Kali in a mudiyettu performance

Pallivalu Bhadravattakam – A Song of Sword and Anklet

When I was a mere boy, way before computers and the internet, the television was one of the main sources of information for me. A program that I enjoyed watching was called Connections — it would present a series of facts connected to each other by the merest of tenuous threads, and each episode would be a frenetic jump from one time and place to another with the breathtaking audacity that is usually only possible within our heads and in our imaginations. Decades later, we can accomplish that merely by clicking on different links in Wikipedia and construct our own Connections adventures. Following a trail of thought and picking out and discovering something that you did not know till then invokes a rush of excitement. Sometimes the tiniest of details is like a pebble kicked off a mountaintop that triggers an avalanche. Such a thing happened to me in the last couple of days, and this is the story.

About 10 years ago we were all fascinated as we discovered the new sounds of Shankar Tucker’s arrangements for The Shruti Box; Vidya Vox and Vandana Iyer singing Nee nenaindal and Ashai mugam, Aditya Rao singing Manmohini morey, Rohan Kymal’s unforgettable rendition of O re piya. Having never heard these songs in their original avatars, I was fascinated by these ‘mellifluous renditions’ (hat tip to all the hoary legends who used these words unfailingly December after December for decades in The Hindu!) and remember listening to them on loop. Several years later, in 2017, came the slickly-produced and stylish Be Free (Pallivaalu Bhadravatakkam) by Vidya Vox, featuring Vandana Iyer (with Shankar Tucker drumming away in the background with a bunch of traditional Kerala drummers). The song itself is a mashup of original English lyrics by Vidya and Shankar and the titular folk song.

For whatever reason, this song got in my head and has been stuck there over the past few days. The folk song part lodged itself in my head and I found myself humming it unconsciously. My extremely shaky knowledge of Malayalam notwithstanding, I realised there was a story in it and went looking for it. Of course, the first part of it was figuring out the meaning of the words, and then came the backstory. But, for dramatic effect and all that, we will look at it in reverse order – the backstory first and the meaning after.

The folk song, or naadan paattu in Malayalam, is associated with Mudiyettu, a dance drama ritual that is an integral part of the worship of the goddess Bhagavathy in parts of Kerala. Mudiyettu itself is on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The performance is about the rise and fall of the Asura Dhaarika, who gets a boon from the gods that he cannot be killed by a man. He then becomes a thorn in the side of the gods, who are powerless against him. When Shiva comes to know about this, he deputes Bhagavathy, who is a fearsome warrior herself, to kill Dhaarika. In a story that foreshadows the killing of the Nazgul by Eowyn, Bhagavathy battles with Dhaarika, who proves to be a wily foe. He is master of the night and engages in battle only under cover of darkness, rather to Bhagavathy’s disadvantage. She finally tricks him by hiding the sun with her spread-out hair (I want to know what product she uses!), and when he attacks thinking it is night, she uncovers the sun, and in the daylight kills him. Like Eowyn of Middle Earth, Bhagavathy of Kerala is no man, and that is her foe’s undoing. Of course, this tale is enacted with much more finesse and drama and faith in the Mudiyettu than my rather apocryphal retelling.

When reading about the song and its meaning I found that there is at least one alternative version of it – quite easy to understand given that the Mudiyettu is performed in perhaps hundreds of Bhagavathy temples by non-professional actors who pass on their skills and the content of the performance orally down the generations. It would not be surprising if there are several different versions with the verses modified according to the locality it is performed at. Vidya’s song is a souped-up and shortened version of this traditional rendition, which has quite a few extra verses and is accompanied by the traditional theatrical performance.

The song itself tells a fascinating tale of a demon’s seed so potent that merely looking at it will make your eyeballs explode and mentioning it will cause your tongue to fall off like an over-ripe fruit! The song also warns that if the seed spreads to other lands, all mankind will be in danger. The beginning and refrain of the song are the words ‘Pallivalu bhadravattakam’ meaning temple sword and anklet – two weapons used by Bhagavathy in her battle against Dhaarika. This is from a translation by Thumbivaa over here on the Paattinte Paribhasha blog (Insta) of a slightly different version of the song. This version is performed with aplomb by Amritha Suressh and her band Amrutam Gamay and has the frenetic energy of a battle hymn!

As I looked for more information, I realized this is quite a well-known song in Kerala and many performances of it can be found online. From elaborately produced music videos to talent shows and amateur performances – the entire gamut is represented in performing this song. Everyone puts their twist to it and reinterprets it in a way that makes sense to them, and that is a hallmark of a timeless classic. I just hope I have infected you with an earworm that you will enjoy!

Header image: Mudiyettu: Kali blessing the child by Anoop Kumar, edited by me, Creative Commons license