Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why “Why this Kolaveri Di?”

By Birinder Pal Singh
The latest count for downloading Why this Kolaveri Di on the You Tube has crossed the four million mark. It has not only made a mark with youth and other mortal beings but with celebrities too including Amitabh Bachan and A. R. Rahman, the music man of Bollywood. It is a moment of pride and celebrations for Dhanush and Anirudh, the two makers of the song that has clicked. The “murderous rage” has definitely overtaken the listeners all over. A Tamilian friend from York University informed that the Time magazine has also taken note of this song after the one in the film Roja that was about insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir.
      There are people for and against the song. Those of the latter type want to see a close relation between poetry and music like the great English poet John Keats. They not only rate it low on these counts but call it a jarring piece and an absurdity. Some of these read much into the lyrics and label it as anti-feminist, anti-colonial, racist and what not. They are not wholly wrong because the imagery is quite manifestly alluding to these inferences. But why stop there? The list could be enlarged easily with much more anti(s) such as anti-caste, anti-rich and anti-elitist as the tenour of the song and the music is Tamilian slang and folk with Tamilianised English.
By one stretch of imagination it may also be dubbed as anti-Tamilian language itself and pro-English, even if it is broken and mutilated one hence anti-English too in that sense of the term, as there is a definite remark to this effect when the singer tries to switch over to Tamil after “kai-la glass-u” – “only English.” So what do we make out of this pot-pourri of Tanglish words meant only for the heck of it, just singing a song for the sake of it, so says the opening line of the song.
Anirudh the music composer has remarked in an interview: “It is not meant to be anything. Director (Dhanush) said the situation demanded a light-hearted fun song about love failure. I came up with a tune in ten minutes. I don’t know what kind of mood Dhanush was in...he started singing in broken English and came up with this in twenty minutes. It just happened.” Dhanush too alludes to its popularity: “ Kolaveri is light-hearted slang for blood thirst. So it's no surprise that the song of a jilted boy asking the girl why she did that to him has become an anthem.” Mind you, this is not for the first time that a young man’s heart is broken and others have empathised with him. The hearts have ever been broken and beautiful lyrics and music have also expressed the agony of the jilted ones but why this time a broken heart given expression in a broken mish-mash language has clicked, not with the youth alone but across generations, that needs to be deciphered.
The author tends to lay no claim on its cultural, literary or musical contribution.  He calls it a “flop song”, one that has flopped all of its kind. It does the reader well to think with Marilyn Butler that we are liable “to read the writer’s mind as being more logical, coherent and academic than the human mind naturally is.”
I believe it is the very spontaneity of its composition and musical rendering that has added all the flavour to its popularity. It was more out of fun than seriousness of communicating a definite message to some class or strata. And I may be allowed to relate it to my own experience of the sort.
I am not given to viewing television but some times over hear or see something when the kids are sitting on it. On one such occasion, I happened to hear Kolaveri Di. I liked the tune but as is the wont of a sociologist, started looking into the meanings of the lyrics without reaching a definite conclusion, no denying the fact that the tune clicked. It appeared like a weird postmodern thing or composition that bewilders the consumer and leaves her confused. The Michael Jacksonisation of the folk –Punjabi or Tamil or whatever– is the most happening thing now, given the technique and instruments for sound amplification that surely subordinate the lyrics.
The popularity of Baba Sehgal and Apache Indian during the early nineties when the Indian economy opened up to the global market forces also uttered words that find no place in any dictionary of English or other Indian languages. The lyrics were undermined to the amplified tones of the hi-fidelity musical instruments. The youth were given to it. It was close to their hearts while the seniors frowned over the no sense syllables substituted for lyrics. The era of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richards and of Majruh Sultanpuri and Sahir Ludhianvi was over. This tradition has declined further since then.
Getting back to Kolaveri Di, as the song finished my wife asked the meaning of this phrase. I said spontaneously, “This is the Tamil equivalent of the like in Punjabi – ma di and bhen di (abuses).” She believed as it was too matching and apparently convincing. When she went to the university and shared it with her colleagues in the teaching departments, they also took her word only to discover later that that was ‘fun’ only.
The rage of Kolaveri Di virus is so gripping that a group of Punjabi boys have made its Punjabi version Pinki Mogewali kalol kardi and the song ends with a line –Desi peeni murgha khana Kolaveri Punjabi’ch gana. It means that we are given to take the country liquor and chicken and sing Kolaveri in Punjabi. But the Punjabi version is not about the rage of a love torn rustic youth but of a young man who got married to a flirting modern girl who was a matter of concern and worry to her parents with regard to her future – of marriage and running a household like a suani. He wishes her away to her peke (parents’ house) so that he may go to theka, the liquor shop. Other ingredients of the song like its original may well be labelled similarly as anti-feminist and male chauvinist.
But there is a difference between the two. The original version is Tanglish only but its adaptation is not only Punglish but also imbued with Tamil accent. In the process of this adaptation it has added all the flavour and tenour of Punjabi culture and spirit to it. For instance, unlike the original “flop song”, it is called a “ghant song” that means an exemplary or an extraordinary one. In another interesting twist to the “only English” in the original it is demanded to be sung in Punjabi only – “O’ Punjabi’ch.”
One conversant with Punjabi culture knows well that a peasant switches to English, howsoever knee-jerking it might be, after two three shots of any brand of liquor, country or foreign. He ridicules and abuses the colonial masters – “Angrezan di…” etc. etc. but loves to speak in English to dominate the illiterate and let the educated ones know for sure that he too is one among them since he knows English. There are numerous anecdotes to this effect as well.
Punjabi as language is never an issue with Punjabis except when they wish to make it a political issue for some other purposes. It is a creed of the politicians, not of the common people. An illiterate peasant attempts conversation in Hindi, howsoever Punjabiised that might be, with the migrant labour from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. He is not a Punjabi chauvinist though he might have joined the morcha for Punjabi suba during the early sixties when the Shiromani Akali Dal had launched the struggle for a linguistic state.
Whatever be the lyrics or the music, the point is that it has clicked. And that is good music. That is why it is said that music is a language that surpasses boundaries of various sorts. A famous English poet says that more than anything else good music is that that appeals and sounds nice. Music touches chords deeper than the conscious mind. It invokes a particular emotion and feeling that makes it sound nice though the nice too is defined culturally. One can go on debating that Hindustani classical music is better than western and both are superior to rap, but the reality is otherwise. Music is both generation specific and transgenerational. That is what makes some music good and other not so good. It must go to the credit of Kolaveri Di composers that it cuts across generations, cultures and regions and makes sense to all. It is transgenerational, transcultural and transregional. It should be celebrated rather than criticised. If at all, absurdity is not in the song but those who have fallen for it.
Birinder Pal Singh teaches in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Punjabi University, Patiala-147002. ( e-mail: birinder_pal@rediffmail.com)


Irene said...

I loved the KOLAVERI DI analysis! That song is SO catchy. And I love all the versions it's spawned. Maybe I'll do one of my own.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Nice commentary on a pop phenomenon. Slightly dry though and I would have loved some more analysis of the background music, which uses some traditional south indian instruments. Also, the voice is slightly yawnish and sleepy in the song, as if the singer is drunk or has just gotten up from bed and is just improvising, whereas it is carefully rehearsed. Moreover, the voice has been corrected by post-processing.