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Mother of all folk songs

In 85 years, Mariamma John has lived more than a lifetime. She has woven baskets, delivered babies, bathed infants and even pigs, and worked all day in muddy fields.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 10:54 IST

In 85 years, Mariamma John has lived more than a lifetime. She has woven baskets, delivered babies, bathed infants and even pigs, and worked all day in muddy fields. She has suffered the death of seven of her 11 children and endured an unhappy marriage. Today, she teaches postgraduate students folk songs at St Berchman's College in Changanassery, 80 km from Kochi (Kerala state). Despite being a faculty member, she continues to sweep the college grounds and pick the garbage littered by students.

"I am very happy. When I am in the midst of students and they ask me to sing, I feel pure joy flowing within me, all around me," says John, a Kotha tribal who converted to Christianity after marriage. In 2002, John was conferred the title of a Fellow by the Kerala Folklore Academy. The honour came to her for enlivening tales of Sambhava folklore that once flowered in the former princely state of Travancore (now part of Kerala).

Kerala's well-known poet D Vinayachandran praises her as a living computer who stores all Sambhava folklore in her head. Filmmaker Jayaraj chose her to sing for his award-winning film 'Karunam'. "Jayaraj was very kind to me. He gave me Rs 4,000 for the song. I am so glad to meet such good souls," says John.

The fellowship bestowed on John is no ordinary honour. It's a reward for being able to create and sustain art despite social cruelty. The fellowship was given to a woman who was once forced to eat gruel from a banana leaf picked from a muddy pit. John's tragic past - her forefathers were tortured and killed by landlords - did not destroy her but gave her the strength to live. Her memories of what her descendants underwent live in her songs today.

"We were owned by landlords. In those days when people met us, they first asked for our owner's name. In my youth I knew many women who sang and remembered hundreds of folk songs. I don't know how many songs remain in my head. We heard these songs at home, in the fields, in women's gatherings in the backyard and even at work. When I worked at the wooden wheel that pumped water, my father used to sing songs sung by his grandfather."

John belongs to an age when the only form of entertainment for the bonded backward castes was the folk songs. "They were terrible times. Women bore 10 or 12 children each and not even one could be fed properly. Many children died of hunger. Our clothes always looked old and faded because we washed them with ash and water."

Many in her clan survived by stealing tapioca. "Landlords paid us in kind. It wasn't sufficient. But nobody was ashamed to steal. How else could hundreds of us survive? Some even poisoned cattle and when the owners threw away the carcass, they took it home to make curry for a week," narrates John.

John has preserved this history for future generations. She has also revived a folk language, Sambhava. John's ancestors spoke a different dialect and language because they were not allowed to speak the language of the higher caste. "She startles us with songs we've never heard before," says her daughter Reetha. John married a Christian who also forced her to convert. The groom paid her father Rs 14 (1$US=Rs 48) as dowry. "My husband beat me. I was always scared during my marriage."

In 2002, John was conferred the title of a Fellow by the Kerala Folklore Academy. The honour came to her for enlivening tales of Sambhava folklore that once flowered in the former princely state of Travancore.

Many of her songs also speak of the exploitation and suffering of the women. "When someone in the landlord's family died, we had to go and cry hysterically, like the Rudalis (professional female mourners) do in northern India."



Despite the struggles, John did not lose focus and along with her cousin, Verghese, decided to compile the forgotten folk songs into a book called 'Manikkanpennu'. "It took us a whole year to put the songs together. After sweeping and cleaning the college, I walked all the way to his house where he served me supper before we sang and then wrote the songs till late into the night." They could only print 50 copies of the book. The publisher told them to sell the books themselves.

John laughs while narrating such experiences. Her college gives her Rs 650 as salary. She joined the college as a sweeper 55 years ago. Only six years ago they invited her to be part of the Malayalam Literature department. "It's not enough but we manage. It's really hard when I fall ill. Folk programmes do help me get extra money." With her fellowship grant of Rs 10,000 she will pay off some of her debts and distribute the rest among three daughters and a son.

Wearing a blue-striped, short sari and a worn-out shoulder scarf, John walks the grounds of the college all day. "I can't keep away from this college." Does she feel uncomfortable being the sweeper in the same college where she teaches?

"I don't think ill of my work. I wash my hands well, that's enough. I make sure to keep a clean soul." Apart from a broom, John owns a Bible, a diary and for the best occasions, two pairs of white short saris and scarves. These days, a lot of people call her at the number of the telephone booth near the college, appreciating her songs. "Some even write letters of congratulation. People want to talk to me and hear me sing. Isn't this God's grace?"

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 10:04 IST