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New Images for New Publics: Oral-Visual Narratives of the Telangana

Chandan Bose analyses an oral-visual tradition of South India to argue that the efficacy of such storytelling is located not just in linguistic practice but in a performative ‘doing’. That it is through acts of performance and participation that storytellers, audience and practice forge relationships with each other, invent new traditions, and confront the tensions of contemporary conditions of production and reception.

MLA citation format:
Bose, Chandan.

“New Images for New Publics: Oral-Visual Narratives of the Telangana.”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 26 August 2015. [date of access]

 

Based on ethnography between 2012 and 2014 in the Telangana region in Southern India, this paper looks at an oral-visual narrative tradition of the region called Patapradarshana Katha – the showing and the telling of images. Over its course, this paper shall address the ways in which contemporary conditions of production and reception of this practice can be constructed through its:

Material forms:What is shown? How is it told?

 

Agents: How do practitioners come to define their relationship with the contemporary?

 

Narrative function: Can these oral narratives embed new representations?

 

Own Self: Does the practice possess a kind of disembodiedagency through which it seeks to define the fluidity of its boundaries?

 

Largely based on narratives encountered in the field, this paper shall move between reflections of the performers and audiences about the practice, and my own commentaries on how these reflections come to alter the construction of this practice in everyday life.

Figure 1: State of Telangana. Source: Wikipedia

Introduction

Spread across the region of Telangana, are groups of travelling performers and story-tellers, collectively called Adugukunetollu in Telugu, which translates literally as ‘those who ask for what is already apportioned for them’. Some of these groups carry out their hereditary profession as story-tellers using the painted cloth scrolls, called patam, which means ‘image’. These scrolls depict painted images which are woven into a narrative by the story-tellers about the lineage of certain jatis (occupational communities) of the region, and how they came to be associated with their respective hereditary occupations. The community of traditional artists, called Nakasi paints the patams for all those communities of storytellers which narrate stories using painted images. Each storyteller community is in turn dependent upon their particular patron jati, to whom they narrate their jati purana (etiological myths), and are forbidden from asking remuneration from other jatis. The storytellers therefore are the patrons in relation to the painted scrolls, and they are the patronized in relation to the performance.

Figure 2: A patam. Cherial village, Telangana, 2012.
Photo by author.

For example, the Chhakali community (washer-men) is patron of the bard jati called Patamollu. Through their scroll they narrate the Madel Puranam, which is the story of Madel, whose progeny is the community of washer-men. Similarly for the Padmasaalis (weavers), the story-tellers are called Koonapuli-varu, who narrate the Markandeya Puranam, which is the story of Bhavana Rishi, the progenitor of the weaving community.

This paper dwells upon the actual narration of one such jati purana namely the Jambavantaru Puranam, which is narrated by the Dakkalollu (also called Dakkala or Dakkali) community of story-tellers for the Madiga community (leather workers and tanners). This particular narration took place in November 2012 in a village called Nashkal, in Ghanpur town, 25kms away from Warangal, the second largest city in Telangana, after Hyderabad. Registered as Schedule Castes in 1961, the Madiga are today numerically the largest within the state’s Schedule Caste population. Traditionally employed as leather workers and ritual drummers, 72 per cent of Madigas are today employed as agricultural labour (i). The Dakkalollu community on the other hand has been one of the dependent jatis on the Madigas who also narrate and perform their version of the purana. Historically the Dakkalollu community has been documented as professional performers and story-tellers of the Madiga community (ii). Edgar Thurston in his omnibus on Castes and Tribes of South India recorded, “Dakkala or Dakkali is the name of a class of mendicants who beg from Madigas only. The Dakkalas wander from place to place. They may not enter Madiga houses, outside which meals are given to them by males only, as females are not allowed to serve them” (Thurston 1909: 134)

No reference was made to Dakkalollus in the 1911 Census, and in the 1921 Census they were shown under the Depressed Classes, without a figure of the population. In many of the previous censuses, the Dakkalollu community was considered a part of the Madigas, and so they only existed as a category in the 1961 Census, which was also the year they too were classified as Scheduled Castes (iii). The 2001 Census reported the Dakkalollu population in Andhra Pradesh to be little above 2500, of which three-forth were documented as “Main Workers” (iv).

From legends recorded both by Thurston and by Siraj-UI-Hassan in Caste and Tribes of H.E.H the Nizam’s Dominions1920, Jagamuni, the younger son of Jambavantha, the ancestor of the Madigas, was restored back to life by Vishwabrahma after his father used parts of his body to make the marriage locket for Shiva and Parvati. However Jambavantha rejected the recreated Jagamuni as his son, and wished that he and his descendants be taken care by Madiags and serving them as story-tellers (Thurston, 1909). The Dakkallollus, in this regard, have been considered jati gurus, keepers of legal records and genealogies, as well as narrators. Historically, they have had hereditary rights to claim livelihood from the Madigas, and in case of denial, also had the right to mount an effigy and set it up (Sadanandam, 2008). The Dakkalollus are deemed as the ‘fallen kin’ of Madigas, which is usually how the relationship between story-telling communities and their dependent jatis are usually portrayed.

Interestingly, the Madigas too have a ‘fallen from grace’ mythology to explain the social location of their profession. The profession is generally the result of a penance for the ‘cosmic errors’ committed by the progenitor. Jambavantha’s elder son, Velamerru, partook of the meat of the divine cow, Kamdhenu, much against the wishes of his father, and was condemned to be eternally attached to the very thing he had consumed. The hereditary occupation of Madigas is said to be founded on the belief that by making shoes for people, the sin of their ancestor would be expiated (v).

Material Forms

Scroll: What is unique to the Jambavantaru Puranam scroll painted by the Nakasi community is that it is the only scroll of the jati puranas in the Telangana that is horizontal (narrated from right to left), but what made the scroll of this particular troupe of Dakkalollu artists particularly interesting was that the scroll was not cloth, but a digitally printed flex banner. “The cloth scroll usually gets destroyed in the rains. This one lasts us longer”, said Karnekanti Krishna Kant, one of the members of the Dakkalollu troupe.

Figure 3: Digitally printed flex scroll. Jambavantaru Purana performance.
Nashkal village, Telangana, 2013. Photo by author.

This, as I learnt, seems to be a practice that story-telling communities across the region are increasingly turning to. Photographs of a cloth scroll are taken, scanned, digitally pieced together, and then colour-printed on a flex machine. On closer examination, one could see the pixelated texture of the images, and the “scroll”, owing to its sheen, reflected way too much light, when the halogens were turned on during performance. The current location of the cloth scroll from which the flex one was produced, was unknown to the story-tellers, or so they claimed. All they knew was that the scroll was painted by a Nakasi artist in Vemulawada, in Karimnagar district, 133 kms from where we were.

It may be worthwhile to also note that the story-tellers might not find it very prudent to invest in commissioning a new scroll which may cost them anything between 30-35,000 INR or 500-580 USD. The longevity of a flex print in their minds is far more than a scroll made of cloth and painted with water colours. “To us it doesn’t make a difference. A patam is a patam. When this patam first came to the house we offered it three heaps of rice and sacrificed a goat. So what if it is not cloth. It is the source of our livelihood. The patam is after all home for all the gods in the story”, said Karne Gopal, one of the principal story-tellers.

Traditionally the patam was made of materials, namely coarse cotton cloth and water colours, that were intended to be perishable. Like most mobile shrines, an old and unusable patam was generally ritually immersed in a river. While this celebration of impermanence is substituted with the consumption of a durable flex scroll, the sacral power of the scroll is nevertheless not lost, as long as it is “home for all the gods in the story”. Thus it is by virtue of its surface being inscribed with the narrative of the gods’ lives, that the material ‘flex’ is infused with another kind of materiality i.e. capable of making the gods present. And as long as the gods are made present through the narrative contained in the scroll, it “is the source of (their) livelihood.” Thus one notices how changes in the material practices of this form – the physicality of the scroll and the technique of telling – stir narratives that shift between those of sustenance and of bending rules on the one hand, and those of ownership and continuity on the other.

The Performance: The space of the narration/performance was a mandapa (ritual performance space enclosed by pillars) a few meters away from the Ramaswamy Temple, for which the village is known What looked like a colourful canopy of a tent was made to serve as a facade on three sides. Facing the space where the audience would be seated, on top of the cloth facade, like a second layer, was the Jambavantaru Puranam patam. The enclosed space within served as the green-room for the story-tellers, where they would attend to their costumes and make-up.

Figure 4: Mandapa. Nashkal village, Telangana, 2013. Photo by author.

As mentioned earlier, the Dakkalollu community belongs to the group largely called adugukunetollu, which consist of those groups who earn a living by composing theatrical ‘performances’ (e.g. Bhagvatam by Chindu Madigas), and those who use ‘descriptive and pictorial maps’ to only narrate stories and genealogies. The Dakkalollu community belongs to the latter. Past records of performances have documented how the “main singer holds a pointer of one yard… He shows the figures on the Patam with this pointer and tells the story” (Sadanandam 2008: 91). While working with a group of story-tellers in 1998 who were narrators to the community of washer-men, Thangavelu observes, “The storytellers wore neither makeup nor costumes, but their simple white shirts and white dhotis contrasted vividly with the dull red presence of the painted scroll” (Thangavelu 1998: 123).

Figure 5: The Markendeya Purana being narrated by a simply dressed Kunapooli-varu narrator.
Image captured from a video, courtesy Center for Folk and Tribal Sudies,
Telugu University, Warangal campus. Warrangal, Telangana, 1994.

However, this particular Jambavantaru Puranam narration wasn’t so much of a narration as it was a dance-drama rife with colourful costumes, vigorous bodily gestures, painted faces, and a ‘jester’, who wore a cowboy’s hat, and sported a pink face and a lush moustache. “Since we have changed the style of narration we needed the ‘joker’ as a coordinator… to introduce and invite different roles on to the dais and also to entertain audience” – Manalu Gopal, a member of the Dakkalollu troupe.

Brahmin Narrator: Write this down! “We are illiterate and we do not know science” Write it down, you ass!
Jester (making a gesture of writing in air): Ok Sir… “We are illiterate and we do not know science. Write it down you ass.” There I have written it. (The audience laughs)
Brahmin Narrator: Yeah yeah, we can crack jokes later. Do you know today’s story?
Jester: Okay, what story are you going to tell?
Brahmin Narrator: The birth of Trimurthulu and the death of Adishakthi.
Jester: How were they born?
Brahmin Narrator: How the earth and the sky were born?
Jester: Who is Thrimurthulu? Is today’s story about the birth of Thrimurthulu?
Brahmin Narrator: A lame naïve, one who was born before the earth and the sky. He is an elderly man.
Jester: Call him forth.

Figure 6: Actors from the Dakallolu troupe during the performance at Nashkal.
Nashkal village, Telangana, 2013. Photo by author.

As is apparent, even though the figure of the jester is meant to ‘unstructure’ that which has been divinely scripted, he, like the Brahmin narrator, is as much the means through which the narrative arrives at its cognitive end; his comic iconoclasm directed to Brahmanic privilege corresponds to the symbolic milieu within which jati puranas were composed (Shulman, 2007). By announcing, “Call him forth” the jester not only takes on the onus of sculpting characters out of the scroll, that appear in flesh and bone, but also acts on behalf of the audience, who is not so much interested in the eulogies of the Brahmin narrator, but in the dramatic action that has been promised to them. Soon into the performance, the ‘stage’ was occupied by male actors in costume playing Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, along with Adi Shakti (female power), and the jester. The ornaments included shoulder decorations, crowns and necklaces of glittering tinsel and artificial beads. As opposed to two story-tellers, whose poetry, prose and songs don the voice of characters depicted on the scroll, this particular narration was a literal illustration of all that was ‘printed’ on the ‘scroll’.

Figure 7: Left to Right, Jester, Shiva and Adi Shakti.
Nashkal village, Telangana, 2013. Photo by author.

Unlike the ‘traditional’ format where simply dressed story-tellers would only intermittently elude the audience to the scroll during their narration, during this particular narration, the scroll merely served as a backdrop, to which no reference was made. It almost seemed like the characters and voices had ‘come out’ of the scroll and were engaging the audience not in a ‘real’ space and time, but rather as a ‘live telecast’. Then why have the scroll?

“We apply colour depending on the emotions and distinctiveness of the character as it is painted in the patam. If someone is playing role of Krishna, he should wear a crown and ornaments, carry a chakra (wheel) in his hand, if it is Shakti, she carries sulam (trident). We do our make-up and costumes according to the pictures in the patam.” – Karnekanti Yelamanda, member of the Dakkalollu troupe.

The emergence of these new stylistic elements points to the possibility of live actors as a concrete expression of the content of the scroll. Without the theatrical rendition, the meaning(s) of the images then do not reveal themselves. However the fact that the physical appearances of the actors have to be proximate to the forms set out by the scroll does suggest that both the new and the old vocabularies transgress their boundaries by being dependant on each other for their full expression (Malik, 2005).

Agents

According to Roma Chatterji, when a practice is considered “not as a single homogenous entity but as a composition of heterogeneous pieces, we see that these novel elements do fit into its overall structure” (Chatterji 2009: 45). However what this paper would like to focus on is not only the way in which the practitioners validate the need to fit in these “novel elements”, but also how this comes to define their relationship with the resultant “overall structure”.

Within the Telangana region there are five sub-sects of bards who have been historically dependent on the Madiga community for their sustenance. These are Chindu, Asadi, Matangi, Nukachanddyy and Dakkalollu. Each community of bards narrates the jati purana from their own perspective, and each adapt a style of narration different from the other. Of these Chindu Madigas have a unique dramatic presentation called Bhagvatam, which comprises of song and dance. The costumes, make-up and dramatic style of this particular narration by the Dakkalollus, as claimed by audience present, greatly resembled the Chindu Bhagvatam. “The Chindu Bhagvatam is a theatrical form that is more attractive for the audience. That is why these people too have started borrowing from that style. It was not there earlier” – From the audience.

Figure 8: A Chindu Bhagvatam troupe.
Source “Chindu Bhagvatam comes of age”

What seems then to be appropriate among the Dakkalollu communities who borrow styles and media from other traditions of narrative practices is to preserve some sort of visible marker which might signify that they are indeed proponents of their own hereditary profession. As far as the narrative-content of the ‘performance’ was concerned, it was true to the variation which has been historically chronicled by the Dakkalollus.

When asked about the proximity of the current form of the art-form to the Chindu Bhagvatam style, the Dakkalollu troupe insisted, “Our story and the way of telling the story are completely different. The Chindus have their own version of the Jambavantaru Puranam, which is not ours. We’ve changed our style to draw more audiences.” – Kanakanchi Narayana, member of the Dakkalollu troupe. The community of practitioners, like any other, is cognizant of the inadequacies that the market economy imbues into their art-form. The engineering of sound with the ‘actual’ and ‘real’ image supersedes the complex reading of a painted scroll.

“Now cinemas are born. TVs have come. If we don’t try and make these stories entertaining nobody would watch it. We have changed it to grab the attention of the audience. This happened around 2000-2001. If we continued doing it the old way, nobody would listen. Despite several changes, like introducing the harmonium, costumes and make-up, there are still that many people who are interested in our stories.” – Karnekanti Krishna Kant, one of the members of the Dakkalollu troupe.

While the practice allows itself to morph its form, this process stems from a human ability to ‘reject’ but also a simultaneously ‘reclaim’ the history of one’s positionality to a thing, person, practice or place. If one juxtaposes “our story and the way of telling…” and “changed our style”, it alludes us to the simple truth that an artistic performance cannot be comprehended in isolation, without the lives of performers. The abjection of the latter causes a compression on the contours of the former, but in effect this force generates the conditions for a kind of creation.

However, while this double-headed staff of rejection and reclamation allows the practice to be ‘re-created’, what deserves attention is the end to which this ‘re-creation’ is directed. Veena Das highlights that in pre-British India, jati puranas were submitted to the king (along with other evidence) in order to be considered for a particular rank in the caste hierarchy, where “the usual method was to invite the caste group to submit ‘evidence’ with reference to its manners, customs, occupation, myth of origin, etc., on the basis of which it was claiming a particular caste rank” (Das 1968: 67).

Historically aimed at the community, the need for the performers to choose a discourse of ‘entertainment’ demonstrates that the practice is now staged for an ‘audience’. But how neat is this audience-community distinction? After all, what purpose do these stories serve today?

Narrative Function

According to the 2011 Census, forty percentage of total households in Nashkal village belonged to the Schedule Caste, of which seventy percent were Madigas, followed by Malas (the other leather-working jati), Gouda jati (toddy-tapping communities) and Chakali (washer-men). The Madigas in the village usually depended upon construction work around Ghanpur for their livelihood. It was only recently that Devadula Project was completed in Ghanpur which is meant to convert the Ghanpur Lake into a reservoir, for irrigational purposes. Most Madigas from the village were employed as daily labour to transport sand brought in from the city, to dump it on the site. But more permanent jobs include driving autos and felling trees.

Moreover the history of the Madiga community is also punctuated by a double movement – one, of conversions to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism during the early parts of the twentieth century to negotiate with the stigmas of the institutionalized ‘caste system’ of British India; and, two, of reasserting ties with the community, but this time as a politically conscious collective, Dalit, to address a history of social exclusion through legislative and democratic mechanisms in post-independent India.

If jati puranas are imagined as ‘social texts’ which situate individual communities in relation to each other through ritual and occupational roles, how do the communities, as listeners of the puranas, reconcile their ‘newer histories’?

James Pochaiah, a Madiga convert, present in the audience during the performance highlighted, “Because of Dr. Ambedkar (vi), we are proud of our origin. We have no expectations about anything new from the government to help us, but we respect our caste. These are stories that I have been listening since I was a child. We believe in them. They are true facts. These stories tell us that we should pray, serve more, expect less, believe in god and believe in ourselves. When we feel satisfied, we feel happy. When we are happy, we could serve or help the needy.”

Venkataiah, a practicing Hindu Madiga, who earned a livelihood by running a small tea-stall in the village adds, “For us Harijans (vii), jati is very important. However some of our children, who are educated, do not. These puranas are not only entertaining; they also tell us what problems we might expect to face in our daily lives. It tells us how one should live without harming others; how to help and save people in need. The essence and theme of the Purana is how one should lead their life in this world. Everything we do, everything we know comes from these puranas. Previously these story-tellers would only use a stick to tell us the stories. It used to be very boring then. Now they have added music and costume. This makes things very clear.”

What is it about the narration of jati purana that enables it to bring forth a discourse around caste within the nation-state, as evoked through the figure of Ambedkar and the collective identity of being Harijan? How did the puranic narrative as a treatise on a particular profession and pride associated with that profession delink itself from the narrative as a generalized text on dharma? Post-colonial historiography suggests a radical openness of the text, where the historical narrative is not only constituted in the act of production – of writing and speaking, but also in the act of reception – reading and listening (Rao, Shulman and Subramanyam, 2003). It is through this reception then that the reader moves between plural sources of moral authority, and he does this by locating himself within the flows of a similar kind of simultaneous rejection and reclamation as pointed above.

In this particular instance, when the Jambavanturu story was narrated, one notices how the some aspects of the genealogy of narrative come to be ‘rejected’ – with the focus on honour in one’s jati occupation being shifted to pride in a collective Dalit identity. But at the same time, the narrative is ‘reclaimed’ through a more universalistic paradigm as it focuses on human life and emotions – of mercy, servitude and duty (Chatterji, 2009). And it is within this universalistic paradigm that the figures of Jambavanturu and Ambedkar, as progenitor and as leader respectively, merge together; that non-traditional occupations are validated as long as they conform to the values set forth by their jati purana.

Its Own Self

Alexander Piatigorsky reminds us that myths are objective phenomena that cannot be self-consciously produced. They can only be re-produced or re-enacted (Piatigorsky, 1993). But the purpose of each re-enactment is however not to represent, but to reveal. At one level, the re-enacted myth refers to those events that offer other points of anchorage for the narrative – a history of social exclusion of Madigas. And at another, the myth pushes forth those meanings which foreground an utterance from a vortex of alternatives by virtue of its congruity within the contemporary discourse – the Madiga identity as a cornerstone of the Dalit movement in South India. Returning to Veena Das’ assertion about the historical contexts within which these Puranas were composed, this practice alludes to a continuum between a “primordial sentiment and a contemporary orientation” (Chatterji 2009: 46), such that it continues to imagine ways in which the history of the community can be written.

Thus, given the new aesthetic forms and new social texts which these oral narratives have been able to inscribe, this paper suggests that there is a possibility that the practice may exercise a similar kind of ‘will’ upon its relationship with the story-tellers and the audience-community. For within a more emic account, the practice does after all ‘reject’ a complete displacement of its rules and formulae as a performative genre both in terms of its delivery and reception; simultaneously, stemming from the way in which an overtly “entertaining” format for narrating the puranas comes to register other chapters of history, the practice reclaims the relationship between the story-tellers and their listeners as one drawing from both memory and re-cognition (Shulman, 2001).

Conclusion

The efficacy of oral-ritual genres then not only lies in the linguistic practices, but also in the conditions that produce and receive these practices. These are also the conditions which generate the invented portions of the patam tradition, but enter into the history of the performance ‘only’ at the moment of performance. Because it is during the act of performance and the act of participation that the story-tellers, audience-community and the practice are confronted with the need to verify and authenticate the way in which they forge relationships with one another. This paper claims that this relationship is not a state which is brought about by the field of activity shared between these three centri-focal units. Rather the relationship is the field being constructed from the trails that get formed as each of these – story-tellers, audience-community and the practice – give to and take from; open up and delimit; reject and reclaim the pool of meanings built from the history of their positionalities to one another.

Endnotes

  • i. Census Abstract for Individual for Individual Schedule Caste in Andhra Pradesh, 2011.
  • ii. Census of India, Vol. II. 1961. Andhra Pradesh. Ethnographic Notes on Mehtar, Mahar, Mang, Garodi, Dhor and Dakkal.
  • iii. Census of India, Vol. II. 1961. Andhra Pradesh. Ethnographic Notes on Mehtar, Mahar, Mang, Garodi, Dhor and Dakkal.
  • iv. Census Abstract for Individual for Individual Schedule Caste in Andhra Pradesh, 2011.
  • v. Census of India, Vol. II. 1961. Andhra Pradesh. Ethnographic Notes on Mehtar, Mahar, Mang, Garodi, Dhor and Dakkal.
  • vi. B. R. Ambedkar was an Indian jurist, politician and social reformer who inspired the Dalit movement and campaigned against social discrimination in India, striving for equal social rights.
  • vii. Harijan is a term popularized by Mohandas Gandhi for referring to Dalits, traditionally considered to be untouchable.

References

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