lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Sleep, baby, sleep

There are some things you share only with your spouse, and then there are some things you don't share even with your spouse, not until years later, reminiscing about walking the baby.

When you are walking the baby singing lullabies, going over and over the ones you grew up with, adding verses to them out of sheer desperation; when you are exhausted and counting minutes until you can wake your spouse and hand over duty with the clear conscience of two hours of the task attempted- which is getting the baby to fall asleep- you don't want to confess that you felt like shaking the baby and muttering 'sleep, willya', not even to your spouse, who is feeling as fragile as you are, anyhow.

Believe me, take this as gospel from someone who's been there; marry somebody who speaks the same language, it goes easier when you sing lullabies. Because when spouse takes over and songs change, baby gets interested and lies awake luxuriating in new sounds and takes even longer to fall asleep.

We have all been through it, and in case you are thinking of sniggering and saying you are unwed, let me tell you, you will go through it, sooner or later, unless you have sworn to remain single, or not start a family.

When we lived in caves and huddled for safety in cowering groups behind the shelter of a fire, perhaps lullabies were nothing more than grunted or crooned pleas to the infant to sleep, fall silent, let the tribe be safe.

But lullabies have been there through the ages, to sooth a fussing baby and we all sing lullabies as we rock the baby to sleep. Hushabye, baby, we all beg, implore and plead with the little bundle of uncaring, awake alertness.

Depending on the singers' abilities and invention, lullabies grow. In the west, 'Bye, baby bunting, father's gone ahunting', the somewhat sinister 'Rockabye baby, on the tree top,' 'Frere Jacques' and others are famous.

In Carnatic music, Nilambari is suited to sing lullabies. There are well-known lullabies from films in many languages, and old folk music of all languages in India has a few lullabies. In families too, there are lullabies handed down from mothers and aunts that we learn and sing to our own children.

As a baby, my son used to sleep perfectly happily as long we were pacing up and down, singing to him, and would wake and start fussing the moment he was set down in his cot. I learnt a set of lullabies from my mother and aunt, and I crooned them to my son as he trained us to walk him through the night.

In my experience of walking babies to sleep, I found reciting my notes on lectures about clinical psychology worked like a charm with my first baby nephew; I think he fell asleep out of sheer boredom. My son was made of sterner stuff, and would wake up the moment the drone of the song stopped.

Thinking about lullabies in my family, this is the one I remember best:

'Jodu maamidi PaLLu dooraana galavu' Twin mangoes on a far away tree.
dooraanunchi tethurE paapa maamallu' And baby, your uncles will bring them for thee.
'Abbaayi maamallu etuvanti vaaru?' What sort of uncles doth the baby have?
'Anchu panchela vaaru, angeela vaaru' Of gold- edged dhotis and vests, they are.
'Chevi cheviki chaareDesi pogulla vaaru' Of huge hoops in both ears, that's how rich they are.

There used to be another line here, but I can't for the life of me recall what it was.

At about the time Chenthil wrote about lullabies, by coincidence, I was elucidating a lullaby by C Narayana Reddy to a friend who was Telugu but didn't have much familiarity with the classical Telugu references. It is a film song, apparently, but I have been out of touch with movies for so long that it was new to me. I enjoyed elucidating, and I hope you will too:

'vatapatra saayiki varahaala laali
raajeeva netruniki ratanaala laali'

This is a nice beginning, the coins and gems are mentioned to suggest the preciousness of the child. Most lullabies have rich images, for that reason. Vatapatra saayi is Vishnu after the PraLayam, end of the world and before the beginning of the next cycle. He is depicted as an infant, floating on the ocean on a banyan leaf, sucking his big toe.

'Rajeeva netra' is not an adjective I'd have chosen, but I suppose I shouldn't quibble about it, as lotus-eyed was the only thing that would fit the meter and befit the second half. 'Ratnaalu' is gems in general, so it goes well with the coins mentioned in the first line.

'muripaala krishnuniki mutyaala laali
jagamelu swamiki pagadaala laali'

'Muripemu' means gaiety, fondling, caressing, and grace. Muripemu and pearls were used together by several poets in the classics, so CNR is following tradition here. Notice the mention of marine treasures here, pearls and corals. Again, there is the suggestion of how precious the child is.

'kalyaana raamuniki Kausalya laali
yadu vamsa vibhuniki Yashoda laali'

This is where the real beauty of the song begins, the list of mothers down the ages, and each reinforces the depth of love the singer feels for the child. The usage kalyaana is touching, since Kausalya would have been rocking the infant Rama, and dreaming big dreams for his future. But the 'yadu vamsa vibhudu' is ironic, as Krishna was never king, he was the youngest son. But he was certainly a leading light of his clan.

'kari raaja mukhuniki giri tanaya laali
paramaamsha bhavanuki paramaatma laali'

This time the poignancy is in the usage kari raaja mukha. This recalls the tale, of the beheading of Ganesa and the grief it caused Parvati. A mother cradling her child after an accident is the most fiercely protective thing in nature, after all. 'Bhava' is another name for Shiva and the devotion Shiva and Vishnu had for each other is beyond respect or worship. They are two aspects of creation and the universe, and they are indivisible. And this signals the end of the list of mothers.

'alamelupatiki annamayya laali
kodanda raamuniki gopayya laali'

Here CNR starts listing the devotees who sang for their gods, and easily the most prolific of them was Tallapaaka Annamayya. He sang 'Jo achyutaananda jo jo mukundaa', the most famous Telugu lullaby ever, for his lord Venkateswara. And Bhadrachala Ramadasu, whose real name was Gopanna, was another who sang several lullabies to his Rama.

'syaamalaanguniki syamayya laali
aagamanutuniki tyaagayya laali'

Syama Sastry wrote only in praise of Kamakshi; to use 'syaamalaangunaki' and mention Syama Sastry is a bit lame. I'd have said Kshetrayya, and while Kshetrayya never wrote a lullaby, he wrote exclusively on Muvva Gopala, so it would have been more apt. Tyaagaraaja, of course, wrote lovely lullabies for Rama.

Even in this age of musical mobiles over cribs playing Brahms Lullaby and recorded music, babies will fuss and parents will sing, and lullabies will evolve and change and yet remain the same, a means of bonding with the baby. Now sleep willya, baby, for pity's sake?



Anonymous Ash said...

Is "Frere Jacques' a lullaby? I thought it was the opposite, what with morning bells ringing and all. You could have explained a bit more, but a good post, Lali.

8:14 pm  
Anonymous dipali said...

Lovely post! Now that the walking baby to sleep stage is way past, self and spouse lull each other to sleep with our respective
snores! Contemporaries have attained grandparenthood- we have as yet only achieved a granddog...
What lovely lullabies and truly rich imagery- an amazing culture indeed!

11:19 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

I was such a godsent. I used to sleep 20 hours a day and the only problem my parents faced after I became a fluentish reader was to get me to close the book and sleep. Lullabies were never required. Which is just as well, because we are a singularly musically untalented family.

1:07 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- Unlikely as it seems, Frere Jacques is a lullaby. I'd done a 'explain each word' version for the friend, but I thought that would be too long.

Dipali- There is something comforting about the spouse snoring, right? Familiarity and security and all that. I've had great-grand cats, and am a granny too, ha!

Lullabies are a big part of what is derisively known as 'women's lit' in Telugu.

Rimi- Hm, you were a rare baby then. But this was just a phase my son went through. By the time he was six months old, it used to be our party trick to tuck him in and say good night, and guests would be amazed that he'd go right to sleep!

3:50 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

Clinical psychology? No wonder the baby slept. When it came to your own son you chose to sing, rather than recite notes, yes? I think there are issues here, Auntie Lali.

8:35 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- Last warning, stop with the Auntie business. And yeah, I was a student when I walked my nephew to sleep, no? And I combined it with preparing for tests and so on, no? Not my fault if baby didn't think it was gripping stuff.

10:59 pm  
Blogger Shirsha said...

"Believe me, take this as gospel from someone who's been there; marry somebody who speaks the same language, it goes easier when you sing lullabies."
Now that the mistake has been committed and no going back on that, what choices am I left with?
a.) Not have babies, given that easy-to-bed babies are one in a million and am generally unlucky in all matters that require luck.
b.) Learn up lullabies in English and err... Hindi, the only common languages?
c.) Save tons to invest in a night-duty nanny.

6:38 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Shirsha- Ah, my dear. Like me, you've been and gone and done it, married somebody who speaks another lingo.

Babies are like pets when they are really small, in that you can get them to adapt to schedules and so on. You won't need to invest in a night-duty nanny, unless of course both of you are on irregular and/or erratic schedules or those that involves night duties.

And, any crooning works, there is no need for language or even a tune, I tell you. :-)So Hindi, English, Tamil, or Telugu, the words don't matter, only the message does, which is, 'sleep, baby'.

11:29 pm  
Blogger Revealed said...

I always thought Rock-a-bye was scary beyond belief! What sort of person would go and *sing* that to their babies?? :O

1:42 am  
Blogger Shirsha said...

Babies are like pets eh?
I have never had pets, because they require too much of indulging, & taking care of... so with babies I guess. I shud look at adoption, maybe a 10 yr old types, oh no teenage is painful, maybe a 25 yr old, wow, we cud be friends then!

10:40 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Revealed- I know, I always found it creepy too. I really ought to look up how that came to be a lullaby.

Shirsha- Hmm, we had a pet first, and thought that if we could manage a dog, we could surely manage a baby. As it turned out, it was easier said than done. :-)

Adoption of an adult sounds a good idea. I am up for adoption, if you are interested. (Are you rich?)

12:57 pm  
Blogger Shirsha said...

:D unfortunately no!
Also, I've been thinking marriage is like adoption, no? Most times I get this eerie feeling am mothering the hubby around!

3:11 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Shirsha- Sshh! Don't let the cat out of the bag, girl. There are such things as guild secrets, after all.

4:29 pm  
Anonymous dipali said...

You bet:)

8:12 pm  

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