Athul Narukara blends the old with the new. Familiar to music lovers as the ‘Palapalli’ singer, after his high-energy track from Prithviraj-starrer Kaduva (2022), the young folk musician has been creating a new soundscape for the traditional folk songs of Kerala. Recipient of Kerala Folklore Academy’s Yuvaprathibha Award 2022 — announced only this year — Athul has been experimenting with the sounds, rhythms and beats of folk music. Post ‘Palapalli’, he has sung in films such as Kumari, Kurukkan and upcoming releases Kadakan and Little Hearts. The Kadakan track, ‘Chowittum kuthum’, composed by Gopi Sunder, has gone viral within a week of its release. He has also been travelling the length and breadth of the state with his songs, performing at college festivals and cultural events.
Athul says he has been attracted to folk music since childhood after listening to folk musicians in his neighbourhood at Narukara in Malappuram. “These songs were a part of their life. Besides that we had a good folk music team in my school. Although I have had no training in music, I got recognised as a singer when I won the first prize in folk music at the district-level school arts festival in 2013-14. That was when this event was introduced at the festival for the first time. Next year, I won first prize in the state-level school arts festival and that was a turning point,” says the musician.
He adds, “I noticed that many folk musicians I knew were reluctant to perform on a big stage because they were not confident about their music. These songs were part of an oral tradition and were passed down from generation to generation. After winning prizes at the arts festival I felt I should continue studying it.”
Learning the tradition
Therefore, his further studies revolved around folk music. He joined NSS College, Manjeri, to do his graduation since the college had a strong folk music team that won prizes at college-level competitions. “We topped inter-zone competitions and also represented the University [University of Calicut] at the south zone and national competitions,” he says.
Later he did his postgraduation in Folklore from the University of Calicut, which he completed with a first rank. “As has been the practice, Kerala Folklore Academy honours the first rank holder with an award and I got it in 2019. It is indeed special that the same Academy has recognised me yet again with the Yuva Prathibha award in appreciation of my efforts to popularise folk music,” he says.
After working with a band, he formed Soul of Folk in 2019, with like-minded musicians. It started with eight members and now there are 15. Six months ago he formed another band, Folkgrapher Live, with eight members.
“Both bands sing the same songs but in different ways. In Soul of Folk we use only ethnic instruments, mainly chenda, whereas in Folkgrapher we have guitars, keyboard, violin and drums. Folkgrapher was born out of my efforts to give a mass appeal to folk music, especially among the new generation. Indie music has a better space now and it is important to give something new to the listeners,” says Athul.
He is also pursuing a PhD on songs and hymns related to death and funeral sung by different communities. “A community’s identity comes across through these songs. They are emotionally attached to death-related rituals and most of these songs reflect upon the culture, way of life and practices of these communities. But, since the new generation is not keen on taking it forward the songs are going extinct. That’s why I wanted to focus on these songs,” says Athul.
In fact, ‘Palapalli’ was born out of one such song. It took inspiration from Baadhapattu of Pulaya community in north Malabar, which is sung during Koolikettal, a ritual held on the seventh day of a person’s death.
Athul got a break in cinema after he started posting songs on his social media handles during the pandemic. Cinematographer-director Santhosh Sivan who took notice of him gave him the chance to write and sing four songs in the film he directed for the anthology based on MT Vasudevan Nair’s stories for Netflix. “It is disappointing that the anthology has been shelved. But the project gave me the chance to interact with Jakes Bejoy who was doing the film’s music production. When he learnt of my passion for folk music and my PhD thesis, he asked me to work with him on his future projects. Later when he composed for Kaduva, he listened to the original and gave me the chance to adapt it for the film. ‘Palapalli’ gave me and my team a break that we were not prepared for,” he says.
His band performs both original and traditional songs at their stage shows. Athul points out that it is high time our folk music went international. “We must understand that most of the global musical hits are traditional or folk songs from those countries. If our folk singers and musicians are also able to treat their songs in a new way our music will also get noticed across the globe. I am trying to collect ethnic instruments, create songs and present them before the global audience as independent music,” he says.
His latest single, Samaram, calls for people to unite against communalism. Athul stresses that he is not waiting for playback offers. “I just want to do more songs, irrespective of the number of people who listen to them,” he says.