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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Illiterates and Indian Music: a Kannadasan Memorial Paper


Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Illiterates and Indian Music
- a Kannadasan Memorial Paper

29 December 2006
[see also One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - Kavia Arasu Kannadasan]

Front Note

In the summer of 1982, I registered for a course on �History of Educational Ideas� at the University of Illinois. One requirement for completion of that course was submission of a term paper on a theme relevant to the course title. In the previous year, on October 17, 1981, eminent Tamil poet Kannadasan (1927-1981) had died in Chicago. Being a fan of Kannadasan, I wished to pay my humble tribute (for my personal solace) and I made this opportunity of the need to write a term paper, to read and remember Kannadasan�s contribution to Tamil popular music.

George Arakapadavil, an ethnic Indian from Kerala, was the lecturer of this course and in evaluating my term paper, he had commented as follows:

�Sri: I really enjoyed reading your paper. You�ve done a good job. You might want to explore the possibilities of getting this paper published somewhere�Your presentation is well organized and thought out. I have given you an �A�. Sri, it was a pleasure to have you in my class. Good luck.�

Unfortunately, due to time constraints and the then priority need to focus on my lab research, I couldn�t proceed further on my lecturer�s suggestion of submitting my paper to a relevant journal. It had remained unpublished. Thus, to mark the 25th anniversary of Kannadasan�s death, I provide below a condensed version (in approximately 3,000 words) of my paper, as a tribute to the memory of king poet of Tamils. The numbers cited in the text were the latest available in 1982, based on published materials between 1970 and 1980.

Prior to presenting the text of my paper, for interest, I present here the text of two items (which had appeared in early 1982) from the �Indian Abroad� weekly, and which I had tagged to my 1982 diary. The messages presented in these two items are rather self-explanatory of how a �magnanimous big heart� and a �petty small heart� viewed the death of Kannadasan. The �big heart� belonged to M.G.Ramachandran (who was a close pal of Kannadasan, but had been at the receiving end of Kannadasan�s stinging criticism in the political stages and print media in 1970s). The �small heart� belonged to an expatriate Tamil named Velu Annamalai, who had expressed his discomfort on the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister�s decision on payment of Kannadasan�s medical expenses incurred in USA. The two texts are as follows:

T.N. will pay Poet�s Expenses

The M.G.Ramachandran administration in Tamil Nadu has decided to pay all the medical expenses involved in the treatment of the state�s late poet laureate, Kavingar Kannadasan. Kannadasan died October 17, 1981, at Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago while on a visit to the United States. In a communication to the Reserve Bank of India, C.Ramdass, Commissioner and Secretary in the Education Department asked the released of foreign exchange amounting to $95,249.69 to pay the medical bills Kannadasan owed to a Chicago Hospital. [India Abroad, New York, Feb.12, 1982]

Decision Surprising

I was surprised to read that the Tamil Nadu government has decided to pay medical expenses amounting to $95,249 for the late Kavingar Kannadasan, who died in a Chicago hospital. Although I am not questioning his ability to write poems and movie lyrics and his mastery of the Tamil language, I am not able to understand why the government should pay these expenses. He earned enormous amounts of money writing movie lyrics. I do not see any reason why his family should not pay them. There are plenty of areas where the Tamil Nadu government could spend the money of its taxpayers to the benefit of the public. [A letter from Velu Annamalai, Three Rivers, Texas, India Abroad, New York, Mar.5, 1982]

This letter of a pretentious, expatriate Tamilian (then living in Texas) is a simple demonstration of the fact that literate folks need not be intelligent and intelligent people need not be literate.

When the year 2006 is about to bid adieu and pass into history, two more pertinent anniversaries need mention. The 800th anniversary of Islam�s imperial reach in Northern India and the 75th anniversary of the first released sound movie (�talkie�) in India fall on this year. Both these events undoubtedly were landmarks in the chronology of Indian music. The title of my 1982 paper was -

Influence of Music on The Education of Illiterates in Medieval and Contemporary India

Population and People

It had been estimated that at the time of Christ, India had a population of about 100 million people. There was little change in population size for sixteen centuries. There has been a regular decennial census in India since 1871, when the population stood at 214 million. In 1961, it was 439 million and in 1971, it stood at 548 million. According to the Census, a village is an inhabited locality containing fewer than 5,000 people and approximately 80 percent of India�s population lives in villages.

From the educational point of view, Noehlman has described the contemporary India as, �a theater for the conflict between the competing drives of the older literary, generalized and agricultural world and the newer technological, industrial, specialized and urban world. The educational tradition has been largely literary, religious and artistic�.1 However, India is one of the countries with a higher percentage of illiterate population. Though international comparison of �illiteracy� rates is very difficult because the definition of illiteracy varies among countries, on terms of UNESCO�s recommended definition that, �A person is illiterate who cannot both read and write a short simple statement on his everyday life.�2, in 1961 percentage illiteracy in India was 76 percent (men 66 percent and women 87 percent). In 1971 Census, this illiteracy figure decreased to 71 percent (men 61 percent and women 81 percent) in a population of 548 million.3


Colliers Encyclopedia defines education as, �a social process by means of which a community, society or nation has sought to transmit to the emergent generation those traditional aspects of its culture which it considered fundamental and vital for its own stability and survival.�4 Furthermore, it also mentions that,

�Among the Hindus, the elements of education in the laws, traditions, and customs were imparted by the family, and later by a class of teachers. The oral method and, when written materials became available, repetition and memorization, were universal. Writing was learned by imitating the teacher�s copy either with a stick in sand or with a stylus on palm leaves; later, with pen and ink on the thin bark of trees.�

In his work, The Anthropology of Music, Merriam5 had proposed ten major and overall functions of music for human societies. These are, (1) function of emotional expression, (2) function of esthetic enjoyment, (3) function of entertainment, (4) function of communication, (5) function of symbolic representation, (6) function of physical response, (7) function of enforcing conformity to social norms, (8) function of validation of social institutions and religious rituals, (9) function of contribution to the continuity and stability of culture, and (10) function of contribution to the integration of society.

Of these ten functions, it can be categorized that the functions of emotional expression, communication, enforcing conformity to social norms, validation of social institutions and religious rituals, contribution to the continuity and stability of culture, and contribution to the integration of society, significantly imply that they have educational functions, as defined by the definition provided in the Colliers Encyclopedia.

Jairazbhoy�s6 observation that, �Music in the Indian subcontinent is a reflection of the diverse elements � racial, linguistic and cultural � that make up the heterogeneous population of the area. It plays a vital role in the religious, social and artistic lives of the people. A great deal of it could be termed functions, as it is an indispensable part of the activities of everyday life.� supports this point of view.

Music in the Medieval India

India was subjected to Islamic conquests in the beginning of the 11th century by the periodical incursions of Mahmud of Ghazni. Beginning from AD 1206, Islamic rule in North India reached imperial dimensions. Jordens7 had described how this Islamic incursion transformed Hinduism as follows:

�During medieval times (thirteenth to seventeenth centuries) Hinduism underwent a transformation so great that it has been compared to that wrought in Western Christianity by the Reformation. The focus of religious attention moved from the great gods and the liturgies connected with polytheism to the one God, and his avatars, especially Krishna and Rama. A new attitude to God, emotional, passionate bhakti, replaced the old approaches of sacrificial rite and monistic meditation, just as a new mysticism, practical yet ecstatic, replaced the former philosophical type. Forms of religious expression changed; love songs to the Lord were sung, and group singing created a new popular cultural form, the kirtan.�

The sociological origins of this phenomenon can be explained in terms of Hindu revivalism to the Islamic incursion. To counter attack the Islamic threat, various independent Hindu kingdoms (e.g.: Rajput, Vijayanagara and Maratha) saw themselves as the champions of Hindu dharma. There was a burst of temple building till 14th century, that exceeded even Europe�s Christian structures.8

Saintly composers cum musicians of devotional literature appeared all over Indian subcontinent to spread the message of Hinduism to the illiterates; they made use of music to deliver the message. Almost every state of contemporary India produced at least one musician of this category. Though these devotional hymnodists spoke and sang in different languages, their theme of communication remained the same; it was largely centred around Krishna-Rama worship. A form of communication by means of a session of hymn singing, known as sankirtan, by a group of devotees was introduced. These songs were often accompanied by ecstatic dancing to the sound of tambourines and cymbals. Sessions took place in homes or temples, or erupted in the streets in the form of processions.

Another interesting feature of sociological interest was that, these saint-singers sprang from all sorts of existing castes. As Raghavan8 has observed, among Tamil Saiva and Vaishnava saint singers, there were untouchables. Furthermore, there were a few women saint singers, who gained recognition among the masses. Saiva Kaaraikkaal Ammai and the Vaishnava Aandaal, both of Tamil Nadu, Mirabhai from Gujarat and Akka Mahadevi in Karnataka were some names who contributed much to the bhakti movement. Hence it would not be an exaggeration if it is inferred that, the role of saint singers was one of great social integration, when went on for five or six centuries, and which formed a stage in the evolution of society towards an increasing sense of equality and social mobility.8

Music in contemporary India

The role of music and its influence on the education of illiterates in contemporary India can be analyzed under the following themes. (1) Tagore and the Tapovana system, (2) Movie music, (3) Radio music.

(1) Tagore and the Tapovana system

One of the influential figures in the progress of contemporary Indian culture was Ravindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Tagore did not have much formal education and never acquired a degree. He disliked tutors and schools of traditional British system. But, he was a self-made scholar. During his lifetime, Tagore wrote more than 2,000 songs, drawing his inspiration mainly from classical, folk and devotional music.6 In his essay on �The place of music in education�, Tagore9 commented on the wealth of folk music tradition as follows:

�Just as a network of large and small rivers and rivulets is spread over the various home fronts of the riverine land of Bengal, so also did the current of music flow in many a channel. It carried the message of pure joy to Bengali hearts in various forms. The whole country reverberated with the sound of Jatra (primitive musical folk play), Panchali (religious folk songs), Kathakata (narration of puranic stories or religious themes punctuated by songs), Kabi (impromptu capping of verses on a given theme sung by rival poets) and Kirtan (distinctive type of devotional choir evolved by Vaishnava poets). I doubt whether there is such a variety of folk music in any other country.�

In December 1921, Tagore converted his father�s Shantiniketan retreat into the nucleus of a World University, known as the Visva bharati. This university embodied several ancient Indian ideals, but was modelled in many respects on European lines.10 Most of the students came from Bengali middle class homes. There was however always a sprinkling of boys from other regions of India also. The curriculum of Shantiniketan included art, dance and music. Modern Bengali music, the style of which is traceable to Tagore himself, was taught besides classical Indian music. Tagore was of the opinion that folk songs and folk literature were the outpourings of unsophisticated village souls and revealed native talents free from extraneous influence � whether Muslim or British.11

Tagore�s contribution to Indian education has been aptly summarised by Sinha12, a former pupil of the poet. To quote,

�Tagore wanted joy brought back into the life of the Indian people through art and music and dancing; Santiniketan provided the ideal locale for the cultivation of these arts. Tagore was a great and prolific composer himself, so that today Rabindra sangit (Tagore music) has become a regular feature of All India Radio�s music programme.�

One of Tagore�s novel ideals was to re-establish the Gurukula tradition of education. It was his point of view that, the then existing Indian education was artificial, as the British rule was unnatural. He argued that the rulers did not know the people, were ignorant of their ideals and aspirations. According to him, the then Government was a machine and the educational system set up by it, was too mechanical and irresponsive. An interesting feature in the Gurukula tradition was that, even women students were enrolled by the teacher and there existed a sort of co-education, based on Indian culture.

(2) Movie Music

To evaluate the influence of cinema on the illiterates of contemporary India, quoting relevant statistics may not be out of place. In 1980, 742 movies were produced, of which 85 percent were in color. The cinema audience is estimated around 65 million per week, in a population of 684 million. A total of approximately 10,500 movie theaters are present in India, of which 6,368 are permanent, and 4,024 are classified under the category of �touring cinemas�. These �touring cinemas�, which are peculiar to India, operate only part of the year and mostly in rural areas. But, permanent movie theaters usually run 3 to 4 fixed time screenings per day.13

Sound films, labeled as �talkies� were produced in 1931 and to this day, nearly all the movies produced in 14 languages are similar to the �musicals� of the West. The Indian popular movie has to accommodate a requisite number of songs � as far as a half dozen or as many as twenty.14 How the music influenced the success of the movies in the 1930s and 1940s can be assessed by the staggering number of songs they accomodated. Barnow and Krishnaswamy15 recorded that the first Indian �talkie� Alam Ara[The Light of the World], included about a dozen songs, while some early Hindi and Tamil films have had 40 to 60 songs. Coppola14 observed that,

�the song serves much the same function in the Indian film as its counterpart in Western musical comedy; that is, the song is not intended to move the plot forward, as for example a narrative aria in a Verdi or Wagner opera. Rather, it comments on given circumstances in the plot and embellishes musically the ambience of the particular situation.�

According to Jairazbhoy6, the movie songs were initially taken from traditional Indian sources � folk, devotional and classical � as well as ghazals and qawwalis, and were presented in a more or less traditional manner. Barnow and Krishnaswamy15 also had expressed a similar view in that,

�The Indian sound film, unlike the sound films of any other land, had from its first moment seized exclusively on music-drama forms. In doing so, the film had tapped a powerful current, one that had given it an extraordinary new impetus. It was a current that went back some 2,000 years.�

In the movies with social themes (which form majority number of productions) where new songs were needed to suit the plot and action in the films, a gradual introduction of Western instrumentation and techniques had been done by the music directors. However, as Jairazbhoy6 had noted,

�the melody generally retains its Indian character and the singer often uses traditional vocal ornaments, although the accompanying orchestra may show a great deal of Western influence and may include Western instruments of all types.�

The movies with other popular themes, such as historical, mythological, legendary and devotional types, employ the traditional Indian music. The plot in these types are based on the adventures of characters of mythology, Purana, and history. It is a fact that, generally, these types of movies contain more number of songs than the ones with social themes.

The prominent role played by music in an Indian movie had resulted in the recognition of some functionaries, who seldom appear prominently in the screen credits of Western nations; play-back singer, lyricist (poet) and music director are three such functionaries. So much influence the play-back singers command among the cinema audience in India that these functionaries enjoy immense popularity, equalling to that movie stars, to whom they give a singing voice. In addition to the play-back singers, the song writers (lyricists) known as �poets� had also gained wide recognition among the Indian illiterate population.

Sahir Ludhianvi (Hindi and Urdu lyricist) and Kannadasan (Tamil lyricist) are two household names for millions of Indians. Since the case of Sahir Ludhianvi had been studied by Coppola14, some mention is made here about Kannadasan. As one, who didn�t enjoy the benefits of a formal education, the prodigious output of 4,000 poems and 5,000-odd movie lyrics of Kannadasan, between 1949 and 1981, is astounding by any means of imagination. It is appreciated that,

�What made him the most wanted lyricist was his capacity to compose a song within minutes for any tune, classical or folk, to suit any situation. In film after film, the situation and the characters might have remained the same, but the lyrics, if Kannadasan had written them, were always different. And he always wrote them in a language which even the illiterate could understand.�16

Naushad Ali, a leading music director of Hindi movies, is of the opinion that the movie music is the real folk music of India. His theory is that,

�Classical sangeet[music] has never been the art of the masses. It was first born in the sacred temples and later flourished in the glamorous courts of the Rajas, Maharajas and the Nawabs�The common people who had no access to the great durbars were never offered the opportunity of listening to classical music.�15

Whether one accepts Naushad Ali�s opinion or not, it is evident that movie music had gained recognition as the popular music of India since 1930s, and the contents of its verses play a significant impact on the educational activity of the illiterates in India.

(3) Radio Music

In view of the low literacy, the radio occupies a unique place as a medium of mass communication in India. The first Indian broadcasting effort was launched in 1924, and Government broadcasting began in 1932. Since the Indian population lives mostly in villages, the All India Radio (AIR), the only broadcasting organization in India, provides particular attention to the composition of rural broadcasts. UNESCO17, in its survey, reported that, AIR broadcasts over one million hours annually, of which 50 percent consists of various types of music. AIR�s network in 1980 consisted of 84 radio stations, reaching 90 percent of India�s population via 157 transmitters. In the home-service programs, 38 percent of the broadcasting time is claimed by music. The musical programs consist of classical, light-classical, light, folk, tribal and film music. The approximate percent of annual broadcasting time for different types of music in 1980 were: classical music � 13.0%, light music � 8.4%, film music � 6.6%, devotional music � 4.7%, folk music � 3.6% and western music � 1.7%. It is to the credit of the AIR that the classical music, which had largely been a preserve of princely courts in the pre-broadcasting era has now become popular among the commoners of India.


With these diverse sources available for instruction, literacy [as defined with a narrow scale by UNESCO] had not been a necessary pre-requisite for the peasants of India to participate in the knowledgeable involvement in the local, regional and national culture. Hence, it is not an exaggeration of fact, if it is inferred that at no period of its history, has Indians have been an altogether unenlightened. The reason for their enlightenment lies in India�s richness of musical culture, which had been preserved mainly by oral tradition.


1. Moehlman, A.H.: Comparative Education Systems, 3rd printing, New York: Center for Applied Research in Education Inc., 1966, p.54.

2. Ministry of Education, Japan: Education in Asia, Tokyo: Reserch Bureau of Ministry of Education, Japan, in cooperation with UNESCO, 1964, pp.14-17.

3. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting: India 1980 � A Reference Manual: Govt.of India, Publication Division, 1980.

4. Colliers Encyclopedia: History of Education, [in] vol.7, New York: P.E. Collier & Son Corp., 1955, p.42.

5. Merriam, A.P.: The Anthropology of Music, Indiana: North Western University Press, 1964, pp.209-227.

6. Jairazbhoy, N.: Music [in] A Cultural History of India, A.I.Basham ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, pp.212-242.

7. Jordens, J.T.F.: Medieval Hindu Devotionalism, [in] A Cultural History of India, A.I.Basham ed., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, pp.266-280.

8. Raghavan, V.: The Great Integrators � The Saint Singers of India, Delhi: Ministry of Information & Broadcasting Publication Division, 1969.

9. Tagore, R.: The place of music in Education. [in] Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) Centenary Number, Delhi: Sangeet Natak Akademi, 1961, pp.34-39.

10. Walker, B.: The Hindu World � An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism, vol.II, New York: Frederick Praeger, 1968, pp.474-478.

11. Bhattacherje, M.M.: Rabindranath Tagore, Poet and Thinker, Delhi: Kitab Mahal Pvt.Ltd., 1961, pp.39-72.

12. Sinha, S.: Social Thinking of Rabindranath Tagore, London: Asia Publishing House, 1962, pp.55-109.

13. Film India: The New Generation, 1960-1980, New Delhi: Directorate of Film Festivals, 1981, p.7.

14. Coppola, C.: Politics, social criticism and Indian film songs � the case of Sahir Ludhianvi. Journal of Popular Culture, spring 1977, vol.10 (4), pp.896-902.

15. Barnow, E. and S.Krishnaswamy: Indian Film, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963, pp.65-69.

16. Vaidyanathan, P.S.: Poetry � verses for God. India Today, Nov.15, 1981, p.187.

17. UNESCO: World Radio and Television, Paris: UNESCO Publication, 1965, p.91.



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