Does the latest film song you’re humming have roots in ancient folk tradition? Explore how rustic melodies are becoming superhits in Telugu and Tamil cinema

The dance number ‘Saranga Dariya’, featuring Sai Pallavi from the yet-to-be-released Telugu film Love Story, has clocked more than 130 million views on YouTube since it was unveiled on February 28. This is the latest in a wave of folk-inspired songs in Telugu cinema to become a chartbuster.

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The use of folk songs in Tamil or Telugu cinema isn’t new, but there has been a marked increase in the frequency with which rustic, folk-inspired songs are being incorporated into mainstream Telugu films. Many are fast-paced dance numbers; occasionally romantic and poignant melodies find their way in.

New stars emerge

This spurt has brought a folk singers and lyricists who hail from the hinterland of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh into focus.

Satyavathi Chauhan known as Mangli, who sang ‘Saranga Dariya’, is a popular name in the independent Telugu music realm. Hailing from a Banjara tribal background and armed with a diploma in Carnatic music, she began her career as a television anchor in 2013 and subsequently found immense patronage through independent music videos.

Her songs have become a staple during Bathukamma, Bonalu, Sammakka Sarakka jatara, Shivaratri, and the Telangana State Formation Day festivities.

“Wherever I travel, people welcome me with warmth,” says Mangli. When she sang the title song for Shailaja Reddy Alludu (2018), she caught the attention of film music listeners. Her bigger break came through the folk-meets-urban dance number ‘Ramuloo Ramulaa’ of Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020).

Lyricist singer Penchal Das shot into fame with ‘Dhaari choodu dummu choodu’ for Krishnarjuna Yuddham (2018), as did lyricist Vijay Kumar Balla with ‘Sittarala Sirapadu’ in Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020).

“Songs that represent native cultures are soulful,” says Mangli and credits her success to lyricists, music composers and everyone involved in the making of these songs, both in cinema and independent music. “It’s teamwork. Take ‘Ramuloo ramulaa’, the song had good lyrics, was composed well and on screen, leading stars danced to well choreographed moves. All of this matters in making a song reach a wide audience,” she adds.

Music composer Raghu Kunche

Music composer Raghu Kunche, who has been working with folk singers and writers, says filmmakers are now willing to step away from generic-sounding lyrics and beats.

For the 2020 social drama Palasa 1978, which focuses on caste discrimination in Palasa, Srikakulam district, Kunche composed music for two folk songs —’Nakkileesu Golusu ‘and ‘Baavochhadu’ — and credited them as ‘Uttarandhra Janapadham’ (North Andhra folk song).

“We wanted music that’s rooted, keeping with the film’s story. Asirayya, who used to take alms by singing in trains, was roped in to play the jamuku instrument for Palasa 1978. For a new film titled Batch, we got him to write and sing a folk-based song,” says Kunche.

Rooted approach

Raghu points out that Tamil cinema has had a comparatively more rooted approach towards stories, music and lyrics that reflect micro cultures from different pockets of Tamil Nadu, since many reputed Tamil filmmakers and music composers are from the rural background and reflect the ethos of their region through their work.

Singer Velmurugan

Singer Velmurugan  

Tamil cinema has long used folk music in their tunes, with MS Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja using rustic instruments in their projects. “Even in his debut film Annakili, Ilaiyaraaja used several village instruments like kingini, dholak and thavil. It gave recognition to many players of these instruments,” says Velmurugan, who took Tamil cinema by storm in 2008, with the folk number ‘Madura kulunga’ (Subramaniapuram) and has since sung many hits including ‘Otha sollala’ (Aadukalam), ‘Sangili bungili’ (Muni2: Kanchana) and ‘Karuppu nerathazhagi’ (Komban).

A few decades ago, popular film singers like S P Balasubrahmanyam, Yesudas and Malaysia Vasudevan were roped in for the numbers. Velmurugan says composers are now scouting for “singers who are from villages and can pull off such songs. This lends more authenticity to the flavour of the song.” Velmurugan singles out Ilaiyaraaja’s Thara Thappatai (2016) as a recent benchmark.

Dhanush in ‘Karnan’

Musicians like Velmurugan, Chinnaponnu, Anthony Dasan and Senthil Ganesh-Rajalakshmi are among the folk singers who are making a mark in Tamil cinema. Kidakuzhi Mariyammal’s successful ‘Kanda Vara Sollunga’ in Dhanush-starrer Karnan is another recent instance of Tamil cinema pushing the bar further with folk music. “It is heartening to see that folk music is being recognised in so many recent Tamil films, thus increasing patronage for several talented rural musicians,” he adds.

The resurgence

Telugu cinema, which had steered away from folk for a few decades, is actively embracing it again now.

Among the popular folksy dance numbers is ‘Dhaari choodu dummu choodu’ written and sung by Penchal Das.

Das, a singer and lyricist from Nellore region, is among the sought-after singers in Telugu cinema today, both for dance numbers as well as melodies. In director Trivikram Srinivas’s Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava (2018), his song ‘Yeda poyinado’ harks back to the ‘rudali’ tradition of singing eulogies after a person’s death. His latest chartbuster is the ‘Bhalegundi balaa’ from Sreekaram (2021).

“For many urban listeners, words like ‘dummu’ (mud) was new. Not many understand all the words, but when the beats are catchy, the song becomes a hit and then people make an effort to understand the lyrics better,” says Kunche.

Allu Arjun in ‘Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo’s song, ‘Sittharala Sirapadu’

Allu Arjun in ‘Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo’s song, ‘Sittharala Sirapadu’  

Deviating from dance numbers, director Trivikram Srinivas used the Chittoor dialect inspired song ‘Sittarala sirapadu’ in Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo. The song plays to visuals of henchmen falling aside like ninepins, in dramatically choreographed slow movements, after being dealt with deathly blows by Allu Arjun.

Lyricist Vijay Kumar Balla, who hails from the Chittoor belt, is not a film lyricist by profession. When he was asked by an acquaintance if he could help with a song for the film, he tried getting folk songs from the region, but the film’s team wasn’t impressed. Balla wrote ‘Sittarala sirapadu’ within an hour, and composed by Thaman and picturised stylishly, the song went on to become hugely popular. Again, some of the words were new for many urban listeners. Websites decoded the lyrics as the song became viral. “For example, the word ‘ponnuru’ doesn’t refer to the place near Guntur, but the term ‘nearby ooru or village’ as is said in Srikakulam,” explains Balla.

Balla says yesteryear Telugu filmmakers like Dasari Narayana Rao used rustic village songs in their films, and attributes the recent resurgence to the popularity of television music shows like Rela re Rela. He has written a song for Chiranjeevi’s daughter Sushmita’s new production and says his understanding of folk songs comes from growing up in Odisha’s Jeypore near Srikakulam.

Ownership and credit

With the rising use of folk songs, the issue of credit has also come to the fore. Singer Komali, who sang ‘Saranga Dariya’ in the television show Rela re Rela, accused the makers of Love Story of not giving her a fair chance to sing the song for the film and lyricist Suddala Ashok, who was one of the judges for Rela re Rela, of appropriating the lyrics to suit the film. Director Sekhar Kammula issued a statement that she would be credited in the film and monetarily compensated.

A still from Palasa 1978.

Kunche explains that in many cases, with folk songs being passed down by oral tradition, it becomes tough to trace the origin of a song that might go back a 100 years. “For Palasa 1978, I got calls from nearly 10 people claiming ownership of the song. We credited it as a folk song than attributing it to a lyricist. Where possible, we credit lyricists and singers,” he says.

Mangli, says the popularity of folk music gives her ample opportunities in independent music and films are a bonus: “It’s like eating biryani occasionally; independent music is like a nutritious home-cooked meal for me.”

Why are these songs so captivating? Kunche probably explains it when he says the popularity is due to “the raw, rustic lyrics and voices that reflect “matti vasana’ (petrichor)”

(With inputs from Srinivasa Ramanujam)