On an October evening in 2019, a senior member of the Karnataka Janapada Academy in Bengaluru called to tell her colleague, Manjamma Jogati, 63, that she would soon receive some news. In spite of Manjamma's insistence, though, she would not reveal much more.
A few befuddling hours later, Manjamma found out on the local news. She has long been a proponent of Jogati Nritya—the ritual dance performed by the Jogappas, a community of transgender people in north Karnataka, parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, to appease the goddess Yellamma. And now, Manjamma had become the first trans woman to be appointed chairperson of the Karnataka Janapada Academy—the department for promoting folk art—by the state government.
“I am not primarily an activist, I am first and foremost an artist,” Manjamma says. “But now, at 63, I don’t see myself as someone with great ambition as a dancer, all that’s left for me is helping younger artists and society in general."
Manjamma spent the rest of the night responding to congratulatory WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and phone calls. It was surreal. But in the few months before the covid-19 lockdown, she launched into her role as chairperson almost immediately. She interviewed artists who had no other means of livelihood so she could make proposals for them to avail a government stipend, planned a roster of performances, and toured with her troupe to Udupi, Chikmagalur and Hyderabad.
“My dream was to take Jogati Nritya from something only my community does, and that too usually while begging for alms, and make it a certifiable art form, meant for everyone,” says Manjamma.
This is slowly becoming a reality. Last year, Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna was in concert with a group of Jogappas, an event organised by the Solidarity Foundation, a trust supporting sex workers and gender and sexual minorities. A newspaper quoted him as saying: “The Jogappas and some of us Carnatic musicians have been working on this musical conversation for a few years now. It is a dialogue between different people, cultures and sexualities.” He added, “We share a stage together and make music, and do hope that through this we can enable multiple dialogues about equality, respect, marginalisation and celebration of multiple diversities.”
Manjamma seems well on her way to elevating and popularising Jogati Nritya, mainstreaming the art form through collaborations and the kind of recognition she has received over the years—be it the responsibility to preserve folk art in the state or awards such as the Janapada Loka Prashasti and the Karnataka Janapada Academy Prashasti. Her journey is even taught as part of school syllabi.
Dressed in green and pink saris, four Jogatis with bright eyes, deep red lipstick, vermilion on their foreheads and muthus (nuptial necklaces of red and white beads), take the stage. Manjamma dances in the front row, swinging her waist, swaying her hands—gracefully, and then with abandon—always in rhythm with the Jogatis singing their devotional tunes. They have percussion instruments unique to the Jogati form, such as the chowdike and shruti. And every dancer wears imposing headgear—an idol of Yellamma.
Initially known as Renuka, Yellamma is said to have been the wife of Jamadagni, one of the Saptarishis (seven sages). Every morning, she would walk to the river and make a pot out of wet clay, using it to carry water for her husband’s daily prayers. What held the pot together, it is believed, was the power of her chastity. One day, Renuka happened to see two Gandharvas playing in the water. As her chastity gave way to sexual arousal, the clay pot refused to take shape.
A livid Jamadagni ordered his sons to behead their mother for what he saw as sacrilege. All but the youngest, Parashuram, refused. Jamadagni cursed the other four sons—they would lose their masculinity for their “cowardice”. Parashuram, on the other hand, was granted a boon—and chose to bring his mother back to life.
A report titled Jogappa—Gender, Identity And The Politics Of Exclusion, published by the Bengaluru-based non-profit Aneka in 2015, notes, “It is unclear how Yellamma achieves apotheosis or how she became associated with the queering of identities, but Jogappas do trace the legacy of their gender identity through the cursed sons of Jamadagni.” It adds, “Yellamma is also the goddess of the Devadasis, who are women generally from the oppressed castes. They were historically known as singers and dancers of the temple, who often engaged in sex work.”
This mythology is central to the lives of the Jogappas (chastity is revered and castration disallowed) as well as Jogati Nritya. “From what I understand, one of the biggest highlights of her life as a performer was having been chosen by Kallaava Jogati, her teacher, as someone who could play the role of Parashuram early on,” says Shilpa Kothakota, creative director of the Urban Folk Project, an initiative to archive folk art forms in Karnataka. “It was a challenging role, but it was a big deal since usually the Jogati teachers play the role of Renuka and the apprentice plays Parshuram, as per tradition.”
Manjamma has come a long way since—but the journey was ridden with strife, deprivation and often, violence.
Born Manjunath Shetty in Kallukamba village near Bellary, to parents who lost 17 of their 21 children early, she was in class VIII when she began to feel at odds with her gender identity. “I would spend more time with my mother, do more of the things women do in communities. Whether it was taking care of my younger siblings, working in the kitchen, doing puja,” says Manjamma. “But this meant I would get bullied quite a lot, and my parents also saw it as a problem. They sent me to live with my brother in the native village.”
What followed was harrowing—believing she was possessed, Manjamma’s brother would tie her up and beat her as an exercise in exorcism. She was taken to a doctor and a priest, both of whom, alluding to the local superstition that misfortune would befall a family if Yellamma was unhappy with it, told her parents to allow Manjamma to embrace her identity.
Reluctantly, then, in 1975, Manjamma’s parents took her to Huligeyamma’s temple, near Hospet, to be initiated as a Jogappa. “The initiation ritual meant cutting my uddaara (a string tied around the hips of young boys). I was given a muthu (signifying that she was wedded to the deity), a skirt, blouse and bangles.”
While the Aneka study “found that Jogappas face less social opposition than other transgendered identities as the religious sanction for their gender expression renders their identity less controversial,” Manjamma’s reality in her initial days as a Jogati was somewhat different. She did what she could to make ends meet, from begging to selling idli, but continued to endure harassment. Manjamma was raped by six men and attempted suicide on several occasions.
It was finally art, she says, that gave her a new lease of life.
Manjamma's journey as a dancer began when she happened to see a boy performing Jogati Nritya at a bus stop, as his father sang beside him. “I felt they were treating it as a neutral art form and if a boy is able to do this, then I, who is supposed to belong to the community it originated from, should embrace it with a lot more pride,” she says. Eventually, she found her teacher, Kallaava, whose legacy she takes forward through her work and performances. At present, Manjamma’s troupe of 11 is one of the only all-Jogati groups in Karnataka.
A pandemic is not easy on anything, certainly not on dying art forms that need preservation. It has been a difficult first year for Manjamma as chairperson, but she is trying to find innovative ways to keep the work going. “After the lockdown, I kept receiving my monthly salary but I felt a little guilty because I wasn’t working for it and like the rest of the country, I was staying home. But then we started doing a lot of covid-19 relief work—we would raise funds and help people who were infected with covid or others who couldn’t work during the lockdown,” says Manjamma. As we speak, she is getting ready to meet officials to start work on her plans as chairperson.
To this end, Manjamma hopes to work towards the propagation of folk art forms by creating a curriculum that can be taught in colleges across the state. She also plans to conduct workshops on the history of, and stories behind, folk instruments, where these are made, the communities that make them, as well as how to play the instruments. "I also want to create a community of third-gender people who generally feel excluded. Everybody is an artist in some way or the other. They are like fruits that grow in the shadow of leaves, hidden but with great potential."
Among her lockdown initiatives is a plan to build a home for Jogatis. She has raised over ₹ 3.5 lakh of a targeted ₹5 lakh on Ketto for this. “As transgender folk artists, the only space we had as our ‘home’ after our performances was a small hut that belonged to my guru. The hut was hardly big enough to accommodate her and as a result, us students would sleep in a nearby temple. When people protested, we would move to sleep on train platforms. After my guru died, the responsibilities of the space she left behind and the troupe fell on me,” she writes on the Ketto page.
In 2005, Manjamma built a two-room house, which started to fall apart last year. As efforts to rebuild it began, ₹4 lakh was spent, but funds dried up and the pandemic brought the process to a halt. “My hope is to build this home for the Jogatis of today and tomorrow for them to have a space of their own. This home will be a testament to Jogati culture and it will help preserve our folk art.”
In an article in The Wire, journalist Makepeace Sitlhou writes: “While Jogappas live in a subaltern culture that allows for gender transgression, they are endangered by livelihood options that are becoming increasingly limited. Jogappas are barred from begging in shops or public places. If Jogappas get divinity, hijras get their turf. Jogappas can’t earn commercially from begging and have fewer opportunities.” The Aneka report notes: “The belief in the divine powers of Jogappas has begun to gradually erode. Without their connection to the goddess, Jogappas would no longer be able to earn through puja and joga.”
Manjamma is working tirelessly to ensure a remarkably different future for her community in particular and folk art in general.