Call it the Manikya Malaraya Poovi effect. The Malayalam song that went viral on social media last week and made Priya Prakash Varrier, the winking actress featured in it, a celebrity overnight has also helped Muslim folk songs of Kerala gain wider attention. The songs are locally known as Mapila Pattu. Mapila are the Muslims of North Kerala while Pattu means song.

Manikya Malaraya Poovi, from the upcoming film Oru Adaar Love, or An Excellent Love, is a reimagination of a 1978 Mapila Pattu written by PMA Jabbar and composed by Thalassery K Refeeque.

The song courted controversy when a group of Muslims filed a complaint with the Hyderabad police, accusing the film’s director, Omar Lulu, and its actors of hurting their religious sentiments. In Mumbai, Raza Academy, which claims to represent Sunni Muslims of the Barelvi sect, wrote to the police commissioner and the Censor Board to cut “objectionable portions” of the song, and threatened to launch a nation-wide agitation if its demand wasn’t met.

On Wednesday, Lulu announced that he would drop the song from his movie, only to backtrack a few hours later in the wake of “huge public support”. Even Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took to Facebook to express solidarity. “Objections raised against the song are nothing less than intolerance towards freedom of expression in art and thought,” he wrote.


Old tradition

For music aficionados in Kerala, Manikya Malaraya Poovi is one of the finest songs in the Mapila Pattu genre, which combines Arabic with Malayalam and also uses words from Urdu, Tamil and Persian.

“Historical evidence suggests Mapila Pattu originated in 1607,” said Faisal Elettil, a Mapila Pattu researcher and television presenter. “The early songs, known as Mala, or ode to a famous personality, praised religious leaders. The first Mapila Pattu was Muhyudheen Mala, which is an ode to Muhyudheen Abdul Khadir Al Gilani, a preacher. It was composed by Khazi Muhammad of Kozhikode.”

The Mala is written in Arabi-Malayalam, a blend of Malayalam grammatical base and Arabic script.

Yesudas's rendition of 'Samkrita Pamagiri'.

Another Mapila Pattu researcher K Aboobaker said the history of Muslims in Kerala was closely linked to Mapila Pattu and Arabi-Malayalam. “They provide links to the Muslim culture and traditions,” he said.

It is widely believed that Mapila Pattu are mainly written in praise of Prophet Muhammad, but the researchers said that was not true. “It is wrong to make such an assumption as the first song in praise of the Prophet was written 130 years after the publications of Muhyudheen Mala,” Elettil said. “There is also a Mala dedicated to the famous Malayalam writer Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. It is known as Basheer Mala.”


It was the 19th century poet Moinkutty Vaidyar who made Mapila Pattu widely popular in Kerala. Vaidyar liberally adopted words from other languages such as Tamil, Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. “He even used English words in his poems,” said Elettil. “He was more of a romantic poet. He mixed local anecdotes while describing stories from Arab countries to appeal to the masses. And that made Mapila Pattu popular.”

The songs also inspired people from across religious communities to join the freedom struggle, said the veteran Mapila Pattu singer and writer VM Kutty. “A song written by Kambalath Govindan Nair, a Hindu, against the British in 1944 inspired thousands to join the fight against the British,” he said. “And it showed the rich legacy of Mapila Pattu.”


Modern revival

Mapila Pattu found their way into Malayalam films in the 1960s. Kutty said Kandam Bechoru Kottanu from the 1961 film Kandam Becha Kottu was one of his all-time favourite songs. “Almost all prominent singers in Malayalam, including KJ Yesudas, S Janaki and P Jayachandran have rendered many memorable Mapila songs in movies,” he said.

As for the controversy over Manikya Malayaraya Poovi, Kutty said it was unnecessary. “I have heard the song and I find it perfectly fine,” he said. “The song has not lost its originality. Why are people who do not know anything about Mapila Pattu making such a hue and cry about it?”

In the ’90s, the songs became a powerful weapon for social reformers fighting the practice of dowry. “At this time, Muslim women also became established as Mapila Pattu writers,” said Eletttil. “Prominent among them are PK Haleema, Kundil Kunhamina and SM Jameela Beevi.”

Kannur Seenath, a famous Mapila Pattu singer, during a stage show.

When Keralites started migrating to the Gulf region for work around four decades ago, they helped fashion Kathu Pattu, songs in the form of letters. “Many Muslim men went to the Gulf leaving their wives back home,” Elettil said. “And they used to meet once in four years. There were no mobile phones or internet connectivity, and the couples used to communicate through letters. Songs were written in the form of letters describing the pain of separation. SA Jameel is a proponent of this letter ballad.”

Such was the power of these songs, Elettil said, that “plenty of people came back from the Gulf and decided to stay with their families after listening to these highly emotional songs”.

Mostly, though, it was the movies that made Mappila Pattu a popular cultural marker of the Malayali community. “Thus Mapila Pattu did not remain as the song of Muslims in Kerala,” said Elettil. “It transcended barriers of religion and established itself as a popular music genre. Many immortal Mapila songs were written by the poet P Bhaskaran and composed by MS Baburaj.”

Aboobaker, however, cautioned against diluting the cultural context of Mapila Pattu too much. “It should not be tampered with too much even if it’s used for films,” he opined.

Veteran Mapila Pattu singer Eranjoli Moosa sings 'Manikya Malaraya Poovi'.