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Year-End Special: When music is the love of food

Songs are passed down generations, keeping alive India's old culinary traditions, recipes and harvest rituals

Women and young girls alike would sing songs while making ‘pithas’, or steamed rice cakes, during Assam’s Bihu festival. Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times
Women and young girls alike would sing songs while making ‘pithas’, or steamed rice cakes, during Assam’s Bihu festival. Photo: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times

Halka haoway megher chhayay

ilshey gurir naachh

ilshey gurir nachon dekhe

nachchey ilish maachh

As the grey clouds loom over the horizon, with the possibility of rain, it is this song about the ilish maachh (hilsa fish) that comes to mind for Tanushree Bhowmik, a Delhi-based development professional who documents and revives old recipes through the pop-up Fork Tales. Roughly translated, “In the light breeze and shadows of clouds, the rain dances to its own tune/and seeing this, the hilsa fish begins to dance as well." While much of the poetry is lost in translation, the song shows just how culturally significant the hilsa is to Bengal. If paeans are sung to it in Bengal, communities in Tamil Nadu have special songs for the mango. Mumbai-based food blogger Harini Balakrishna Prakash has memories of sucking on succulent mangoes, while her grandmother sang one such rustic Tamil song as she cleaned and sliced the fruit—Mela irrukkum thol, kasakum maadhalal/mella kathiyaal, cheeva vendume (on top is the skin, which is bitter. So, peel it delicately with a knife).

Almost every community in India has a song or music tradition centred on food. “Some of the songs are about the dishes and ingredients. While others don’t talk about food at all, but are sung while cooking to take away the drudgery of the process, and hence become part of a food ritual," says noted academic and food historian Pushpesh Pant. For instance, there is a fascinating musical tradition among the Brokpa—the pastoral community belonging to the Monpa tribe in Arunachal Pradesh—centred around the churning of yak milk to make butter. According to a paper in the Indian Journal Of Traditional Knowledge, members of a household sing special songs as they gather around the zopu, or cylindrical milk churner, pulling and pushing it nearly a thousand times. The rhythm of the song matches the action.

Mumbai-based Gitika Saikia, who regularly hosts pop-ups to celebrate the tribal cuisine of the North-East, recalls snatches of a particular song that is sung while making pithas, or steamed rice cakes, in parts of Assam during the Bihu festival. “My mother used to tell me that staying up till 9.30 at night was unimaginable and it was only during pitha-making that they were allowed to do so. The ladies would sing to keep each other entertained while making hundreds of pithas," she says.

These songs don’t just highlight the produce, dish or feast, but offer an insight into the rich tapestry of community living that used to be prevalent across India. There was a time when joint families were the norm, with 10-12 ladies—grandmothers, aunts, cousins—staying in one house. “They would come together post-lunch to make papads and mangodis (moong dal badis/pakodas). And during Janmashtami, they would sing bhajans about Lord Krishna while making the prasad," says Gunjan Goela, who belongs to the Marwari Baniya community and is a culinary consultant with the ITC Hotels.


Some of these songs were used to educate young girls on heirloom recipes, while others employed food as a metaphor to impart worldly wisdom. According to Anjali Aruldas, who runs Vanakkam Foods, a Mumbai-based online business that stocks ready-to-cook south Indian mixes and batters, women from the Chettiar community would cook together for a celebration, and use the songs to teach young girls about the correct ingredients, the order to follow and the techniques to incorporate. “Some of these songs were handed down through generations, while some were made up on the spot," she says.

Bhowmik’s father, on the other hand, would use food metaphors in songs to teach his children about spirituality and manners. “He used to sing Dail paak koro re kanchlonka diya, gurur naam shoron koro niralay boshiya, which meant that lentils should be cooked with green chillies and God should be remembered in solitude," she says. The choice of food in the song depended on its ability to rhyme with the words of wisdom that he wanted to convey.

Over the years, some of these songs have become an integral part of children’s education in the form of simple rhymes. There is a popular Tamil rhyme about dosai that is taught to children when they turn 2. “It talks about the dosai made by a mother by mixing rice batter and black gram. One of the stanzas goes like this—there are four for the father, three for the mother, two for the elder brother and one for the baby," says Balakrishna Prakash.

The hills of Kumaon and Garhwal abound with such musical traditions. They range from light-hearted tunes to songs of lament, and sometimes even contain innuendo. Pant talks about a slightly risqué song from the region, in which a father-in-law is asking the young bride, whose husband is away for work, to go fishing with him. Presenting a dramatic contrast is a song sung by a young bride, who died unhappy and has been reincarnated as a bird. “She laments that kafal pako min ni chakho (the sweet berries have ripened, but I couldn’t taste them)," he says.

There is an interesting tradition during Makar Sankranti, when the shakkarpara is cooked in different shapes. “These are traditionally offered to the crow first. This ritual is accompanied by singing, during which women ask for gifts in exchange for the confections," he says. There is also a genre called riturain, akin to the baramasa songs of the plains, that chronicles the transformations wrought by the changing seasons. There is a beautiful tune called yo aya chait ko mahina, in which an unhappy and lonely daughter-in-law pines for her maternal home. “That is the time when mothers send favourite food items to their married daughters. But some can’t. That is what makes this lament so heart-wrenching," he says.

Also fascinating are work songs centred on the harvesting and grinding of produce, some of which can be heard at the Living Traditions series, held at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. “We have showcased work songs around food. As a folk song, these are built on the spot, they are impromptu. It’s not like a lady decided that she will write a song in the morning to sing while grinding," says Suvarnalata Rao, curator of the festival and programming head (Indian music). To her, it’s also interesting to see what happens to this repertoire when the work associated with it ceases to exist. She asks the all-important question that you won’t find anyone in the villages grinding by hand these days. So, what happens to the songs?

The songs were always meant to be exchanges between the women, set to a simple tune and carrying with them memories, often poignant, of food. These song traditions don’t just highlight the culinary practices of a region, but also the personality of the people singing them.

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