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An Ayyappa double album released this season

Songs for Sabarimala

Recording companies release albums to cash in on the Ayyappa season

Every year, in December and January, several thousand pilgrims visit the Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala. The season offers recording companies an opportunity to release songs on Ayyappa. Hundreds of Ayyappa cassettes flood the market around November and sell till the end of the season, which is the middle of January.

This year, for instance, the Madras-based Super Cassette Industries has released Arasalum Ayyappan by T L Maharajan and Ayyanayyane by Unni Menon, a double album for Rs 45. Cassettes like this are done professionally and boast good recording quality, and you can find at least 20 to 30 such new releases in each of the southern languages.

Sastha, as Ayyappa is also called, is an ancient god, but the spread of the Sabarimala cult in the last three decades has not found a logical enough explanation. Sociologists have been debating what might have inspired this phenomenon. The spread of the Kerala cult to cities and towns all over the south has had big spin-offs for the music industry. Pandals are put up in small gullies and devotees gather for bhajans, and so there is a ready market for new albums each year.

"I buy at least two Ayyappa tapes every year," says Rajanna, 36, auto driver. He takes a vow and visits Sabarimala every year. He learns some of the songs by heart. There are many like him for whom it is a religious duty to buy Ayyappa tapes each winter.

According to Sundaresh, who has visited Sabarimala four times, Bangalore's peak years are over. Thousands still set out from this city to visit the shrine, but their numbers are dwindling. According to Prabhakar, engineer and keen observer of the Karnataka social scene, the number of people going to Sabarimala from the northern Karnataka districts is increasing.

In late December, advertisements appeared in Vijaya Karnataka, a new Kannada daily, soliciting contributions for an Ayyappa shrine proposed near Hubli. Vijay Sankeshwar, owner of the paper, is one of the temple trustees. He is among the big industrialists pooling in money for the temple, which is being built to help pilgrims who find the trip to Sabarimalai hard to undertake. The appeal said Rs 2 crore had already been collected.

Almost all big playback names in the film industry have, at one point or the other, sung Ayyappa songs. Albums by S P Balasubramanyam, Dr Rajkumar and Yesudas sell better than those by lesser known artistes, but that doesn't new singers from trying their luck. Veterans like Veeramani continue to be favourites.

Many new singers record albums and then sell them to well-established companies which have a good distribution network. If it costs a singer Rs 15,000 to record an album, he often sells it for the same price, or even lower. It is a calculated gamble for newcomers: they bank on the tape clicking and giving them a break into the thriving devotional music industry.

"I sell at least ten Ayyappa cassettes every day," says Shankar, who runs a shop near in Thyagarajanagar, a middle and lower middle class locality in Bangalore. The middle and upper middle class fascination with the cult seems to have waned, and pilgrims now come mostly from lower middle class families.

"The Ayyappa vow lets us lead pure lives," says Perumal, 26, who hails from Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu and works as a mason. "Usually, almost every day, friends force me to go with them for drinks, but during this season they respect my vows and leave me alone."

On his tape recorder at his small home, you will find one or the other Ayyappa cassette playing each evening. Till January 15, Sankaranti, which is when the season officially ends.

Amritamati S

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