Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why are so many nursery rhymes depressing?

Thanks to my daughter, and the magic of repetition, I can now sing more nursery rhymes from memory than I could at any previous instant in my life. At home, we have several illustrated books, both from India and the US, and it is fascinating to note differences in otherwise familiar rhymes. Wikipedia has a fairly exhaustive list of the different versions sung in different parts of the world.

As part of relearning, I have been paying more attention to the meaning or interpretation of these rhymes. One striking attribute of many rhymes is how dark the subject matter is.

Take Ring-a-ring-o'-Roses for example. A popular interpretation is that the rhyme refers to the plague, with the roses representing rashes which are a common symptom, the posies referring to a supposed medicine. The last two lines (in the Indian version) note the constant sneezing and eventual death.

Or take Rock-a-bye-baby instead. Why do kids need to visualize, the bough breaking and the cradle falling down from the tree top. What good can that possibly accomplish?

Or London bridge is falling down. Despite the cheerful melody that usually accompanies the rhyme, the subject speaks of an engineering accident in which many people probably died, for chrissake!

Even Hindi nursery rhymes aren't free of blame.

Remember "Machli jal ki raani hain"?

What are we teaching our children?


Priya Pai said...


Nikhil said...

what better way to teach them about the harsh realities of life than to sing about them?

Sachin Shanbhag said...

nikhil, i don't dispute your great idea, but perhaps (and this is just my opinion) may be we should teach them to sing about life's bounties first...