Yesodha Nellaroad (Yeadhu) is impatient but visibly excited. It’s noon and the Gen Z vlogger from Pulappatta, a remote village in Kerala’s Palakkad district, has been waiting for hours to meet her ‘hero’. “I can wait the whole day! I’m thrilled,” Yeadhu tells Frontline as she positions her camera on the gimbal in front of a tiny but compact concrete hut at the Nakkuppathi ooru (tribal village) in Agali panchayat in Palakkad.
Already, a small crowd has assembled in front of the house, which sits just opposite the Comrade EMS bus-stop. As Yeadhu’s camera captures the crowd, a sedan pulls over and Nanchiyamma steps out with a radiant, infectious smile. “I’m sorry my dear ones for being so late. The Minister’s programme went longer than we thought,” she announces, as the crowd, most of them in their teens and 20s, try to take selfies with her.
Sixty-two-year-old Nanchiyamma, also known as Nanjamma, is one of the most popular ‘influencers’ in Kerala today thanks to the Irula-language song Kalakkatha Sandana Meram she wrote and sang in 2020 for the Malayalam movie Ayyappanum Koshiyum.
Arranged and produced by ace composer Jakes Bejoy, the emotionally charged song, which has so far clocked over 44 crore views on YouTube, also won her the national award for best playback singer, female, of 2020.
Nanjamma had already received a Special Jury Award of the Kerala State Film Awards in 2020 for the song, and she also essayed a small but powerful role in the film. To date, she has sung for half a dozen films and many more are in the pipeline. She has also given hundreds of stage performances.
“Kalakkatha changed my life forever,” says Nanjamma, as she asks us to make ourselves comfortable inside her small living room-cum-veranda. “It made me popular overnight and brought me immense love from people across Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It brought me awards and fame.”
Nanjamma struggles to speak Malayalam. Her native tongue is Irula, a Dravidian dialect spoken by a section of tribal communities in the Nilgiri mountains. Her Malayalam is enchantingly peppered with Irula phrases and her hybrid accent, where Malayalam meets Tamil and Kannada, is musical.
“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the song changed my rajyam as well,” Nanjamma adds. Her rajyam, the tribal panchayat of Attappady, used to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Her panchayat, Agali, belongs to the Attappady block, which is home to mainly three unique tribal communities, Irula, Muduga and Kurumba, which inhabit the trijunction of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
“The locality was ‘famous’ for extreme levels of poverty, rising infant mortality rates, dwindling forest cover, desertification, the spread of spurious liquor and more,” says writer and activist V.H. Dirar, who worked in the region as a senior official with the Attappady Hill Area Development Society (AHADS). “But now the region has got the right representative.”
- Nanjamma won a National Award for Kalakkatha song from the Malayalam film Ayyapanum Koshiyum.
- Her music and fame put the spotlight on the tribal villages of Attappady in Kerala’s Palakkad district.
- Nanjamma is also a victim of encroachment of forest land and tribal areas
- The Attapady development story is one of hits and misses.
Dirar recently published Nanjamma’s biography in Malayalam titled, Nanjamma Enna Paattamma (Green Books), which is also a ready reckoner on the life and culture of the tribal communities in Attappady and beyond. “In fact, the Kalakkatha song is a humble testimony of the massive potential of our tribal music, which is shaped and moulded through hundreds of years of sociocultural processes,” writes Dirar in the introduction of his book, which can be read as a sequel to his previous work, Aadivasi Jeevitham, Oru Samskarika Padanam (Tribal Life: A Cultural Study).
Nanjamma comes from a family of traditional singers and dancers. Her brother used to act in Vinayakar koothu (a form of dance drama popular in Tamil Nadu) performances. “I was always attracted to singing and dancing, but never sang at a public event until the day Pazhaniswamy made me sing for an AHADS event,” she says, referring to the actor and Irula dancer with whom she works closely.
Nanjamma has carved out a space for herself in the sociocultural sphere of south India and in that process she has helped her community do the same, bringing the spotlight back on the unfinished business of tribal development, according to K.A. Shaji, development journalist and documentary maker who has written extensively on Attappady and its tribal life.
Nanjamma’s life story is part of folklore now. Married off in her early teens, she moved to Attappady with her husband Nanjiyappan, who encouraged her to explore her talents. “Song and dance is ingrained in our way of life,” says Nanjamma. “We sing when we are happy, sad, tense, angry, amused, aroused, frustrated, sick and anxious. We sing when we work, travel, eat, pray and even when we fight.” This oneness with song and dance is reflected in the tribal music that Nanjamma has introduced to the world outside.
“She is not an overnight sensation,” says Pazhaniswamy. “She fought her way through to get to where she is now.” It was a chance meeting between Pazhaniswamy and Nanjamma that paved the way for what would become a great camaraderie. An aspiring actor and dancer, he was in touch with film-makers of many hues as part of his search for roles. Pazhaniswamy runs a tribal arts collective called Azad Kala Samithy, which was the first forum to spot and promote Nanjamma’s talent.
The Irula sensation credits a lion’s share of her success to screenwriter and director K.R. Sachidanandan, popularly known as Sachy, who directed Ayyappanum Koshiyum. “His decision to set the film in Attappady and to use Irula songs in the film, that too sung by someone like me, who had no background in the professional music industry, made all the difference to my life and the lives of those around me,” says Nanjamma.
“Sachy sir gave me everything and left us,” she says, referring to the untimely death of the popular film-maker in June 2020. “I didn’t cry when my husband passed away, I held my tears when my parents left me, but I couldn’t bear the pain of the news of Sachy sir’s demise and I cried for days,” she adds.
Kalakkatha was one of the two songs she sang for Sachy’s film. The second one, Deivamakale, a heartachingly soulful solo number, was later released as part of a tribute video in memory of the late director.
The Deivamakale song talks about the sorrow of a mother whose daughter leaves the family after she becomes successful. “The song and the way she sang it shook us beyond measure,” recalls music director Jakes Bejoy. “It touched everyone in the studio so deeply that we couldn’t control our emotions while recording it. Such was the power of the tribal song and the voice Nanjamma gave it.”
Ironically, the Kalakkatha song represents a critical juncture in the life of the tribal people in the 5,520 sq. km Nilgiris biosphere. It starts with a cheerful call to “go and collect flowers from the sandal tree that has just bloomed” and goes on to say one can also “see the plane flying above”. Juxtaposing the sight of a hovering aircraft over sandal flowers, Nanjamma creates a world of curious contradictions that also becomes a metaphor of sorts, says Dirar.
Such a song would not have been written a few decades ago. Flights became a common sight over the Nilgiris after 1940 when Coimbatore got its airstrip for both military and civilian flights; it became a full-fledged airport in 1987.
Interestingly, these decades marked a critical shift in the ecology of the Nilgiris in general and Attappady in particular. Encroachment of forest land became rampant and poorly designed and mainland-centric development programmes started wreaking havoc on the environment. Frontline has extensively covered the environmental and social crises that engulfed Attappady in these years.
Successive governments in Kerala spent hundreds of crores of rupees for the development of Attappady and the story so far has been one of hits and misses, according to tribal rights activists. Most programmes did not yield the desired results. On the contrary, they ended up alienating the tribal communities further.
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The concrete houses, despite offering some protection from landslides and wild animals, were not in sync with tribal traditions and created a gulf between the indigenous communities and nature. Arguably, AHADS, which began in 1996, was among the more successful government efforts. “The mission was able to replenish 11,000 hectares of forestland, which is not an easy feat,” says Dirar.
Funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), AHADS was able to build on previous initiatives and address issues such as environmental degradation and joblessness among tribal communities. AHADS, however, ceased operations in 2006 after the funding stopped and eventually wound up in 2016. Encroachment of forest land and tribal areas continues even today. Nanjamma, among the affected persons, is currently battling a case in court.
“We had more than seven acres of land, which originally belonged to my grandfather. But now we can’t enter that area,” she says. “A group of people encroached our land a few years ago despite the fact that we have all the official and legal documents supporting our ownership,” she says. While we are there, officials from the village office arrive to brief Nanjamma about the current status of the case.
‘I’m a fighter’
Nanjamma is unfazed by the case and the legal proceedings. When asked if the country’s recognition would help her in resolving the dispute, she smiles. “I frankly don’t know. I’m a fighter and I will continue to fight for my land. Everything I do is part of that fight for my people. Even my songs.”
Nanjamma’s story continues to motivate millions across Kerala and beyond. “I love all these people who come here, who call my son Shyam [Nanjamma does not have a cellphone] or Pazhaniswamy. I will entertain them as much as I can,” she says, singing a few lines of Deivamagale to another group of vloggers and YouTubers who have just reached Attappady.
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“If you have plans to go back today, you should leave before dusk,” she warns them. A few days ago a tusker gone wild killed a woman at EMS Colony nearby. “The elephant must have come searching for food,” Nanjamma says, with a sigh. She then explains why we can’t blame the elephants for coming down from the hills. This is their home too, she says. We can’t say we are humans and this is our land. In fact, they have been here forever. We are the intruders.
“We must be in sync with the wild. We have always been so. We farmed in groups and sang and danced at night, which sent the right messages to the wild animals and everyone knew their boundaries. It’s time we understood the boundaries again.”
As she spoke, from far away on the horizon we could hear the loud banging of drums as the sun set on the Nilgiris.