Monday, 14 May 2012

Books: Pattole Palame ~ A love song to Kodagu

(This piece was written in 2003)
DOES THE title ‘Pattole Palame’ ring a song to you? A favourite lullaby, a strain heard during a wedding, or a riddle tossed at you in jest by a cousin? If it does, you’re probably an individual in touch with your Kodagu (or Coorg) origins. If it doesn’t, you may be part of the non-Kodava speaking diaspora or an outsider ignorant of Kodava folklore.

But by late September, this invaluable oral heritage of Kodava folksongs and traditions, originally compiled and published in 1924 by Nadikerianda Chinnappa (1875-1931), a police officer who traveled the picturesque hilly countryside on horseback on the job, will be available to all-comers. It is the result of a labour of love undertaken since 1995 by his Bangalore-based grandchildren Baverianda Nanjamma and Chinnappa, in pursuit of a cherished dream. Their English translation has just arrived in the market as a 700-plus page book from Rupa & Co. ~ a boon to folklorists and laymen alike.

The story of the translators’ gritty odyssey is almost as fascinating as the collection’s lyrical, lilting pages. For Chinnappa is an engineer with a degree from an Illinois university, while Nanjamma is a statistician who was a visiting fellow at Cambridge University in 1974. While pursuing their professions at Chennai, Kolkata and Canada, they dreamt of a wider space for their grandfather’s precious heritage.

“It was when my parents visited us in Chennai in the 1960s that we learnt of how our grandfather had begun translating the work into English in 1925. But he died in 1931, before he could complete it,” recalls Nanjamma softly, sharing precious brittle pages over which their grandfather or Dadappayya’s script flowed. “That’s when both of us vowed to complete his translation one day,” Chinnappa adds.

But the going was tough, for both of them had full-time jobs. Nanjamma continues their narrative, “When I saw his first translation draft of just two of six chapters, I felt: ‘Oh my god! This is so precious!’ I was terrified of damaging it. So, in the 1970s, my husband, my mother and I began to copy it out in longhand over almost three years, whenever we could find time. I was terrified my over-generous father would give it away. When we left for Cambridge, I carried it in my hand luggage.”

In the second edition of ‘Pattole Palame” (or ‘Silken Lore’), published by the University of Mysore in 1975, the editor describes it as one of the earliest extensive collections of folklore from any Indian community. The translators’ introduction explains: “Since the Kodava language does not have a script, he used the Kannada script that has been in vogue since the 17th century, when the Lingayat Rajas ruled Kodagu and Kannada was their court language.”

Nanjamma summons scenes from the past: “Whenever my parents ~ both teachers ~ came to stay with us, my father would read and translate from it, while my mother wrote it down.” Chinnappa stresses, “I’d ask them a hundred questions. If her father did not know the answers, he’d find out for us from Kodagu.”

Their quest took unexpected turns. In response to their advertisement about their grandfather’s book, a surprise respondent was a nearly-90 farmer and self-taught folk artist, Bacharaniyanda Annaiah, who had copied out the entire Kodava text word by word as a youth by kerosene lamp ~ because he could not afford to buy a copy! He gifted this hardcover notebook to the stunned Chinnappas.  

Post-retirement, in December 1996, settled in their comfortable house at RMV Extension II, the couple realized the enormity of their undertaking. Initially, they sub-divided the responsibility among their siblings, but this did not work out. Even as they translated the songs, riddles and proverbs, their dreams of self-publication remained hazy. That’s until the Jacaranda Press literary agency sold the rights to New Delhi-based Rupa in 2002.

What odds did they have to contend with? Sceptics who felt the English language would prove inadequate to the task, now converts to their cause. Linguists like Dr. Gopalakrishnan of Chennai’s now-defunct Institute of Asian Studies, who “insisted on extensive footnotes because a work like this would only be done once in a hundred years.”  And developing a system of diacritical marks for transliterations, with a linguistic expert from Annamalai University.

Low-profile Nanjamma and Chinnappa’s efforts found their first rewards when ‘Pattole Palame’ was released at Mercara on August 29. To their surprise, the first hundred copies sold out in hours. “We’re a little worried that people might buy a copy, but not necessarily read it, like the Bible or Shakespeare,” smiles Nanjamma.

As their labour of love bears fruit, will they rest on their laurels? Unlikely. Instead, they have chalked out at least ten Kodagu-based projects for the future, including a directory of aine mane or ancestral homes, and a lexicon of the Kodava language. And a biography of the late Annaiah.

It is impossible not to admire both their poetry and their perseverance as ‘Pattole Palame’ arrives in Bangalore bookstores. For, as Nadikerianda Chinnappa says in his introductory verse:

‘You who know ~ why do you need this?
You who do not wish to know ~ why do you need this?
You who are incapable of knowing ~why do you need this?
You who want to know ~ do read this.’

(The Hindu Metroplus 2003)

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