Lexicographer of country songs spins a magical yarn with his own hand


In December 2020, Kerala Bhasha Institute published Vattaparambil Peethambaran's 'Vaymozhivazhakkangal Nadodipattukalil', a 551-page dictionary of words picked from Malayalam folk songs. Three years before, in 2017, the institute had published another of Peethambaran's work, 'Nattumozhichantham', a 463-page dictionary of rustic slang in Malayalam.

These were the first compilations of such words in Malayalam. But there is yet another reason why these books are unique. They were not printed in designer fonts. Instead, they were done in the author's own handwriting. Handwritten pages submitted by Peethambaran became the book.

“Peethambaran sir's handwriting was so special that our director (V Karthikeyan Nair) wanted the book in his writing. It was amazing that he could write the whole book without making a mistake,” B G Hareendranath, senior research officer and editor at the Bhasha Institute said. Copies were made scanning each of these handwritten pages.

Beauty of swear words
Both these books are made up of thousands of lines of same-sized hand-woven words with perfect curves, loops, droops, crescents, circles and lines. The sentences are machine-like in their straightness and spacing. The alphabets do not have a calligrapher's fancy flourishes but have a precision and flow that would make one fall in love with Malayalam.

Team Onmanorama was told this was the feat of an 82-year-old Malayalam teacher who needs a walking stick for support. Astounded, we met the teacher in his house in a sleepy village outside Thiruvananthapuram. There was a bigger surprise in store. What seemed superhuman to others was routine for this Malayalam teacher.

“Whatever I write, I am very particular that it should be written neatly. This was a habit inculcated in me by my teachers. Even if it is a forbidden swear word, I want it written in such a way that it is read without difficulty,” Peethambaran told Onmanorama.

Superhuman leisure
So writing in longhand for Peethambaran was not rock climbing but leisurely morning walk. “I had written 25 books before these two were printed. Those books too had handwritten manuscripts that were as neat and legible as the two that came out in my handwriting,” Peethambaran said.

Vattaparambil Peethambaran
Vattaparambil Peethambaran. Photo: Sajesh Mohan

For instance, his biggest work, 'Nataka vijnanakosham' (the first ever encyclopedia on Kerala's theatre history) had a neat and precisely written manuscript that ran into over 1200 pages.

Fact is, there were no plans to issue his last two books in his handwriting. “It is just that the Bhasha Institute director saw the manuscript and wanted it published the way it was,” Peethambaran, an award winning dramatist and theatre actor, said.

Even at this age, Peethambaran said he could write at a stretch for three to four hours. “After that my back aches, not my hand,” he said. He took less than three months to write these two books, the first one 463 pages and the latest one 551 pages.

Samuel Johnson of Malayali folk
But the collection of words took him years. More than four for the latest book, 'Vaymozhivazhakkangal Nadodipattukalil'. He collected over 150 books on folk songs and closely read over 500 folk songs. “The words are part of the continuous seemingly unbroken flow of the song. We have to segregate the words, find their meanings and arrange them in order,” Peethambaran said. The book is a collection of over 14,000 folk words.

For perspective, the legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson took eight years, and employed six helpers, to compile the first English dictionary of 40,000 words in 1755. Samuel Johnson's 'Dictionary of the English Language' was printed, not hand-written.

Vattaparambil Peethambaran.
Vattaparambil Peethambaran. Photo: Sajesh Mohan

For meanings, Peethambaran pored through established texts like 'Shabdatharavali' or 'Pachamalayalam Nikhandu'. There were words in these folk songs that were alien to even these established texts. In such cases, he either made inspired guesses or sought out old members of the community from which the folk number has originated.

Pulaya god and an old tea shop
Once he got stuck on the word 'puramavu' in an Onam song of the Pulaya tribe. “... ente puramave/entacho ente puramave... went the song. I thought a lot about 'puramave' and couldn't crack the meaning. So I kept reading the song. It was a long one and finally I realised it was the Pulaya word for Lord Brahma,” he said.

There were also moments when even a remote guess was not possible. A north Kerala ballad about a tea shop had a word 'makani', which Peethambaran just could not place. “Kozhikottundoru chayamakkani, makkasneelundoru mooppeelu/moopante makkanikerichellumbo enthellam vishesham kaananu...” is how the song begins.

He knew 'makan' meant house in Hindi but still was hesitant to make wild guesses. So when he was in Kozhikode to receive a Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award, he went to an old tea shop and asked for the meaning of 'makani'. He was told that it was the name given to a tea shop that was attached to the house of the owner.

Nonagenarian's secrets
It is not just the meaning that is given in the book. To give context, the book also quotes lines from a folk song in which the word has appeared. “I have managed to give examples for almost all words,” Peethambaran said.

The 2017 dictionary on rustic slang took him even more. Besides reading old books, he had to scratch out nuggets from casual conversations. “Once I secretly listened to a 90-year-old woman who came to meet my sister at my home. She talked for an hour and I wrote down 117 new words,” Peethambaran said.

Vattaparambil Peethambaran
Vattaparambil Peethambaran. Photo: Sajesh Mohan

English loot, other than Kohinoor
According to him, quaint usages in folk literature could be used to enrich Malayalam. He gave the example of 'walking stick'. "Though some of us call it 'oonu vadi' (support stick), we generally use the term 'walking stick' almost as if it is a Malayalam word. In folk songs, especially in the northern ballads, there is a beautiful word called 'nada vadi', a perfect Malayalam alternative for walking stick," he said.

He gave yet another word. He said the word normally used for something that masks a room's view is 'door curtain' or 'window curtain'. 'There is a beautiful word in folksongs to denote this. 'Ara mara', where 'ara' means room and 'mara' is a kind of cover or veil," he said.

While Malayalam is reluctant to use words from its own pastoral past, Peethambaran said the English are unscrupulously borrowing words from everywhere to widen the scope of their language. English has the largest number of words in the world, over eight lakh words. These words were mostly mobilised from other languages. In 2017, the Oxford Dictionary had included three commonly used words from our language, namely 'ayyo', 'anna', and 'vada'. Earlier, other words like 'kanji', 'verandah', 'brother', 'sister' and 'father' were taken from Indian languages like ours. Brother, for instance, came from the Sanskrit word 'Bhrathavu',” he said.

Kunchan Nambiar and limits of penmanship
Peethambaran said his dream project is to compile the rustic words used by Kunchan Nambiar in his 'thullal' works. “If we could find these words and record them, no poet in Malayalam will ever struggle for the right words,” he said.

However, there is a problem with penmanship. What if he wants to make additions in the subsequent editions? Already, language geeks have called him up, giving new and alternate meanings for words that he had discovered. “There is a limitation here. I can add these new words and meanings only as an appendix. To insert these words in alphabetical order is impossible,” Peethambaran said.

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