A Valentine’s Day message from Mecca to the Malabar Coast: “Manikya Malaraya Poovi”

Happy Valentine’s Day (or should I say eid al-hubb) from Rabat, Morocco, where I’ve been studying abroad for the past several weeks! Living in Morocco has been an incredible experience, and I have quite a few posts lined up about what I’ve been learning here about Morocco and myself. For now, though, I just want to share a very short and sweet Malayalam song, called “Manikya Malaraya Poovi.”

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This song is from an upcoming Malayalam film titled Oru Adaar Love, but it’s actually an adaptation of a song originally written in 1978 by P.M.A. Jabbar — a Malayali poet who, quite unexpectedly, works as a clerk in a general store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia! The song belongs to a traditional genre called Mappilla paattu: songs sung by Muslims of the Malabar Coast in northern Kerala on special occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings. The language of Mappilla paattu songs mixes Malayalam with Arabic and other languages such as Persian, Tamil, and Hindi-Urdu. This article states that “the lyrics of Mappila Pattu songs often praise prominent Islamic religious figures, recount anecdotes from the Prophet’s life and recollect historic battles. A leading proponent of the Mappila Pattu tradition was 19th-century poet Moyinkutty Vaidyar, most well known for his battle songs.”

The original song describes the love story of the Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah, his first wife. It begins with describing how “Khadijah sent a representative to the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, as a formal proposal, who promptly gave his consent” and ends with Khadijah dressing up for her wedding and the couple receiving divine blessings. The section of the lyrics used in the film song describe the couple’s first meeting, where Khadijah falls in love with Muhammad at first sight. Khadijah herself is a fascinating figure: a wealthy businesswoman in Mecca who was fifteen years older than Muhammad, and first hired him as a business agent before marrying him. She’s one of the most important women in Islam, and was the first person to accept Muhammad’s message, thus becoming the first Muslim.

In the past few days, this song has gone viral in India (17 million views on YouTube as I type this) for a couple of different reasons. Quite simply, the video depicts two students flirting in a crowded hall through glances and gestures. At one point in the video, the lead actress, 18 year-old Priya Prakash Warrier, winks at her love interest, played by Roshan Abdul Rahoof, and people are going crazy over it. (That wink has inspired many, many memes so far.) The song has been described as “an ode to the cheekiness of young love,” one which fits neatly into Indian cinema’s long tradition of romance communicated purely through eye contact.

An article on Scroll.in describes the classic eye-contact scene as such: “man/boy or woman/girl spot each other in a public place and cannot look away any more. They keep staring at each other unmindful of the world around them, communicating their mutual ardour in visual code. The tune plays out in the background. Time freezes and the people and objects around the lovers disappear – the ultimate state of being in love.”

Besides its depiction of young love, however, the song has also sparked controversy. A few Muslim men in Hyderabad felt that it was inappropriate to include this song in a film, because its lyrics describe the love between the Prophet Muhammad and Khadija, his first wife, and they filed a police complaint against the film. Omar Lulu, the director of the film, had this to say: “My mother has always loved this song and it was a part of my growing up… there has been some opposition from some old Muslims in the community. They feel that a love song that is about the Prophet Muhammad and his wife in a film is insulting to Islam. But these people are in a small minority. I think the song is now reaching more people than it did originally.”

Finally, this song is also serving a unique, almost-subversive purpose among parts of Indian society. For the past several years, Hindu nationalist groups have violently protested against Valentine’s Day, arguing that it is “indecent” and against “Indian culture.” These organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, choose to conveniently ignore the long history of publicly celebrating love in India. For example, Kalidasa, the most celebrated playwright in all of Sanskrit literature, wrote in the fourth century AD of spring festivals dedicated to Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love. In opposition to the Uttar Pradesh state government’s crackdown on young couples in public (called “anti-Romeo squads”, a pet project of the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath), popular writer on Hindu mythology Devdutt Pattanaik pointed out a verse in Valmiki’s Ramayana implying that “a city devoid of lovers in parks [is] a sad city.”

Of course, facts and history don’t matter to right-wing groups; this is evident in the United States as much as it is in India. Hindu nationalists have, in general, exhibited an obsession with controlling love among Indians, whether it is between people of different religions (the infamous “love jihad” hysteria), different castes, different sexualities… basically almost any consenting adults. This Valentine’s Day, many Indians pointed to the popularity of “Manikya Malaraya Poovi” — a film song celebrating young, carefree love, with roots in a traditional Muslim art form — as signifying the type of India they want to belong to. Jignesh Mevani, prominent activist and lawyer, Dalit leader, and politician in the state of Gujarat, tweeted about the song:

Finally, here’s the song itself, with a translation of the lyrics below. I don’t know Malayalam myself, but I was able to piece together something which roughly conveys the message of the song, I think. Let me know if you know of any more accurate translations, and enjoy the song! Happy Valentine’s Day — and eid al-hubb mubarak from Morocco!

māṇikya malarāya pūvi
mahadiyam khadīja bīvi
makkayenna puṇya nāṭṭil
vilasiḍuṁ nāri…

Like a ruby-red flower,
Her highness: Khadijah Bibi.
In the holy city of Mecca,
She lived like a queen.

hāttim-un-nabīye viḷiccu
kaccavaḍattīnayaccu
kaṇḍa nēraṁ khalbinuḷḷil
mōhamudiccu…

She called the Seal of the Prophets,
And hired him to lead a trade expedition.
At the first sight,
She fell for him

kaccavaḍavuṁ kayiññ
mutt‌u ṟasūluḷḷa vann
kalliyāṇāloccanaykkāyi
bīvi tuniññ…

After completing his mission,
The Messenger of God returned.
To marry the Prophet
Was Bibi’s desire

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Kanaka Dasa’s musical critique of “Caste, caste, caste”

The poet-saint Kanaka Dasa lived in what is now the Indian state of Karnataka, in the 16th century, when the Vijayanagara Empire was flourishing. A devotee of Krishna, he was a member of the haridasa devotional movement, which began in the 14th century and continued on through the 19th century. Some well-known haridasas include Purandara Dasa and Vyasatirtha. The haridasa movement significantly influenced what we now know as Carnatic music; Purandara Dasa is known as the “Great Father of Music” (sangeeta pitamaha), and many of his songs and the compositions of other haridasas are sung today. Because we have lost the original melodies of these songs, modern musicians and scholars have set these Kannada compositions to music, and that’s what we hear today. Many of Kanaka Dasa’s songs are sung as part of the Carnatic classical canon, including the charming ragamalikaBaro krishnayya“.

The song I want to share in this post, “Kula kula kula vennutiharu,” is rarely heard on the Carnatic concert stage, but its message is as urgent now as it was hundreds of years ago. In this song, Kanaka Dasa questions the notions of purity and pollution that form the basis of caste. He cleverly points out that lotus flowers, cow’s milk, and fragrant musk all originate in locations that orthodox Hindus may see as “impure”; yet, their products are seen as symbols of divinity and goodness! He asks the listener: which caste do Vishnu and Shiva belong to? Which caste does the soul or the five senses belong to? These questions may seem frivolous and rhetorical, but the fact that caste hasn’t been eradicated yet shows us that we need to take Kanaka Dasa seriously.

This song has been set to a joyful raga, Hamir Kalyani, and is sung here by the Bangalore Brothers, M.B. Hariharan and S. Ashok. Kannada lyrics follow, with an English translation taken largely from William Jackson’s Vijayanagara Voices:

Continue reading “Kanaka Dasa’s musical critique of “Caste, caste, caste””

“The Grammar of God”, or why translation is so complex.

Imagine growing up with a book that was written in a certain language; hearing it recited and sung at special events, constantly discussing it in school and at dinner with your family, going over every minute grammatical detail, being exposed to commentaries from throughout history, and learning to become accustomed to its contradictions and ambiguities. Imagine that, one day, you come across that text’s English translation one day. You know that this book is popular throughout the world, and its translations are much more widely circulated than the original. You open up the English translation, and to your shock, from the very first verse it is almost unrecognizable.

Now, imagine if this book was the Bible.

Aviya Kushner, a writer from a small Jewish town near New York City, grew up reading the Bible in its original Hebrew. It wasn’t until graduate school that she came face-to-face with the Bible’s English translations, and to her surprise, some parts seemed like completely different texts when compared to the Hebrew. Her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible is more than just an engaging look into the way Jews have understood the Old Testament throughout history; it provides some incredible insights into the complex phenomenon that is translation.

Kushner’s book is part memoir, part scholarly analysis. I really appreciated her informal tone, which kept me interested even during long-winded descriptions of Hebrew grammar or the biography of a certain Jewish translator of the Bible. She describes her childhood and the way she grew up with the Bible in humorous, touching recollections, and then transitions effortlessly into a discussion of how the lack of punctuation in Hebrew compared to the explicit and varied punctuation of English dramatically affects one’s understanding of the first few verses of Genesis.

Without giving too much away, I want to highlight a couple of my favorite parts of this book. Firstly, Kushner’s recollection of the way in which she grew up reading the Bible:

“While it is possible to read the Hebrew Bible with just the text–what is called the pshat, literally “the simple or the plain”–that is not how I usually read it, and that is not how it is generally taught in yeshiva classrooms. In school, as a child, I read the Torah from books called mikraot gedolot–“great scriptures,” also called the Rabbinic Bible in English–volumes in which each page is crammed with commentary surrounding the text of the Bible in different languages, scripts, and fonts. To the side sat the words of Onkelos, a Roman convert to Judaism, whose great first-century translation into Aramaic can be read as a commentary. Beneath the text of the Bible lay Rashi’s commentary, expressing his thoughts in his special medieval script…

Around Rashi lay other commentators, rabbis chiming in from their perches in Spain, France, Germany, the Arab world, and Israel, spanning at least twelve centuries. Everything was up for discussion, and from my earliest memory I was taught to demand a second opinion, and a third, and a fourth, to cross borders of time and language in order to hear those multiple voices. The Hebrew text I grew up with is beautifully unruly, often ambiguous, multiple in meaning, and hard to pin down; many of the English translations are, above all, certain.”

Growing up encountering a sacred text surrounded by differing commentaries is really appealing to me–I’m kind of jealous of Kushner! In my personal view, when it comes to religion and religious scriptures in particular, everything really should be “up for discussion”, and the whole structure of mikraot gedolot is a concrete realization of this idea. I’ve come across a couple websites and books that displayed the verses of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in a similar fashion, but I wish this convention could become more popular for all religious texts.

Kushner devotes plenty of pages to talking about the concrete implications that translation has for the meaning of the Bible, and the ways in which translation can be used to aid larger causes. One of the most chilling examples is that of slavery. During the period of slavery in America, Biblical passages were often cited in defense of slavery, presenting it as a fulfillment of God’s curse towards the descendants of Cain or, at the very least, as tolerated by God. However, the verses in the Bible that describe the slavery endured by the Jews in Egypt present a very different view of slavery, one that is not necessarily present in some English translations:

“In Hebrew, the beginning of slavery involves animalistic imagery that sears the soul; in English, this is toned way down, made much less disturbing, less cruel and visceral. Slavery in Egypt starts nice and easy in the King James translation, with a pleasant-sounding baby boom: “and the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them,” Exodus 1:7 reads. But in Hebrew, the passage is more ominous. The verb vayishretzu, which the King James Bible translates as “multiplied,” is actually the far more unsettling “they multiplied like little animals.” Even-Shoshan explains that the word sheretz refers to all small creatures who reproduce quickly and have numerous descendants, such as scorpions, frogs, and mice.”

For someone who has never read the Bible and knows even less about Judaism, I felt like The Grammar of God got me a little more up to speed–as much as any single book could. It really was a fascinating look at a text that is constantly relevant in today’s society, and I have gained a new appreciation towards the act of translation. Of course, we can’t read every work of world literature in its original language, and translation serves a valuable purpose in exposing us to perspectives we may never encounter otherwise. However, there is always another side to translation; one that makes me a little apprehensive. I think Kushner says it best:

“There is no perfect translation, because there is no way to bring a text fully from one culture to another, one language to another, one person to another–but every translation attempts to keep a book alive… We should read translations to know how those living next door understand the books we read in the privacy of our own home. And we should also always acknowledge that we are reading a translation–not the original text–and that there is another voice in the room, another mind at work, as we read.”

(image source 1, 2)