City City Bang Bang, Columns, Writing

The sadness of the lullaby

There is something magical about a lullaby. The experience of listening to one is quite unlike anything else. It is almost impossible to listen to one without responding to it with an emotion that one never fully understands. Even without knowing the words, we know exactly what a lullaby intends even if we are unable to put the words to that deep sense of knowledge. On the face of it, lullabies soothe, comfort and lull the awake into sleep; indeed that is their essential function. They help babies feel protected and cocooned as they slip away into the tender arms of sleep. Mothers envelop their little ones with a musical translation of the overwhelming love they feel.

Why then are lullabies almost always so sad? Why do lullabies tremble with some deep indefinable sense of liquid melancholy? Why do they ache with a nameless yearning for things lost and things that cannot be found?

Think of any lullaby and you will be struck by the tinge of sweet sadness that accompanies it. From the world of Hindi cinema, think of a ‘nanhi kali sone chali’, ‘dheere se aaja re ankhiyan mein’, mere ghar aayi ek nanhi pari or Shubha Mudgal’s So Ja and you will observe this recurring pattern. Often the words too, like in the case of the all-time favourite Rock-a-bye-baby are less than soothing. Across cultures, the lullaby carries traces of sorrow, an imprint of some final and inconsolable incompleteness. The purpose of the lullaby is anything but sad. The baby needs soothing and absolute protection from all sources of fear. The lullaby imitates the rocking motion of the cradle with simple repetitive phrases and a basic melody. But unlike the nursery rhyme where the melody produces little emotional effect, the lullaby infuses everyone listening with a powerful sense of longing. Why is this so universally true?

In some ways perhaps, the musical structure of lullabies in their desire to soothe, come close to those of dirges. The slowness and the tenderness of the tune makes it tinged with an unmistakable air of melancholia. In that sense, it could be argued that sadness is not really intrinsic to the lullaby but merely a musical by-product. The words are not important; just as martial tunes evoke parades and religious songs generate a sense of immersive piety, so do lullabies evoke a sense of quietitude that overlaps with sadness. The musical structure is responsible, not the words or the purpose that the song serves.

As an explanation, however, this is not satisfying enough. There is something more at work here. Perhaps, the mother uses emotion to make a deeper connection with the baby; sadness deepens the bond between mother and child and helps communicate her feelings better. Or perhaps, the lullaby becomes a channel for the mother’s own sense of incompleteness. Often lullabies have words that refer to a husband who is far away or of distance between mother and child and sometimes even about death.The idea that sleep is a form of little death is a common enough one. The lullaby might be our way of playing with the idea of death. There is a sense of separation and the baby’s ‘going away to distant lands’ that evokes a feeling of deep sadness that is all the more powerful because it is not real. It is a rehearsal of sadness that must eventually be ours. It allows us a foretaste of tragedy even as we celebrate the birth of the newborn.

But perhaps the strongest feeling evoked by lullabies is that of nostalgia. We yearn for something pure, tender and innocent when we listen to a lilting lullaby. We long for reaching a part of us we never can. It is this realization that perhaps is at the heart of a lullaby’s ineffable sadness. Perhaps the nostalgia we feel is the nostalgia for the perfection of the womb. The mother gently pines for that sense of intact completeness when she sings melancholically for her little one. As listeners we long to be complete again but know that we cannot. The lullaby is nothing but the song of the baby being cast adrift ever so slowly on the painfully solitary journey called life. As adults when we hear this song, we are reminded of what we have lost and what we can never hope to regain. All of our lives we are driven to pursue the idea of individuality, of becoming someone unique; shining in our special separateness. The paradise of completeness has been lost to a quest for individualness; oneness has given way to being alone, and there is no going back. The lullaby draws us back, without our quite becoming aware of it, to the ideal we might truly desire, one where we are never singular, never unique, never incomplete.

The lullaby is a bridge to the infinity of longing, an ode to the illusion of belonging. The lullaby tells us that what is most beautiful and what makes us feel the purest emotions is also the most transient. We see the magic of life only as it disappears slowly from our eyes. The lullaby is a tender chronicle of a life told in reverse.

One Comment

  1. Hari
    Posted October 7, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Not necessarily. Have you listened to Omanathinkal Kidavo? This is a lullaby in Malayalam and its completely positive….

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