Singing for the Ancestors: Mariamma Chedathy

By Bint Husna

This piece was first published by the It is republished by Dalit History Month with permission.

The author is thankful to Prof. Sebastian Vattamattam, editor of Manikam Pennu, for being the first to preserve, archive and publicise Chedathy’s work. She is also thankful for conversations with Maya Pramod on her in-person experiences with Chedathy, who was her neighbour. Poems were translated from Malayalam to English by M.Gautham.

Mariamma Chedathy, Art by Sidra.A, 2021

“This story belongs to our ancestors,

Thus sang Mariamma John, or affectionately called Mariamma Chedathy (‘Chedathy’ meaning elder sister in Malayalam), revered as one of the first Dalit folk artists in Kerala. It is ironic that despite having a history of folk songs and art forms the community has claimed as its own, Mariamma Chedathy (1920–2008) is said to be one of the first Dalit folk artists in Kerala thanks to the Brahmanisation of languages and art forms. Nearing her 100th birth anniversary, this is an attempt to celebrate Chedathy and make her eventful life known as it deserves.

Born as Kotha to Kunjeppan and Chinnamma in the town of Thiruvalla in Pathanamthitta, Chedathy could only guess her birth year to be 1920 based on a family hearsay that goes, “she was four at the time of the 1924 floods of Kerala”. She was born into the Sambava-Paraya community — an avarna/slave caste in Kerala. An ‘upper’ caste janmi (landlord) named Kaimal is said to have ‘purchased’ her forefathers for works like weaving baskets only the Parayas were known to do. In an interview with a Malayalam periodical Bhashaposhini in 2003, she said,

Mudiyattam, kolam thullal, and manthravadam (shamanism), among many other things, were the Paraya community’s art forms and occupation respectively. Though she could not get any formal education and grew up illiterate, Kotha was talented. She mastered the art of Mudiyattam, a form of tribal dance that involves whipping your hair gracefully, from her mother who was also proficient at the dance form. She also learned by heart many songs about shamanism from her brother who was a shaman and songs about soil and farming while she spent time in the fields with her father.

Growing up, Kotha’s family was deprived of standard living conditions. She recalls it vividly, “Our house was made with woven coconut fronds. The verandah was made of Pandan leaves. Hollow bamboos were tied with ropes (as pillars). The floor was plastered with cow dung. Our place was a large forested area. No one had toilets or even any good clothes to wear. Only shabby ones. Do you know why the Paraya’s clothes are always colourless? We did not have any soap to wash them. We washed them with the ash of burnt midrib of coconut fronds and that would never clean the clothes well.”1

In 1935, it was with her marriage to John that she converted to Christianity and changed her name from Kotha to Mariamma. She then joined John, who was working for the Archdiocese of Changanacherry at St. Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral, as a caretaker. Soon they both started working at St. Berchmans College — also owned by the same church — Changanacherry as sweepers. “It has been our family (John’s family) who have been working for the church and their educational institutions as caretakers and sweepers for generations,” says Mohan, Chedathy’s son.

Even though Mariamma Chedathy used to sing and dance even then, it was in very small capacity, like when visiting her friends or in family get-togethers. Her rise to prominence in Kerala was after the 90s. In 1990, during a literacy campaign by Mukhamudra — an art and culture organization based out of Changanacherry, started in 1980 — she was introduced to Professor Sebastian Vattamattam of St. Berchmans College by MT Varghese, his colleague at Mukhamudra, who also happened to be Chedathy’s relative.

One afternoon, the professor visited Chedathy along with other members of Mukhamudra, at her house and requested her to sing. Professor Sebastian remembers her to be distinctly reluctant because she had not sung much after adopting Christianity as her songs were mostly of Dalit heroes. But after praying briefly in front of St. Mary, she sang folk songs for them, each with a different tune and note. “I was astonished to see that after so many years of not singing actively, she still remembered the words to each of her songs,” recalls Professor Sebastian. In Chedathy’s own words, “I didn’t learn to write. Neither to read. I learned songs by listening. That is why I will lose everything if I can not remember. If I lose my memory, all these songs will forsake me. They’ll forsake me like water from a broken mud pot.”2 She was 70 then, and as evident in the poem above, none of these folk songs were written down, it was only passed down through generations orally.

The professor and his colleagues decided then that it was important to have all her songs and poems printed into a book and Varghese was tasked upon writing down their lyrics. After 8 years of recording, writing, and editing, the book was published in 1998 as Manikkam Pennu with Professor Sebastian as its editor.

Sthuthippu, Prayer song by Mariamma Chedathy , Video by Prof. Sebastian Vattamattam, 2013

However, after that encounter, Mariamma Chedathy started singing publicly with the same vigour she once knew. “Mariamma Chedathy was our neighbour and I often had the honour of hearing her sing and dance. Every time that she had to pass by our rented house in Changanacherry to go somewhere, we used to hear her singing from a distance much before we could see herself on the road. Such was the energy she spread around, singing with so much passion, and if anybody happened to pass by her, she would take the time to narrate the history of those songs to them. Her songs were laden with Dalit legends, especially of warriors like Chengannoorathi and Kamachavelan,” says Maya Pramod, who was her neighbour for a brief time.

Manikkam Pennu is divided into three portions: cheruppaattukal (short songs), Chengannoorathi, and paattukathakal (song stories). They are further divided into many different songs, most notable of them being songs about Chengannoorathi, Kamachavelan, Pandichirutha, and some others. They were some of the bravest Dalit heroes and warriors in Kerala that time had erased from history over the course of Brahminisation of lower caste champions and languages. So, for a part of history on which brahminical erasure had almost completely taken place, Mariamma Chedathy’s book revives them for the most part.

Following is an excerpt from Athirampuzha Kottayil (In the Fort of Athirampuzha) from the Chengannoorathi section in Manikkam Pennu. The legend goes that it was prophesied that the Fort of Athirampuzha would be the first of many forts that Chengannoorathi would conquer. A lone Chengannoorathi was met with a hostile Lord of Athirampuzha and his 101 guards even after clarifying that he was not there for war. This is the conversation that ensued between the Lord of Athirampuzha and Chengannoorathi:

Hold back, O’ wayfarer, hold back!

Once here, no one ever returned.”

I came to go back,

and go I shall, O’ Lord of Athirampuzha.

I am not demolishing your fort,

you shall witness an exploit I mastered.”

Going further down, the story says that after Chengannoorathi defeated the troop of guards, the frightened Lord himself gave Chengannoorathi the keys to the fort. He asks:

Hear, O’ wayfarer, hear!

Tell me your name, wayfarer.”

I am Changannuvathi from the small village of Chengannu.

Now, let me take my leave, Lord of Athirampuzha.”

It was also courtesy of Chengannoorathi songs that Mariamma Chedathy’s works started getting noticed by mainstream media and the general public. “For the work of the book Manikkam Pennu, we had audio recordings of Chedathy singing for the purpose of transcription. I was playing some of the songs for my colleague Professor Isthak, who was a professor in the Malayalam Department of St. Berchmans College. As the songs I played happened to be the ones on Chengannoorathi, he looked amazed. It so happened that the history of Chengannoorathi was being taught in the Master’s course of Malayalam language at our college then. The next day he requested Mariamma Chedathy to come and sing for the students. That’s how her journey to recognition began.” The college soon appointed her as the Folklore Consultant to the Malayalam Department, and she taught there three days a week for three years. But, even as she was the folklore consultant, her position as the sweeper at the college still continued simultaneously.

Several awards and recognitions knocked at her door in the last three decades of her life. Kerala Folklore Academy honoured her with a certificate of appreciation in 1997 with a fellowship in 2000. In the same year, she sang her song Kannodum Kaalayodum for a Malayalam film called Karunam as its playback singer. It was a lullaby.

“It was from the late 1980s that I knew Mariamma Chedathy and we often sang together. It was mainly about Chengannoorathi that Mariamma Chedathy’s songs focused on. Unlike other veerakadhaa (brave stories) songs where people killing each other were hailed as valorous without even much context, warriors like Chengannoorathi existed to uphold social justice — as a champion of his people. If she kept this many kadha gaanangal (song stories) in her memory till she died, that is because those were songs about social justice passed down through generations.” This is how CJ Kuttappan, Chairman of Kerala Folklore Academy, remembers Mariamma Chedathy. Though she did not know to read and write, she showed that these were not barriers enough in using voice and memory as a strong means of resistance against casteist rewriting of history. An excerpt from her song “enth shuthhi, eth shuthhi” (what purity, which purity) mocking ‘upper’ caste notions of purity and pollution is given below. Her songs were, all in all, a blow to the eons-old caste system.

To winnow the rice grains,

Parayan’s baskets are needed.

Milk is good, so is butter,

buttermilk and curd.

But the meat-eating

Parayan is polluted, why?

What purity, O’ Brahman, which purity?

Athintho thinthinantho thinthinuntho thinunthara

Athintho thinthinantho thinthinuntho thinunthara

Won’t eat fish,

but in the fish pond

they will bathe and pray,

and drink the water they bathed in.

What purity, O’ Brahman, which purity?3

Bint Husna is a Research Associate at The People’s History of South Asia. Her fields of interest include research on Islamophobia in India, reviving histories of marginalized communities, and deriving alternative frameworks to the ones existing regarding Muslim women.


1 Interview with Bhashaposhini, 2003

2 Ibid

3 Manikkam Pennu, Pp 44.

Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project