sarangi as a traditional accompaniment, Maand is today considered a blending of classical ragas and Rajasthani folk. Maand as a folk art is kept alive by the families of these nomadic or royal singers. Professional Maand singers still sing haunting ballads of the legendary heroes and lovers of this desert state.