Telugu Film Songbooks: New Sources for Gender and Caste History

By Rumya Putcha. Rumya is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include citizenship, race, gender, sexuality, the body, and the law. Her current book project is entitled, “Mythical Courtesan | Modern Wife: Disembodiment and Anticolonial Praxis in Transnational South Asia” and aims to develop a critical race and feminist approach to South Asian performance cultures.

In my research on early twentieth century film cultures in southeastern regions of India I have uncovered a fascinating social history of songbooks that has never made its way into the official historiography of music and dance in India.

Songbooks were basically small leaflets that were sold outside cinema halls in India from roughly the 1930s to 1970s. They were cheap, much cheaper than viewing the movie itself, and provided a connection to the film in terms of the materials within the songbooks (usually a plot synopsis, cast, and lyrics to the songs).

As I was tracking the shifting connotations for women who danced in the 20th century in India, specifically in Telugu film cultures, I noted a sharp shift from the characterization of the villain as courtesan in the 1930s to the heroine as courtesan in the 1940s.

As India achieved independence in 1947 and set about establishing reinvented classical traditions, in many cases seen as rescuing music and dance from the courtesan, film culture also began to reorient its approach to the mythical courtesan. In less than a decade she transitions from being a stock villain to a dream girl. This bait and switch was ushered in by actresses who provided their own vocals and could dance in a style that was slowly gaining recognition as classical.

Classical, in this sense, meant very specific things which point to caste and class conscious taste habits. For example, many of the songs featured in films adhered to the formal principles of ragam (mode) or talam (meter). And the dancing body was also brought in line with institutional practices of dance which includes specific hand gestures (mudras) and postures. It didn’t hurt that the women who played these characters were usually if not exclusively Brahmin, that is, high caste, and married.

It is at the very moment that the recuperation of the singing-dancing courtesan as a Brahmin beauty occurred in film that song books enter the marketplace in a significant fashion. These books usually featured the heroine on the cover and stills from the film throughout.

In my work, I have examined these books as an early example of amateur music and citizenship culture. Besides images of the heroine, songbooks also made careful linguistic distinctions though melody was never noted, only lyrics. The language featured in these films was often overwrought and inaccessible to those who didn’t read what today would be understood as an elitist and brahminical dialect of Telugu. Even the words used to title the section of the song book where the song lyrics began shifts from the Karnatic that is classical genre term, Keernatham, to Paatalu, which just means songs. In other words, these books played an important role in how music and dance were normalized as middle class and casteist behavior, especially in households that were raising daughters.

In my ethnographic fieldwork in Telugu-speaking communities over the past decade, I learned that dominant caste families who have enrolled daughters in formal dance training first began to accept that dance was appropriate for their young daughters through film and especially through songbooks. I have spent a lot of time around dinner tables speaking with those who remembered the way film ushered in a new era of acceptance for dance, well before nationalism could take credit for the rise of classical dance culture.

Indeed, these informants, in many cases elderly brahmin women born in the 1920s, didn’t have much to say about nationalist figures like Rukmini Arundale the woman who is most often credited with the reinvention of courtesan dance into classical dance. Rather, many noted that films which featured Brahmin actresses, like the screen siren Bhanumati, were especially edifying and inspirational.

Bhanumati’s films were famous among an emergent citizenry . She herself variously represented women in the new nation in many of her most celebrated roles. I have come to believe that Bhanumati represents an important pivot point in the recuperation and rehabilitation of dance and music, through songbooks. Many Telugu women I have spoken to remember the songs because of the songbook, even if they never saw the film.

One film and its songs stand out for the role it played in the lives of my informants. The film Malleswari was released in 1951 featured Bhanumati in the title role. Set in the mytho-historical past, Bhanumati’s character is an ideal daughter. She is beautiful and talented in music as well as dance. She is doted on by her parents, who are respectable members of their community. Through a series of coincidences, her talent is discovered by the royalty of the land and she becomes part of the Queen’s court and performs music and dance there. There’s a love story built into this narrative, of course, and though the lovers are separated for a while in the end they are allowed to marry with the blessings of the King and Queen.

It’s hard to overstate what a huge departure this characterization of a singing-dancing heroine is in Telugu cinema. The portrayal of a young woman as the main protagonist, catapulted into upward mobility because of her singing and dancing abilities was downright feminist for a time when the women who danced and sang on screen were thoroughly villanized in cinema and in society.

In my conversations with the grandmothers of the women I danced with in the field, I learned how many had seen this film and imagined a different life for their own daughters. Many revealed to me how, upon seeing this film, they bought the songbook and then set about teaching their young daughters how to sing and dance to the songs from the film. One song in particular, “Pilichina Biguvatara” or “Even When I call you, why don’t you come?” appears to have been the most popular of the soundtrack for this type of amateur performance culture. In the scene, the main character, Malleswari or Malli is singing and dancing to her love interest.

I’d like to draw your attention to a few things in the clip. First, the song itself follows the formal characteristics of a classical song. She repeats the same line three times, each repetition building in melodic complexity. Second, you’ll notice that while she is singing the lyrics, her movements are fairly small, but as soon as the stanza ends, she opens into a technical interlude, what in the dance world is called a jathi . This sort of interpolation of technical virtuosity with lyrical interpretation would go on to become a hallmark of nationalist classical dance.

Functionally, this song is a love song, but for those who appreciated/understood classical music, this song functioned as more than filmi. Indeed, the song follows the formal characteristics of a classical form, known in musical terminology as a kriti. The ragam, or mode, is an easily recognizable one, Kaapi, especially popular in dance music for its playful nature.

One of the most fascinating things about the life this song has gone on to live among my interlocutors is the nature of the song itself. The song is composed in the style of a javali, which is a very specific kind of love song, sung by a woman, to a man usually in a flirtatious spirit. The javali carries significant connotations in India which endure to today. It is almost exclusively associated with courtesan culture. The javali, as a genre, provides a fascinating index for musical modernity precisely because of its ambivalent positionality vis-a-vis genres like the keerthanam.[1]

The idea that so many high caste women of that generation not only remember teaching their daughters how to sing and dance to this song was striking on its own, but more astonishing was how many of them still remembered the song and could demonstrate the gestures for me.

One grandmother confessed to me, “I only taught my daughter what little I knew. We were taught music, but never allowed to dance. I went to see the film 4 maybe 5 times so I could learn it to teach her. We couldn’t afford a record player, they were expensive in those days, but I could sing, so we bought the songbook.”

In my current research, I am tracking these songbooks through memories to try and understand a number of things. First of all, who bought them, where, and why? My preliminary ethnographic data suggests that these books were often purchased because one couldn’t attend the movie, either because it was too expensive or because young women of any social station were generally warned away from cinema halls.

Indeed, a number of women of that generation have admitted to me that were not allowed by their families to attend the cinema, especially as Hindi cinema made its way into the consciousness of a new citizenry. Many of my informants have suggested that this was the point at which radio became a crucial tool in their musical lives. Knowing the newest hit song was essential to social behaviors of young cosmopolitan Indian women in the 1960s. A practice of keeping a song diary emerges in this era because of famous radio shows like Radio Ceylon’s “Binaca Geetmala,” a show that was aired from beyond the borders of India at a time when film music was banned from the airwaves.

A song diary from the mid-twentieth century. (Source: Rumya Putcha)

In many ways, cinematic modernities, as an adjacent category to the authority of the state and its emissaries, hoisted a kaleidoscopic lens over an emergent Indian nation state . To look through that lens and see the films that recuperated dance and music for an upper-middle class and caste populace revealed the power of female beauty, particularly a racialized example like Bhanumati. The circulation of songbooks within this affective economy underscores the extent to which expressive cultures operated within and by commodity and advertising structures.

This article was written by a guest contributor and solely reflects the views of the author.

[1] Davesh Soneji historicizes the javali as a “transitional” genre which traversed a variety of signposts in early modern India lying “at the furtherest edges of courtly dance practices, and at the cusp of India’s emergent entertainment industry in the early twentieth century” (2010, 88).

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