Singing for Comfort in a Pandemic

On a winter evening earlier this month, on a Zoom session, we watch as two musicians sing a Rajasthani lullaby, — a version of the original rendition by Hindustani Classical maestro Ustad Sultan Khan. Ustad Zakir Hussain, we are informed, had accompanied the artiste.

“So jaa re, tane lori sunaaun” (Sleep, while I sing to you, a lullaby); the words echo.

The screen switches between the text, in Hindi and English, and the two musicians sing each line in an easily comprehensible manner.

There are over 150 participants from all age groups, children to great grandmothers, some seated and some performing chores, and some others tucked in for the night. They are urged to sing along while keeping their audio on mute. The session is interspersed with tidbits of trivia. Sharing is actively encouraged and a discussion follows. Entry is through an RSVP email. The first 100 responders are invited to the Zoom session, the others join in on YouTube Live.

For many years now, two musicians — Bangalore-based Gurupriya Atreya and Chennai-based Vedanth Bharadwaj — have had a collective fascination for lullabies; enough to make them want to launch a dedicated album. These plans, from as early as 2016, never saw the light of day for want of funding. Mid-pandemic, Bharadwaj thought of the workshop method, and “Sing a Lullaby” was launched almost overnight on October 27.

Conceptualized as a workshop series, every Tuesday at 8 pm, for 52 weeks, Sing a Lullaby invites mothers, fathers, grandparents, nannies, educators, and anyone who wants to learn, a chance to try their hand at it.

Earlier this year, another Indian initiative, The Lori Project attempted to documented commonly heard lullabies by crowdsourcing them on WhatsApp through open calls. There have been other documentation projects in the past but none through workshops.

“The pandemic has driven us even further apart. We wanted to build a place that is comfortable and full of warmth,” said Bharadwaj.

“The nature of a lullaby is to comfort you,” adds Atreya.  “Even if you are restless and sing one, it will calm you down.”

A “Sing a Lullaby” workshop in progress on Zoom. (Courtesy of Sing a Lullaby)

The two are clear this isn’t a music class.

“We are not teaching them how to sing, but we are teaching them songs,” said Atreya. “Lullabies across the world have a loop format in common. The nature of the tunes are such that there is minimal variation and that is what makes them so soothing.”

“Lullabies all over the world have repetitive “sangatis” (a variation or a phrase in Carnatic music) and they are not complex rhythmically. You will find similarities in the words within regions, too,” said musician and scholar Suma Sudhindhra, who is also a trustee at the Bangalore-based Indian Music Experience, weighs in saying.

Both artists are in agreement that 52 is a lofty number and so far they are prepared with only over 20 lullabies in languages like Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, English, and Kannada.

“The rest is a learning process for us,” said Bharadwaj. “We hope to be able to source more lullabies and introduce them at the workshop. Just after our first session, we have received contributions in the form of Russian and Polish lullabies, one from a tribal community in Jharkhand and one in the disappearing Saraiki dialect of Sindhi.”

These lullabies will be recorded and released as singles as a lead-up to their album.

“We plan to launch four albums with eight songs each, and the first one will be out by the end of the year,” said Bharadwaj.

Showcased, or in this case taught, in their first session, was a popular Tamil lullaby, “Kanne en kanmaniye,” a composition by legendary Carnatic musician Papanasam Sivan.

“We want to start with songs that are commonly available and move on to rarer pieces,” said Atreya. “This particular lullaby was among the first to be sung in Chennai’s classical concerts or kutcheris. Until then, lullabies were not heard in these spaces,” said Atreya.

“Lullabies are more common in folk traditions than in Carnatic music, barring the few composed by Thyagaraja and Purandara Dasa (the father of Carnatic music),” said Sudhindra. “In folk music, they are a way to introduce children to the culture and traditions they are growing up in.”

Atreya and Bharadwaj are also interested in the stories behind the lullabies and their historical and cultural context, and on documenting how they have been passed down.  Their selections span various themes, from ones that speak of the beauty of nature, of surrendering to the world, and some funny ones, too.

Radha Nagesh, a counselor and grandmother who has been attending the sessions with her mother Shanta Iyer, describes them as “approachable and fun.”

“We (my mother and I) are geographically separated and this gives us an opportunity to learn together. We end up sharing notes and reminiscing over those we’ve heard and sung over the years,” she says.

The workshop follows a pay-as-you-want policy without a suggested contribution. Once you register, details of a Google Pay account are shared with you along with a brief about the project and the lyrics of the lullaby being shared in the next session.

“Lullabies belong to everyone, and we wanted to keep it open; people can choose to pay per session, monthly and whatever amount is suitable,” said Bharadwaj, admitting that so far they’ve received contributions from most participants. They are, however, overwhelmed with the response, both in numbers and reaction.

“We were flooded with emails of mothers who sang with their children, grandparents, and entire families,” said Atreya.  “In one case, a mother attended the workshop with her 40-day-old infant who she reported, fell asleep, as we sang. These are our rewards.”

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Anindita Ghosh)



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