The Institute of Asian Studies has a Department specialising in folk-lore with a nucleus of collections of folk interest from the southern districts of Tamil Nadu. The bow-song (villuppattu) institution of singing long ballads to the tune of the bow and its accessory instruments during temple-festival occasions in these districts is essentially an oral entertainment in a religious context, evoking enthusiastic participation by listening audiences; the stories woven into the singing are well-known as part of local folklore or religious mythology, attracting veneration with edification. Ballad-compositions in flowing verses have arisen, embodying these stories, and committed to writing in palm-leaf manuscripts which are used to support the song-tradition without restricting the innovative freedom of the singers performing with the bow.
The Institute has been lucky in acquiring some of these ballad-manuscripts and devoting scholarly attention to their editing and publication. Five ballads based on these manuscripts have already been brought out. The present one is the sixth. It differs in content from the earlier five which tell tragic stories of revenge and killing and deification (often giving disguised shape to local incidents which shook the region). It is a fascinating mythological medley of tala-puranams and folk fancies, picturing the great Deity, Visnu himself as walking with his minions (in which Kali’s goblins get included) and engaging himself in sight-seeing as he trudges in the manner of the rural pilgrim. We may perhaps trace stories of peregrinations of deities to periods of unsettled living, when Images of gods worshipped by people had to be conveyed to places of safety, for fear of attacks by foes. These stories get embroidered with more and more colourful additions, as they pass from lip to lip and give rise to many versions.
The Story of Perumal cuvami now published, is a poetic composition in the folk-style; however it has been embellished with literary descriptions by a known author. As a story which has floated in the folk tradition for long, it obviously has other versions, different in one way or other. The version here offered is based on three palm-leaf manuscripts. Details of these and the procedures adopted in determining the text have been explained in the Tamil Introduction. The editor, Prof. M. Shanmukham Pillai has taken great pains in fixing the text and in giving glossarial notes .very much needed for a work of this nature abounding in allusions and local usages. in both these tasks Dr. A. Thasarathan of the Institute has also provided mu if help.
The English rendering of this ballad follows the Tamil text very closely and attempts to preserve fidelity to the original with the easy flow of English free verse. Apart from a critical introduction to the work setting it against the folk tradition and summarising its content, the English translator Dr. J. Parthasarathi has provided detailed notes below relevant translated passages, of allusions, dialectal and special usages, syntactic ordering, stylistic devices and folk features occurring in the text, to enable appreciation of the work as an artefact of Tamil Nadu folklore.
The story of Perumalcuvami is a ballad-text belonging to the bow-song (villuppattu) tradition of folksinging, associated (with ritual celebrations) in temples under the worship and management of the Natar community in two southernmost districts of Tamilnadu-Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari-and adjoining areas in Kerala. We have in this poem a good example of a written text of a known author used in an oral folk tradition, allowing ample scope for innovations in recitation and rise of newer oral and written versions (two of which are also available in this case). The bow-song ballad performance has recently been studied by Western folklore researchers with new perspectives yielding new insights, especially as 'a text performed in a context'.
Bow-song poems are performed in three-day festivals called kotai (gift) in honour of deities worshipped in the culture-area, as ritual offerings which may lead on to possession dance and acts of ecstasy. Blackburn says: "the legitimacy of these performances is further ensured and displayed by an official temple manuscript of the story being performed. In most cases a palm-leaf manuscript is visibly placed near the performers and is used for reference if necessary".
The bow-performers are a party of five to eight persons, who sing the story and concurrently play instruments. The lead singer plays on a long bow equipped with bells of different notes, striking it with two thin sticks also equipped with tingling bells. Each of the support performers plays on one of the following instruments: a small drum (utukkai), earthern pot (kutam), a pair of cymbols (jalra) and a pair of thin wooden blocks (kattai).
A mythological ballad with classical and folk elements
Themes of bow-song narratives are of two types: the first consisting of tragic stories of local deified heroes involving violation-death-deification-revenge pattern which take pride of place in the tradition and the second, consisting of mythological stories of gods and goddesses who may often be pan-Indian, satisfying the needs of devotional adoration spread over areas wider than the first type. Our ballad belongs to the second type, being a mythological narrative of the Deity at Cirankam - a Manifestation of the pan-Indian God Visnu -walking with His hosts from this famous Abode in central Tamilnadu to a town in the extreme south - Tiruvanantapuram in Kerala, - known for its just rulers. It is a semi-classical story, originating probably in earlier folk-lore. There is also a likelihood of its having been shaped by the author borrowing details from legendary tales of Tiruvanantapuram and other temples. We find it bound up with many folk details unthinkable in a classical situation and the stylistic treatment is fully in the folk-ballad manner, with recurrent devices tailored to oral recitation, evoking audience-participation characteristic of bow-song performances. Ananda Coomaraswamy's finding in 1936 itself that in India folk and classical traditions share a common base, together with recent research identifying continuities between the two traditions in a criss-crossing pattern gets excellent confirmation in this literary-cum-folk artifact of a localised performing tradition.
We see here the use of classical mythology in tala-puranams as well as details of ancient Puranic lore pressed to service for colourfully depicting the walking tour of Visnu of Cirankam, called Mayan here, visiting many temples of other deities, and covering scenic landscapes of rivers, woods, fertile plains and cities of the Tamil land. This pilgrimage of Divinity on foot is the prime folk motif of this poem to which further folk elements get added. The classical God Visnu, resident in Cirankam, is accompanied in his march by classes of goblins (putams) named as cankili-putam, Kottirapputam, Perumputam etc. besides a sentinel deity (Kettira-palan) - details which can arise only in folk imagination. Similarly, details of God Visnu meeting His friend God Siva and His own Manifestations as Images at various temples on His way, seeing sights and getting entertained as a Guest with temple worships and pleasantries which other Gods exchange with Him, using Puranic lore as' well, show the interweaving of classical and folk elements in the story-framework. Even in the last portion of the story devoted to temple-building, an event of religious importance, the poet goes out of the way to list at great length, the acts of skill and achievements of the working artisans (ascribed to the town of Mantai) obviously to increase rapport with his folk audience.
A parallel to the criss-crossing of classical and folk elements in the matter of content of this poem may be seen in its literary excellences tied up with lexical and stylistic mannerisms of the informal spoken register in the matter of expression. The author Arutakutti calls himself amirta moli vakan (a man gifted with nectar-sweet speech) and one devoted to his guru. and in spite of his conventional words of disparagement of himself before great poets in his Prefatory Apology (51-69), we find him skilled in the craft of verse and well-versed in earlier Tamil classics like Kampa-Ramayanam from which he takes two verses (1.29-36) into his own poem (with negligible verbal changes). He has endowed his own ballad-composition with the appeal of a Tamil kappiyam, beginning with an invocation, an author's apology, a broad indication of the work on hand and then going on to the main story of the Incomparable God-Hero, strewn with devotional hymns, rich with allusions to divine glories and exploits, passages of lively description of temples, cities, groves, rivers, fields of plentiful harvests, and lovely women appearing in special contexts, and ending with the account of the building of a grand temple-complex at Tiruvanantapuram and the installation of the God in Sleeping-pose in it.
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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