Lullabies of a subcontinent

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Indian culture and art forms. A study lullabies in India.

Submitted: November 01, 2015

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Submitted: November 01, 2015

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Every day at bedtime, mothers all over the world play the role of  the mythical sandman as they work their magic to bring sleep to their little ones. Their spells are performed not by sprinkling of magic dust, but by song and affection. Rhythmic rocking of the cradle and soft melody of these songs will persuade the most unwilling baby to a quaint slumber. These tunes are usually filled with false promises of extravagant jewellery and mocking bird purchases. There are  ballads that narrate fantastic stories of cradles precariously perched atop trees, only to be blown off by erratic winds.

Mothers of India also tell fantastic tales in their lullabies. After a wearisome hot tropical day, as bedtime approaches, children are introduced to chandamama (The Moon, usually personified as an affectionate uncle of the child). Under the warm, moon-lit sky song erupts. Requests are made to uncle moon, asking his luminescence to bring bags of silk cotton tree blossoms, curds and  milk for the little ones. Parents in India also make false promises of jewel encrusted cribs and pearl cradles in their songs.

No session of lullaby singing is complete without the mention of Lord Krishna. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of the hindu deity, Vishnu.  Unlike the timid and humble seventh incarnation of Vishnu, Lord Rama, little Krishna was mischievous. He raised havoc in the dairy farms  of his kingdom by stealing butter and curds. He always had his mother Yashoda on her toes. Nonetheless, Yashoda adored her son. Mothers sing to their little ones at night, drawing comparisons to notorious Krishna. They dote on their babies, just like Yashoda of vrindavanam doted on her son.

Sometimes lullabies are not meant for children at all. Let me explain. To understand this, first you must know the tragic tale of Sita.

Sita devi is the wife of Lord Rama, seventh incarnation of Vishnu and the prince of Ayodhya. Soon after their wedding the newly-weds are banished to a life in wilderness by their aunt, who wishes her son to ascend the throne of Ayodhya. Sita devi's hardships begin from that day. She is abducted by Ravanasura, the demon king of Lanka, in the absence of her husband and brother in law. In his captivity she is given a choice, either to live in isolation or to renounce her love for her husband and wed Ravanasura to be his queen. Years of isolation come to pass before Prince Rama finally comes to her rescue. After the fall of Ravanasura in an epic battle, Sita is asked to prove her purity with a trial by fire. She agrees. An un-charred Sita emerges out of the fire,  vindicating her sanctity. Upon their return to Ayodhya, she is again asked to walk into fire to prove her purity to the masses of skeptics. She refuses to do so and is unwillingly banished from the kingdom by Lord Rama. Pregnant Sita wanders off into the jungles. She raises her twins with Lord Rama by herself as a refugee in the forest sanctuary of Valmiki.

 Women did not have a voice in the patriarchal society of pre-modern India. A woman was not allowed to complain about her hardships as it meant disrespect towards her spouse. Women folk of India found their voice by the side of a saree cradle. When a mother wants vent about her troubles to her family, she sings about hardships of Sita. These lullabies are usually improvised by adding a few lines of her own troubles. She laments melodically as the spell bound cherub blithely respites. The next day her family is a bit more affectionate and accommodating towards her.  

Lullabies come in many forms. A few talk of promise and affection, while a few talk of trouble and turmoil. Just as any other art form , lullabies provide a medium to express.


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