Eighteen-year-old Priya Prakash Varrier has become a national crush with her mischievous wink in Shaan Rehman’s song Manikya Malaraya Poovi in the film Oru Adaar Love, which compares the beauty of Khadeeja, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, to a pearl flower, during her first interaction with him. The poetic description has won many hearts, but it has also drawn criticism — with a Hyderabad resident named Mukit Ali even lodging a complaint against the director for hurting the sentiments of Muslims with “derogatory references” to the prophet.
However, the song is not really new for most familiar with the rich tradition of Mappila Paattu, a folklore Muslim music genre. It was originally composed by Thalassery K Refeeque to the lyrics of PBA Jabbar in 1978. “Today, Mappila Pattus have been democratised and secularised to become an important part of Kerala’s literature,” says eminent Malayalam scholar MN Karaserry. Native to the Muslim Mappila community of Malabar, the evolution of Mappila Pattus in Malabar witnessed the confluence of Arabic with Malayalam, giving birth to the unique Arabi-Malayalam dialect. The first dated devotional Mappila Pattu called Muhiyudheen mala, composed by scholar Qazi Muhammad in 1607 AD, gave birth to Malapattus (necklace songs), that celebrated the life of war heroes. Mappila Pattus narrated the historic battles in Islam by drawing vivid descriptions of carnal pleasures received by martyrs in paradise. These songs were later banned by the British government for effectively organising people to revolt.
Post Independence, the Mappila Pattus made descent into Malayalam cinema with P Bhaskaran’s composition Kayalarikathu Valayerinjappo in Neelakuyil, which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Malayalam in 1955. Since then, popular Mappila songs such as Kuttikuppayam by MS Baburaj in Umma (1960) and Kokkara Kokkara by VM Kutty in Mailanji (1982) have become hugely popular. In the early ’70s, the Kathu Pattus (letter songs) genre of Mappila Patthus gained popularity among women who relied on letters to communicate with their husbands who had migrated to the Middle East. For instance, the famous Dubai Kathu Paatu (Dubaai Letter Song) written by the psychologist SA Jameel in 1976 voiced the isolation and broken spirits of a woman who yearns to reunite with her husband working in the Gulf. Oppana Pattu, a form of Mappila Pattus performed for the bridegroom, sung to the rhythm of claps while comically describing the bride’s henna and ornaments, is performed at weddings even today.
Usually written by female poets such as P K Haleema, who narrated the marriage between the Prophet and Aisha in Chandira Sundarimala, these songs have also became avenues of representation for the female voice.
It would, however, be wrong to assume that the folklore is limited to the Muslim community. In 1976, Karaserry discovered Mappila Ramayanam, that bore flavours of the Islamic context and referred to Raavan as Sultan and Surpanakha as Beevi. “Mappila songs were an oral tradition, so it easily spread across to people belonging to different religions,” says Karaserry.
The art form was also popularised through the annual Kerala School Kalolsavam in the 1980s. When popular reality television shows such as Mylanchi on Asianet and Pathinalam Ravu on Media One brought Mappila Pattus to the homes of its audience, eminent singers like VM Kutty complained that the pomp of performance eroded the true meaning and essence of the lyrics that was distinctive of Mappila Pattus.
“Mappila Paattus have become messengers of political agenda in the region today. Both the Congress and the BJP use them during their rallies to show their support for Muslims,” says Karaserry.
The soul of Mappila Pattus, though, has survived to reassert the strength of a community that arrived on the Malabar coast in the 17th century, and has stood united since.