What does a new parent or grandparent really want? Flowers? Fancy rattles and designer onesies? Please, all we want is a baby that sleeps like a baby-is-supposed-to!
When my granddaughter was born, a dear friend from Delhi called and said, “Sing Nanhi kali sone chali into her ears for me, please.” Notorious for getting the lyrics wrong, I tapped my phone to retrieve the right ones of the Geeta Dutt number from Sujata (1959) I had once hummed to my children, and cooed into my granddaughter’s ears (I played the original song once and never repeated the mistake for, mid-way through the song, the baby in the film starts crying loudly, destroying the lullaby effect). For two months, peace prevailed. It was tempting to sing anything but a lullaby so that our baby could wake up and charm us with her moves.
Things changed dramatically at three months. We had to use every trick in the book to ensure she slept well, long and often. Out came soothing songs like Dheere dheere aa re badal (Kismet, 1943). I had picked up this song as a young girl from my father, and, when my daughters were born, I sang it to them. Now, with newly learnt words off the net, I could impress our little bulbul, who responded by sleeping within minutes. Soon I was singing a mix of Carnatic and Tamil film songs I had picked up from my mother-in-law—Uyyalalookavaiya, Krishna Nee Begane Baro, Neelavarna Kanna Vaada and Chinna Chinna Nadai Nadandu.
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The days passed. Missy grew more vocal and slept less. Her eyes twinkled as she took in the sights of her new, ever-expanding world, while the parents and grandparents looked bleary-eyed. With professional deadlines and domestic chores piling up, it was time to give up on our no-electronic-device-near-baby pact and I found myself hitting the playlists on my devices more often. It was fascinating to see how the child responded to different songs. Some did not move her at all, some made her head bob, and ah, one put her to sleep in two minutes—Madhava Mamava in Neelambari, the trance raga of Carnatic classical music. Not any rendition please, just the one sung by Sooraj Santhosh for the band Masala Coffee.
There is not enough scientific proof to vouch for the sleep-inducing properties of Neelambari or any other raga. But here is some anecdotal data. When our granddaughter was old enough to stand up with support, Seetha Kalyanam in Kurinji (the other raga believed to induce sleep) had the same effect on her as Chet Baker’s classic jazz number, That Old Feeling —both songs made her dance! So, Seetha Kalyanam, as performed by the arts platform IndianRaga, had to be removed from my playlist named “Zzzz”.
When she was around two-and-a-half years old, we were begging her to stop asking for Una Paloma Blanca all the time. “I want Una!” she would say, so George Baker would belt out the 1975 song on loop on our smart-home hub.
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We soon had a bossy “threenager” in our midst. “Paati, don’t sing now, let’s play.” She could also choose her own music. She would toddle up to the digital display and say, “Hey Googee, Una Pavoma!” Since Google couldn’t quite catch her baby words, I would craftily use my mobile, connected to the system, to jump to another song on my Olden Goldies list, say Tony Orlando’s Tie Your Yellow Ribbon. She loved it. My daughter did not.
We came out sane from that period. Then I came across Xavier’s Theme from X-Men, men totally unknown to me. The 1 Hour Of Hope version of the background score by Lior Rosner and John Ottman worked like magic to keep the child calm.
Another song that seemed to lull the little one was Ed Sheeran’s Perfect, the version where he sings along with Andrea Bocelli. I had mistakenly saved the song in the “Zzzz” list instead of my ambitious Learn Italiano playlist.
Do languages affect babies’ sleep? Several studies, including one done at Harvard’s Music Lab, suggest children aren’t fussy about language. In 2003, Bombay Jayashri came out with Vatsalyam, a collection of seven lullabies in six languages —Tamil, Braj Bhasha, Malayalam, Bengali, Kannada and Telugu—each with its own delicious, soporific effect (which means I could only listen to one song at a time).
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Lullabies are very effective. On adults. Only an action-packed day could make our young one sleep. This was also the time when I switched to instrumental versions of songs to ensure no age-inappropriate lyrics were picked up. Mozart, Lalgudi Jayaraman and Hari Prasad Chaurasia were our soothers.
Our second grandchild arrived a few months ago. My “Zzzz” list has resurfaced. This time, we have help. “Paati, I will sing,” says the elder child, and croons Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top. And then spoils it by saying, “Paati, you should sing softly like me, not like this—ROCK-A-BYE BABY KHA KHA KHA!” The nearly asleep baby wakes up, bawls, making me reach for my phone. Reminds me of the Laurel and Hardy bed-time episode in Brats (1930) where Ollie sings Go to sleep my baby to their younger selves.
The “Zzzz” list is growing with suggestions from friends and family: Meryl Streep’s version of Gartan Mother’s Lullaby, Akhilandeswari in Dwijavanti raga, Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera (words which are neither Italian or Spanish, by the way), and Amna Bibi Ke Gulshan Mein by Khatija Rahman, Gurupriya Atreya and Vedanth Bharadwaj. I have kept out A.R. Rahman’s dance number Ottagathai Kattiko from the movie Gentleman even though I remember that it worked like magic on one of my nephews. Repeated words, chants, rhythmic beats and predictability are what make lullabies effective.
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It isn’t what you sing but who sings it that matters to children, say sleep specialists. Children are soothed by familiar voices and sounds. And what can be more familiar than the voice of a parent or grandparent? So whether you can carry a tune or not, whether you are good with lyrics or wing it shamelessly, you must sing lullabies. When you are calm, and breathing steadily, chances are that the baby you are handling will calm down too. Sing something soothing. Or hum along with whatever works for you before succumbing to a playlist. Pssst...the recorded white noise of a power-drilling machine or a washing machine really works!
Mala Kumar is a Bengaluru-based writer-editor who refuses to attend sleep-training workshops for fear of dozing off.