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Humpty Dumpty Too Traumatic? In This More Sensitive Version, He Survives
By Eric Bellman on November 4, 2017
Humpty Dumpty Too Traumatic? In This More Sensitive Version, He Survives
By Eric Bellman on November 4, 2017

Like many Indians, B.M. Krishnan grew up with both local and Western nursery rhymes. Even as a child, he figured the English ones just didn’t make much sense.

The tale of the downfall of Humpty Dumpty—universally and perplexingly portrayed as a giant egg with limbs—still upsets him.

“It is saying something cannot be fixed, cannot be repaired. That is not something you tell a child,” Mr. Krishnan complains. “Why should Humpty be like that? So pathetic. Let him go to the doctor and be OK.”

So Mr. Krishnan, an accountant, whipped up a different ending for the fragile freak of nature and in the process stumbled on a curious content concoction that has fueled the takeoff of an unlikely media empire.

The company he works for, ChuChu TV Studios, is now the source of some of the internet’s most viral videos. It is attracting billions of eyeballs with content few would have pegged as click bait—rewritten nursery rhymes.

Today, more than 200 programmers, animators and musicians sit shoulder to shoulder in the ChuChu office churning out videos that get more views on YouTube than the official channels of Beyoncé, Coldplay or “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” It has become one of the 25 most-watched YouTube channels in the world.

One of ChuChu’s first viral hits was Jack and Jill. In Mr. Krishnan’s version, the duo gets a sort of pep talk, recovers and then heads back up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

“Jack and Jill, with a strong will, went again up the hill,” starts the new verse.

“I thought ‘let’s take away the negativity.’ It should not de-motivate people,” said Mr. Krishnan, 47, creative head at ChuChu TV. “My songs should do better than that.”

In ChuChu’s rendition, Humpty Dumpty is healed and stops sitting on the wall. “Baa Baa Black Sheep” adds white and brown sheep to the flock and becomes a tale about sharing with the less fortunate. “Little Miss Muffet” is a song about female empowerment and “Ring Around the Rosie” is about appreciating nature.

Children are the most avid clickers on YouTube and when they like something they watch it repeatedly. YouTube estimates family and learning content registers more than one billion views a day.

ChuChu previously helped companies build and maintain websites. It started to dabble in YouTube content in 2013, when it turned to Mr. Krishnan. He was the accountant at the time, but had always dreamed of directing a movie. In the office he was known as a scholar and storyteller who had a great memory for ancient tales in Tamil.

By looking at YouTube traffic numbers, the company could see videos of nursery rhymes were getting millions of clicks. The problem was viewers had hundreds of options. ChuChu needed to find a way to stand out.

It started picking off the most-searched and watched titles, such as, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Wheels on the Bus” and “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Then it began getting input from viewers around the world.

Someone suggested “Little Miss Muffet,” which Mr. Krishnan updated last year. After being frightened off her tuffet, Ms. Muffet of 2016 is reminded of powerful women and gets a pep talk in a new chorus: “Oh Dear Muffet. You are not a puppet. Be brave and face your day.” She returns to befriend the spider and share her curds and whey.

“Times have changed. It should not be the case that girls are afraid,” said Mr. Krishnan. “They should be tough.”

Viewers also warned ChuChu about the supposed dark meanings behind some nursery rhymes.

With the help of books and the internet, Mr. Krishnan investigated rhymes that may have centuries-old, political and pagan origins. “Ring Around the Rosie,” goes one popular but unproven theory, is about the black plague. Humpty Dumpty, some say, could be about a cannon that fell off the ramparts around the town it was supposed to be protecting in the 17th century. While commonly portrayed as an egg, the verse doesn’t say so explicitly.

Theories about the origins of many rhymes are largely disputed. Some are too dark to even try to fix, Mr. Krishnan said.
ChuChu TV’s Little Miss Muffet Nursery Rhyme

Some think “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” might be about the murders and miscarriages of Queen Mary I of England, which is why Mr. Krishnan doesn’t want to do it. “I can’t come to terms with that rhyme.”

Mr. Krishnan has two sons and has tried to raise them using nursery rhymes and stories that contain lessons. He recites one in Tamil that teaches children how to recognize when monsoon rains are coming. He grew up in a tight community where elders shared stories all the time and fears the tradition may be lost as youngsters turn to television and other screens.

It isn’t an accident that ChuChu videos are often as over the top as Bollywood dance numbers. Many of its animators and musicians worked in the local film industry. Chief Executive Vinoth Chandar, who writes music for the songs, is following in the footsteps of his father, one of the Tamil-language film industry’s most prolific composers. He tries to pack videos with music and movement to keep children interested.

“They like many things happening on screen,” just like Indian film fans, he said. “If the music is really fast they will look at the screen. Otherwise they get bored.”

ChuChu has attracted more than 10 billion views, with the U.S. as the largest single source of traffic—an important distinction as ads played in the U.S. pay more.

So popular are the videos that a team of employees is now assigned to spend time sifting through thousands of flagged comments from potty-mouthed trolls as well as garbled messages from children pounding on keyboards.

The company still dabbles in updating nursery rhymes. Mr. Krishnan is working on a version of “Georgie Porgie” where Georgie makes up with the girls. He wants to add verses to “I’m a Little Teapot” to teach about other things, like how pizza is sliced. “I’m a Little Pizza,” is something he is considering.

His dream is that children who grew up on his take on the classics will sing them to their children. ChuChu fans are already posting videos of this happening.

“I would love to see our changed version of the rhymes used by others,” he said. “Of course, even our rhymes could be rewritten.”