Can art change the world?

In the backdrop of a re-interpretation of the famous Malayalam folk song Aal Aayal Thara Venam that has now gone viral, Ranjini Achuthan discusses art and its impact on society.

Aal Aayal Thara Venam is a folk song that has lived through generations of Malayali psyche by means of oral tradition, so much so, that up until now, the authorship of the song has remained largely forgotten and even misattributed to Kavalam Narayana Panicker who, in reality was the first to launch the song into mainstream theatre and art. But not anymore! The song has been finally traced back to the family of poet Olappamanna. The family has confirmed the fact that it was Olappamanna’s uncle, Wadakkancheri Namboothiri who wrote the song.

So, who took the time to dig this information out? Artists Sooraj Santhosh and Shruthi Sharanyam have together taken the Malayali artistic world by storm for their scathing critique of this classic by presenting a version of the song with some clever lyrical rewording. From ‘venam’ which loosely translates to “is needed” to ‘veno?’ that translates to “is it needed?”, the artists try to deconstruct the lyrics that according to them, propagate outdated societal mores that were considered the norm in the period it was written in (which could very well be somewhere between the 1850s -1900s).

Says, Shruthi, “The first 8 lines are harmless, but after those introductory lines, what ensues are some regressive, discriminatory, misogynist and glorifying reassertions of oppressive systems like caste and dictatorship that holds no value or rather is unacceptable in a progressive modern society.”

The re-imagination is drawing some extreme reactions from listeners. While some sections of the audience hail it as revolutionary, some others consider it low-risk, high-reward faux activism.

Sooraj and Shruthi begins the attack of this century-old folk song by questioning the need for a platform under the peepal tree usually found near temples. This has irked a section of community who attach nostalgia to such cultural symbols which according to them, is more a way of ecological preservation than anything else.

The disagreement might seem justified until the frills are cut and the real problems start to show in the song. Precisely because of this, such corrective wordplay should be taken with a grain of salt because it lays the aesthetic foundation that adds more to the lyrical continuity than as a social reform. The first few lines, therefore, just acts as a precursor to the real problems in the song that forms the crux of the criticism.

The song makes an assertive statement that to be a man one needs virtues and to be a woman one needs to be disciplined. This singular moment of artistic expression of the author exposes a whole era of curtailment of freedom and independence that women have had to suffer at the hands of an unjust society.

For this one reason alone, such an act of corrective reinterpretation deserves to be lauded. Similarly, the artists poke at outdated concepts like King’s rule (which seems like an unnecessary jibe owing to the fact that monarchy is non-existent in the modern world) and the need to have governance policies instead, that will do good to the economic, social and secular fabric of the nation.

Pic: Facebook

But having said that the duo is also seen taking the liberal freedom to make statements that might seem politically correct but treads the dangerous path of idolizing a utopian world. For generations, humans have, unto the pursuit of a perfect egalitarian world, experimented with systems that begin as revolutions but end up as oppressive systems of regime and broken environments that curtail individual freedom and choices. So when, for instance, the duo says that everyone who takes part in a war is a failure, it turns out to be a radical thought that undermines scores of freedom fighters, warriors of indigenous tribes and nations who sacrificed their lives for survival and independence.

Similarly, the duo questions the notion of gold being a central aspect of marriages. Dowry has been proven beyond doubt, to be a social evil. Although in complete agreement to this statement, what such public discourses overlook most of the time is the historical pattern of wealth and inheritance itself assuming a negative connotation. Instead of wiping out ideas why not improve on customs wherein parents get to gift their children, boys and girls alike, a golden head-start towards an economically secure life?

This becomes starker when viewed in comparison to the debt ridden lifestyle of young adults in other parts of the world like America and the fact that the modern day economy is in dire need to go back to the ‘gold standard’ days instead of printing more bills.

The point being made here, is the fact that in pursuit of a better world, are we going to instill values in the future generations that are mere illusions of utopias or rather ‘non-places’?

Rewording folk songs is not a new phenomenon and in fact, have been recorded throughout the history of art. Kavalam Narayana Panicker himself is known to have reworked upon a folk song called “Entomana kunji thaayi” that used to be a death song sung by a particular community of lower caste women who were considered ‘rudali-s’, the sole occupation of whom were to mourn at funerals.

There have been many more such instances when art has faced criticism in its own medium of expression. In fact, such criticism should be considered the most effective of its kind. Having said that, where does such an act of resistance stand in the political milieu of the Indian society? More often than not it reduces to virtue signalling and a false sense of having found solutions to issues.

Art is highly regarded as a popular means of historical evidence reflecting the cultural/sociological praxis of the times it was created in. In such a context, does a corrective reinterpretation defeat the purpose of art which is to serve as a mirror to life, however defective or effective it is?

This becomes all the more relevant in the present time when there are discussions doing the rounds in social media about the highly controversial Hollywood classic ‘Gone With The Wind’ and its suitability to be telecast on streaming platforms. Does political correctness which in itself is subjective, trump artistic freedom? Where does one draw the line?

In spite of this, it is interesting to note how art can be used by the powerful and even by governments to ride home a strong political message. Most recently Charlie Hebdo cartoons were projected on a local government building in France as a symbol of defiance against radical Islamic terrorism that has been plaguing Europe. During World Wars, movies were made to inspire soldiers and keep up the spirits of the common man.

That art reflects, impacts, forces and nudges us to think differently is a good enough reason to view this latest offering by Sooraj and Shruthi, as a flawed but earnest effort to exaggerate, shock and thus bring attention to certain regressive social values that still linger, refusing to bow out in the face of revolutions, reforms and laws.

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