Friday, April 11, 2008

Oppana to Mappilappattu: The Rainbow Colours of Muslim Life in Malabar

A perunnal festival celebration at Nadapuram, a town colourfully described in the northern ballads, the Vadakkan Pattu.

AS THE summer sets in, Kerala enters its festival season, and every temple and every village gets ready for its celebrations. In these poorams and festivals we come across the best aspects of Malayalee culture and the richness of our traditions.

The classical art-forms and percussions like Kathakali, Koodiyattom, Mohiniyattom and Thayambaka are well known. There has also been a conscious effort on the part of the Malayalee elite in the last century, like poet Vallathol who set up Kerala Kalamandalam, to preserve and promote these art-forms and unique traditions. The temple festivals and poorams, like the world renowned Trissur Pooram, helped popularize such forms like panchavadyam, a wonderful combination of percussion and wind instruments.

But the epicenter of these art-forms is mainly central Kerala, the mainstay of Kerala’s feudal elite, while the more traditional and folk art-forms like Thira and Theyyam in deep north and the Muslim cultural forms like Oppana, Kolkali, Paricamuttukali, Duff muttu, etc, in Malabar are not much known outside even today. In the case of northern folk art-forms there has been, recently, a sudden excitement as many foreign scholars have shown interest in them and have conducted studies trying to link them with Kerala’s history and anthropology, with some serious academic works done by scholars like Dr K K N Kurup of Calicut University.

But in the case of art-forms like Oppana, Kolkali, Paricamuttukali, etc, which are mainly practiced among the Muslims of Malabar such serious academic studies are yet to take place. Nor are there any effort to preserve these forms or promote them with training facilities for younger academics and art enthusiasts. Recently the Government of Kerala set up the Moyinkutty Vaidyar Memorial centre at Kondotty, in memory of the great Mappilappattu poet, but its main focus is on Mappilappattu and other art-forms linked to these romantic, lyrical songs.

There seems to be a variety of streams in these Mappila art-forms, with south Malabar mainly the former taluks of Valluvanadu and Ernadu accounting for one tradition, and the north Malabar where the areas that came under the rule of Arakkal Beevi and dominated by Muslim elite families in Koyilandi, Vadakara, Thalassery, Nadapuram, etc, following a definitely different tradition.

Even in the folk songs this difference is discernible. In north the Vadakkan Pattu or northern ballads, which describe the life of folk heroes and the people are more popular, while in south there is a more vibrant Mappilappattu tradition, which focuses more on romance, daily life and religious topics, with an unusually high dose of Arab words and idioms.

Some of the poems and songs hugely popular in the southern parts of Malabar seem to have been influential in a different way, as a series of Mappila rebellions took place in this region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was during this period that Mr. Conolly, Malabar Collector, was murdered by a gang of four Mappila convicts. A recent account of the developments based on contemporary British records make it clear that the conspirators had during their preparations for the for assassination, had taken pledge at a shrine at Mambram near Kondotty and also recited Moideen Mala, an Arab-Malayalam poem written by Quasi Muhammed, some 400 years ago. Moideen Mala, or Muhiyudheen Mala, is a long poem hailing the life of a Sufi saint, Mujahedeen Geelani, and belongs to a rich Sufi-Bhakti tradition:

Here is the account of the assassination of Conolly:

Mr. Conolly, the District Magistrate and Provisional Member of the Council for the Presidency, was murdered by a gang of Mappilas.

Mr. G. B. Tod, Assistant Collector in Malabar, wrote to the Chief Secretary at 1 a.m. on the 12th of September 1885:

“It is my melancholy duty to inform you, for the information of the Right Honorable the Governor in Council, that Mr. Conolly, the Collector of this district, was most barbarously murdered this evening, between eight and nine o’clock, in the presence of his wife. He received seven wounds, one of which at least was mortal.

So far as the details at present are ascertained, the perpetrators were three Mappilas, who rushed into the veranda and completed their deadly work before assistance could be called. In the present state of Mrs. Conolly, it is impossible to gather further particulars of the tragedy of which she was the sole witness; but immediately that I am able to do so, I will furnish more complete information.”

The Mappilas were escaped convicts from Calicut Jail called Valasseri Emalu, Puliyakunat Tenu, Chemban Moidin Kutti and Vellattadayatta Parambil Moidin. They had escaped from a prison working party on the 4th of August 1855, spent the following month on the run in various houses in the foothills of the Ghats. At a place called Mambram, they prayed at a shrine of a Tangal, known as a fanatic and insurgent leader. They had then hidden in a house three-quarters of a mile away, for several days, before taking vows at a ceremony where they sang a song called Moidin Mala Pattu. Their war knives were passed through incense smoke…

This description gives a clear account of how deeply influential some of these songs were, as the simple folk were nurtured on such a tradition. The strong Sunni tradition helped spread such cultural practices. There are occasions like nerchas in various mosques belonging to the Sunni Muslim tradition and other festivals like Kuttichira’s famous Appa Vanibham (sale of bread) festival where these art-forms and traditions come to life. On major occasions like perunnal (Eid-ul-Fitr or Bakrid) one could see the colours of traditional Muslim life come alive, in the streets of Kuttichira in Kozhikode or at Nadapuram or Koyilandy, some of the greatest Muslim centres in Malabar.

(Illustration courtesy:Sudheernath, New Delhi.)