Nanjiamma, A Celebrity Overnight
Achievers -Indigenous Day Aug 9
Amma amma, you've got a phone call... Nanjiamma's daughter called out to her as she was returning home after herding the cattle. I could hear her grandchildren on the other end of the line.
Namaskaram mole (greetings daughter) she told me in Malayalam as she took the phone and paused to tell her grandchildren to be quiet. The energy and excitement in her voice gave hardly any indication that the woman was in her sixties.
Nanjiamma had become a celebrity overnight, after recently winning the national award for best playback singer, becoming the first tribal woman to receive the award in that category. But back home in Attapadi, Kerala, not much has changed. She still takes the cattle to graze everyday and enjoys spending time and taking care of her grandchildren.
Nanjiamma won the award for her song titled 'Kalakatha Sadhana' from the Malayalam movie 'Ayyapanum Koshiyum' released in 2020. Nanjiamma wrote the song herself in her native Irula language. Within a month after its release on Youtube, the song received more than 10 million views. Nanjiamma says that changed her life and she's happier than ever because her song has put a smile on millions of faces, and for her that's what music is about.
But that's not all. Nanjiamma is also glad that her song has brought to light the culture and lifestyle of the Irula tribe, a scheduled tribe that is scattered across several parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka.
Nanjiamma was born in Tamil Nadu and moved to Attapadi after she got married in her late teens. Reminiscing about her childhood, she said, "I used to dance and sing with other children all the time as a child. There was a song I carried in my heart as a child, but I never got to writing it. After I got married and had kids, I didn't have time for music. It was only after my kids grew up that I started singing again. I joined a group called Azad Kala Samithi, led by a tribal artist in Attapadi named Pazhani Swami. In one of our performances, the late film director Sachy spotted me and told me they were producing a film and wanted a song about life in our community. So I started writing it."
She added, "The song Kalakatha is a song that our ancestors used to sing to little children while feeding them.There were no vehicles those days, so mothers used to show the children flowers and birds and tell them stories to make them eat. The song is about Irulars, our way of life, our culture, our plants, our honey, our bodies, what we drink and eat. Now people across the country have come to know about our way of life, even those outside the country have come to know about us."
Meanwhile, the award was not received well by some sections of the music industry. Music director Linu Lal criticized the decision saying it was given as gratis to honour one from the tribal community. However, many others jumped in support of Nanjiamma. Singer Harish Sivaramakrishnan said that no one could have sung that particular song with as much grace as Nanjiamma did and that she truly deserved the award. As for Nanjiamma, none of this matters, "For me, music is all about making people happy. I'm glad I could do that and I hope to continue doing that," she said.