Lullaby for grandmother : Praveen Alva and the revival of Tulu storytelling and songs

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Lullaby for grandmother : Praveen Alva and the revival of Tulu storytelling and songs

Gowri N Kishore in conversation with writer-composer Praveen Alva.

Come, engulf yourself in the sky
of my saree drape...
Find your sun, moon and stars
in this landscape!
Laali jo, jo jo laa, laali jo...

It is a balmy evening and I am at an event organized by Kutcheri Kulture, listening to Praveen Alva sing a lullaby for his grandmother.

‘Stories and songs in Tulu’, the beautifully illustrated event poster had advertised. There was something dreamy about the poster, the subtle colours, the strangely peaceful, meditative expression on the face of the man with the flyaway hair. So, in spite of not knowing the language, I showed up.

Most of the audience is, like me, non-Tulu speaking. Yet, as Praveen Alva sings one song after another, strumming his guitar and accompanied on the beatbox by Nishanth Bhatt, a young medical student in Bengaluru for the weekend, all of us are mesmerized.

Before he starts each song, Praveen speaks for a few minutes, telling us what the song is about and how he came to write it. This one, he explains, was written when he was missing his grandmother ‘with a kind of unbearable longing’. As he speaks, I realize that many of his songs draw inspiration from the scenes and stories of his childhood years in Mangalore.

He grew up spending equal time in the coastal city and in his grandmother’s village of Pejavar in the heart of Tulunadu, and his songs are infused with the flavours of Tulu culture and memories of annual village feasts, ancient temple rituals and nightly performances by Tulu drama troupes. In one song, an elderly matriarch dreams of a new bride coming into the family. In another, men sailing off to distant lands to make their fortune, sing songs of hope and adieu. As Praveen sings, you can almost feel the swaying of a ship on the high seas.

Later when we catch up, I praise his music. But at once, he tells me that he is first and foremost a writer. A storyteller. The music, to him, is incidental. As I examine more of his songs, I have to agree: the man has a knack of picking up the most wonderfully unusual subjects for his songs.

One of my favourites is about a child going in search of a gongey, the Tulu version of the bogeyman (In India, we have so many homegrown versions: kuttichathan in Malayalam, poochandi in Tamil, and many more in other tongues.) At night, the child is terrified by the gongey. But in the morning, he musters up courage and goes looking for it.

Guddey da illadh. Aitha kadheerda kooneydh,
Alpada attadh undu kela pelata cupbathulu.
Paddaida gaaligh bothundu cupbathda baakeelh,
Auvey porthugu kenundhu ayena leppulu.
Uuuuuu… (humming)

I ask Praveen to translate the song for me and he sends me this.

In the house on top of the hill, in the room at the end...
That old jackfruit wood cupboard on the mezzanine, I hear is his friend.
But when the west wind blows, its shutters clatter trying to fend,
Then in the distance, you can hear his cry.
Just act deaf, just pretend...

Lines that paint dark, mysterious pictures of the unknown, yet forbid you to go looking: can anything be more attractive? I can well imagine that far-off little boy’s fascination for this gongey with the black face and red eyes.

What was Praveen the boy like, I ask him. Never trained in music, he responds, laughing, but always with a creative streak and fascinated by the performing arts and being on stage.

“I went to two schools: Kerala Samajam and Canara, a Konkani linguistic school. In the first, I was surrounded mostly by Malayali teachers and students and in the second, by a Konkani-speaking milieu. Yet Tulu was the language that bound us all together in that region: South Canara, Udupi, Dakshina Kannada districts. It was the one language that everyone understood, the language that we spoke among friends.”

How much has Tulu literature inspired him? “The thing with Tulu is that there’s very little written literature,” Praveen says.

“My fascination for writing started when I switched to Canara school and chose Halegannada as my first language. I was in love with it: writing halegannada poetry using meters. I started out writing small poems for school and college magazines, then ventured into street plays. At that time, it never seemed like a viable profession, because In Mangalore, you grow up thinking you need to become an engineer, a doctor, or a bank employee.”

Eventually, he chose to study architecture and today, runs Inhabitat Projects, a design studio in the city. “It had a creative side to it, this profession, and I enjoy it very much,” he tells me.

What were his inspirations in those early days? “Black humor,” he says, “often taking jibes at political and social setups. A predominant part of Tulu performative art is oral and visual. Even today, there are old-style theatre groups that present serious reformative topics through the medium of comedy and farces. I think I was certainly inspired by these.”

With the advent of Tulu cinema, many prominent Tulu artists have moved to the big screen, but there are still many small groups working to keep performances of drama, Yakshagana and Bhuta Kola alive and on stage. Praveen’s uncle, who owns a small theatre called XX, is one of them.

“We used to stay up the whole night watching these performances and travel with the troupes to the next village. I grew up being fascinated by these stories and wanting to be on stage and the cynosure of attention.”

An early memory Praveen shares with me is of him as a nine or ten year old, watching Chitrahaar and furiously copying down the Hindi lyrics into a notebook. He performed the song later at school, ‘quite probably goofing up with the words’. He came home with small prizes, much to the surprise of his parents. “You sing?” his astonished mother asked.

Praveen started out performing at weddings and friends’ parties and after a few initial attempts at writing songs in Hindi and English, he realized that he was able to express himself best in his mother tongue.

“When I was trying to write in Hindi or English, I found myself struggling to find subjects. The moment I started writing in Tulu, I realized that I could not only find the right words but also access so much rich material: personal memories and experiences that I could translate into words.”

The lullaby he dedicated to his grandmother was, incidentally, the first song he ever wrote in Tulu.

Once the decision to do this semi-professionally was made, Praveen says he adopted a more rigorous approach to music. He took up guitar classes, writing with more discipline and practising for at least an hour early. “I also started giving myself briefs, the same way my architecture clients would give me briefs. If a theme struck me, I would create a brief around that, and this brought a lot more structure to my thinking and writing process.” His wife was his early listener and possibly his harshest critic.

Praveen’s taste in music is eclectic. “Pink Floyd has always been a favourite. They are very strong in concepts and lyrics, and I love that there are a bunch of art and architecture students in the band.” He recommends a number of artists to me including John Mayer, Algerian band Tinariwen (“Amazing mystical themes: for example, one song is on something as simple yet profound as making tea!”) and Icelandic band Sigur Ros (“Listen to them without watching the visuals and you’ll feel like you are on a mountain. Incredible mood setting.”)

Visuals are certainly a strong element of Praveen’s performances. He wants the words and the music to conjure up certain images in his listeners’ minds.

“As I often play to a non-Tulu speaking audience, it is important for me to set context. So sometimes, I project a slide deck as I sing, with one thematic visual representing each song. This is usually the image that’s in my head as I write the song. My writing process is very visual. For some songs, I even see rough views of two characters or a snatch of a conversation.”

Not all his songs are rooted in memory or everyday life though. Some are in response to where the world is heading today. Thuuley asks people to pause, think and not let divisive messages affect them. My favourite perhaps is Prarthaney. It is a song, but also a conversation, a message, the only one Praveen has so far recorded in a studio.

“The Western Ghats are dying,” he said matter-of-factly as he introduced this song. “The destruction is painful to watch for those of us born in this beautiful place. This song is a cry to God to come down and save what he has created from man, ironically, another of his creations.”

O Deva yepa barparh,
Akulu pandeyrh eerey bhath jagahnh kapuvarh,
Urudhu eereygh dada pandeyrh?
Eer etthey koopa malth daaye kuldharh?
Eerey ney kathondu enkulu mulpa kuldaye, a a a aey
Eerey ney sugithondu eerey bet lethondula ye, a a aey.
Vora baleye kapuley, Vora baleye kapuley.

[Listen to the song here ]

Praveen’s voice is full-throated, powerful. He sings with his whole body, feet tapping, hands strumming, beating time on the body of the guitar, eyes shut tight as though he were seeing the visuals in his head. And because of the little stories he tells us, we see them too, the Tulu words we don’t understand fluttering exotically in our ears.

Today, Praveen is a regular in the Bengaluru open mic circuit and has performed at many venues in the city including Lahe Lahe, Fandom and The Humming Tree, apart from small group performances in studios and with groups like Kutcheri Kulture. So what plans does he have for the future?

“I think when you have a talent, you sometimes take it for granted. The last thing I want is to be a blip, a few-songs sensation. I’ve written 16 songs so far—but can I keep writing at will? Can I write 40? That’s what I want to find out. So the goal for this year is to write many more songs and record at least one more professionally.”

As we close off, Praveen tells me to write not just about him but about the revival of indie music and musicians, the ones who are writing and singing in their own tongues, sharing stories from their past and roots with the world. “A revival of sorts is happening in India and around the world. I am grateful to be a part of it.” he says.

Lyrics and their English translations were provided by the creator Praveen Alva.


Gowri N Kishore is a writer based in Bengaluru. Her works have been published in Kitaab—the Asian literary magazine, Huffington Post India, Women’s Web, Indian Express, Deccan Herald and Reading Hour. She is a winner of the Elle Fiction Awards 2013. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies by Pageturners and Random House India. She is a recipient of the President of India’s Balsree Honor for excellence in Creative Writing. She blogs here .

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