Kathu Pattu: the love letter songs of Kerala

Large-scale migration to the Arabian Gulf created a musical genre among South India’s Muslim population

Portrait of Shahanas Ibrahim, 24, whose husband operates a business in the construction sector in Qatar. Living in Kurumathur, Kerala's India, Ibrahim meets her husband only once every year and half. "Every time he leaves me to return to Qatar, I cry," Ibrahim said. Photo by Sebastian Castelier
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The voice of Mohammed Aslam fills a soundproof studio. The singer is performing kathu pattu, a popular contemporary song style that narrates emotional distress, and which has been tied closely to the migration of Indians to the Gulf since the 1970s.

Aslam, 31, says he "relives the migration of his father to Saudi Arabia and his mother's trauma" when he sings. Rooted in Kerala's bittersweet connection to the Gulf, kathu pattu is part of a wider genre of poetry known as Mappila song. Ever since the 17th century, it has been a popular way of recording history, traditions and emotions among Muslim communities living in northern Kerala. Kathu pattu translates to "letter songs" and are inspired by the letters shared by migrant husbands and their wives.

Singer Mohammed Aslam, 31, records a Kathu Pattu song at a musical studio located in Mampuram, Kerala, India. Photo by Sebastian Castelier
Kathu pattu singer Mohammed Aslam. Photo by Sebastian Castelier

The genre of kathu pattu includes two varieties of poems: the musical interpretation of a letter written by the wife to her husband and the reply the husband's letter to his wife, known as marubadi kathu pattu. "It highlights the emotional suffering among the families of Indian migrants working in the Gulf," explains Mohamed Haseeb N, a research scholar at Mangalore University.

The wives left behind

Despite its social cost, migration has led to tremendous improvement in the living standards of Keralites over the past 50 years; remittances account for about a third of the state's income. Two million Keralites currently live and work across the GCC, includingone million in the UAE where they account for more than 40 per cent of the Indian community.

Irudaya Rajan, an author, researcher and regional expert in Kerala's Gulf migration patterns, says the amount of money sent home to Kerala by migrant workers totals about $12 billion (Dh44.1bn) each year. He calls it "the Keralan Muslim's bridge to heaven". The wives of those migrantsone million women left behind in Kerala and known locally as "Gulf wives" – struggle with loneliness, and Rajan estimates that up to 80 per cent of them have never visited their husband abroad. This is where kathu pattu comes in. "The songs emphasise the inner feelings of our communities more than they evoke the economic well­being of society," Haseeb says.

The history of kathu pattu songs

A psychologist by profession, the late singer S A Jameel is believed to have written the first kathu pattu song, gathering the material by listening to Gulf wives as they shared their struggles with him. Sung for the first time in 1977, Dubai Kathu Pattu quickly reached the top of the music charts in Kerala. The musician, who died in 2011 at the age of 75, received dozens of letters from wives of migrant workers, many of whom accused Jameel of stealing their privacy. 

 Haseeb says that about 200 kathu pattu songs have been recorded since the 1970s. However, the majority of them are similar as they address the same theme, and only a few have become popular, such as Dubai Kathu Pattu.

The songs were initially exchanged by migrant husbands, mostly from the Muslim communities living in northern Kerala, and their wives, who shared audio cassettes of the music. Since then, kathu pattu have been sung in concert halls, on TV and radio, and have even featured in Keralite ­blockbuster films, including 1983's ­Maniyara, which features Keralite superstar actor Mammootty.

'It depicts their loneliness as well'

One factor, in particular, can explain the popularity of the songs among migrant husbands and their spouses: kathu pattu songs offer a subtle and less personal way for husbands and wives to share their feelings for each other amid Kerala's conservative society. "It depicts their loneliness so well," Theertha Suresh, a singer who says most of her friends have husbands in the Gulf, told The National.

Singer Theertha Suresh performs a Kathu Pattu song for Indian villagers during a concert in Mukkam, Kerala, India. Photo by Sebastian Castelier
Artists such as Theertha Suresh are still asked to perform kathu pattu on stage. Photo by Sebastian Castelier

Many migrant men only learn about their wives' emotions through kathu pattu. In the early days, many Keralites who migrated to work in the Gulf couldn't afford to make a phone call home, with such a service far more expensive only a few decades ago. Even wealthy families could only make a phone call every now and then. Kathu pattu singer Aslam can still remember his first experience of a phone call, when he was able to talk to his father in Saudi Arabia for only three minutes in 1997. Due to the high cost, the next phone call was made a year later.

Kathu pattu in the digital era

Waheeda, whose husband returned to Kerala in 2013 after working in Abu Dhabi for two decades, was forced to wait several months at a time to speak to her husband on the phone and get news from his time working in the UAE. "When my husband migrated I was undergoing medical treatment that prevented me from driving to the only telephone handset available in the neighbourhood," she says. "I was upset to not get any update from him for months, but soon mobile phones reached Kerala and it was a boom."

After the digital revolution at the turn of the millennium, smartphones, video calls, social networks and messaging apps such as WhatsApp superseded the written letters that inspired kathu pattu, and the songs became less relevant as a result. But, while such songs are not released as prolifically as they once were, the musical genre remains a vibrant cultural tradition that lingers in the music of Kerala. For example, every time Suresh performs on stage, the audience begs her to sing a kathu pattu, while Aslam's father listens to one every week to recall his time in Saudi Arabia.

An Indian singer reads Kathu Pattu songs at the Mahakavi Moyinkutty Vaidyar Mappila Arts Academy, in Kondotty, Kerala's India. Photo by Sebastian Castelier
Kathu pattu songs are inspired by love letters shared by migrant husbands and their wives. Photo by Sebastian Castelier

Haseeb says the words and implied longing of kathu pattu have entered the collective memory of Kerala's Muslims. The lyrics and melodies commemorate the sacrifices made by immigrants: the people who worked hard to help develop their state, and to make it a more prosperous place for future generations to live.