When the anti-purist makes sense
'Bommai' in puppet shows, 'dodatta' in classrooms, and other new experiments that interpret indigenous art forms in a contemporary context
From the bommai traditions of Tamil Nadu and the ancient text of Anoirol of the Manipuri Meiteis, to the legacy of the Mir musicians of Rajasthan and the performing art tradition of dodatta in Karnataka, theatre practitioners, photographers, soundscape artists and art teachers across the country are reinterpreting indigenous art forms, making them accessible and contemporary. Here are some experiments:
The language of dolls
If you were to get a peek into theatre director S. Murugaboopathy’s childhood memories, you would find a vibrant world full of circus acts, candy sellers and traditional dolls. Each of these memories acted as a trigger for his work with bommais, as dolls are called in Tamil Nadu. While growing up in the small village of Kovilpatti, he would ask his friends to freeze into different bommai positions and create plays using borrowed dolls. He continued using the rich doll traditions of the state when he started his theatre group, Manalmagudi. “I want to create a new vocabulary in theatre, one that goes beyond the linguistic boundaries of Tamil, English or Hindi," he says.
How can one go beyond the limitations of the human body? It is to answer this question that he has been researching Tamil Nadu’s doll traditions, trying to understand the sociocultural and performative elements that exist within them. His research has taken him to districts in the southern part of the state, such as Ramanathapuram, Madurai, Virudhunagar, Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi.
“The relevance of bommais starts with the temple space, with rich sculpture-like traditions specific to the local gods and goddesses of the region," says Murugaboopathy. Bommais, fashioned out of clay to signify the sacred earth, were originally offered as tribute to a local deity. Over generations, the miniature form became part of the sociocultural milieu and gained acceptance as a means to ward off the evil eye and as animal replicas commonly used during festivals. The size of each doll and the material it is made of depends on the usage or the ritual it is associated with. Some dolls are crafted in the image of the devotee, reflecting his clothes, features, way of living.
In the coastal town of Kulasekarapattinam, large dolls of the goddess Kali are taken out in the Dussehra procession. “Then there are other kinds of ritual offerings during temple festivals. Suppose someone hasn’t been able to conceive a child. She will offer a doll of a child to God as a ritual offering," he says.
Then there are the dolls, made of waste cloth, of the migrant Narikuravar community. “When someone has died within the community, people take his or her abandoned cloth and make a doll out of it. They also keep the dolls of that person, as they are known to have a healing touch," he says. Besides these ritual doll practices, Murugaboopathy is also trying to find out about bommais in the performative space, such as shadow and string puppetry. He is planning a performative script, based on his research on doll traditions, and will be conducting regular workshops on the movement and performance techniques of bommais.
The private lives of ‘Jatra’ artistes
For photographer Soumya Sankar Bose, the jatra has always held deep emotional connotations. “My uncle and granduncle were jatra artistes. I grew up in Midnapore (West Bengal) at a time when this performing art was ebbing away," he says. Bose has vivid memories of his uncle regaling him with tales of the olden days when he would enact popular characters from the Ramayan and Mahabharat. “There was a time when everyone in the city knew him well. That popularity faded with time. That’s when I decided to work on a project that would allow people to know the actors behind the characters," he says.
For four years now, Bose has been documenting the lives of jatra artistes for a project, tentatively titled Let’s Sing An Old Song. The idea was to photograph these artistes in everyday situations, but dressed as their favourite jatra characters, which allows for a unique juxtaposition of the imagined with the real. I ask Bose how difficult it was to get these artistes to open up about their lives. “I employed the string connection approach. I would meet someone who knew my uncle, then through him I would meet another artiste, and so on. I stayed in their homes, talked to them at length, not just about jatra but also their views on society," he says.
So, 64-year-old Sandip Chatterjee spoke to him about the circumstances in which his father joined the jatra, a tradition he continued. “My dad was around 15 when my grandfather faced a terrible financial crunch…. My father had taken to theatre when he was very young. But according to society, acting in theatre was frowned upon. When my grandfather lost everything, my father joined the Noboranjan Opera and then the Satyambala Opera. The showstopper there was Gurupad Ghosh. He was a famed artiste. While staging Paashaner Meye, he had his fans surround him from morning to evening. He would get inebriated under a banyan tree, put on his costume and go on stage. He was always drunk, but no one could find a flaw in his acting," says Chatterjee.
Bose’s conversations with the artistes reveal India’s transformation from a colonized country to an independent nation and the economic struggles of its families. Ashim Kumar, who is now in his 80s, talks about the time he used to roam the streets as a hooligan. An arts connoisseur, Prabhat Pal, asked him to join the Swastika Sabha, where rehearsals were held regularly. Initially hesitant, Kumar trained with Pal for 11 months and began his acting career in 1956. “In the 1950s, jatra was so popular that people would leave theatre for it. The advent of television and antiquated storylines brought about its decline. But, unlike other performing arts, there were a lot of women jatra artistes, such as Bela Sarcar, Sima Bose and Mamoni Mukherjee," says Bose, who is also sifting through the albums and archives of deceased artistes to create a comprehensive portrayal of the art form. He hopes to host an exhibition in Kolkata’s Chitpur, which once boasted of 200-300 jatra companies, with the artistes sharing their stories and experiences.
A musical caravan
For centuries, the Mir musicians of Rajasthan have rendered the soulful Sufi kalam of Baba Sheikh Farid, Bulleh Shah and Hazrat Shah Hussain, while also singing songs of devotion by Meera Bai, Kabir and Achalram. In the past two decades or so, the shrinking of the local system of patronage and the harsh economic conditions have threatened to obliterate the Mir musical legacy. “The patrons have all got scattered in their quest for better economic opportunities. There was a time when every member of the household knew the Mir style of music. They didn’t require any training, it was in the blood. But today, the youth is not interested in this legacy any more," says 43-year-old Abdul Jabbar, a Mir musician from Bikaner’s Pugal region. It was to get youth reacquainted with their traditions that the Bengaluru-based India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) started the Baba Farid Mir Project in 2010. The foundation supported three ustads to train younger people in the repertoire, and the project culminated in the Baba Farid Rang Mir Sammelan.
Since 2015, the project has acquired a new dimension with a sort of musical yatra across Rajasthan. “Due to the distance between the Mir villages and transportation issues, musical exchange within the community has not been possible. So the idea of a yatra was conceived, as part of which a core group of 10 people—senior and young musicians, along with two patrons—would go from one village to another, like a caravan, to have conversations on the musical legacy," says Sumana Chandrashekar of IFA.
The project has also allowed the Mir musicians to reclaim traditional performance spaces such as dargahs, which had been denied to them in the last decade. “The rise of religious fundamentalism impacted us. We weren’t allowed to sing in dargahs any more," says Jabbar. These spaces are now opening up again. The musical exchange has also allowed them to map a calendar of musical events in each village. “We wanted to involve the women in this male-dominated art form as well. So we got them to sew the calendar of events on a ralli (traditional) quilt," says Chandrashekar.
Mir music is distinct from other forms prevalent in Rajasthan for its unique rendition of the alghoza and the been. “Also, their language, Siraiki, is very different. Through this yatra, I have not only got to know all this, but also the chemistry within the community," says Rajkumar Rajak, a Tonk-based theatre practitioner, who has been coordinating the project.
Taking ‘dodatta’ to the classroom
“Do you know about dodatta?" asks Ashok Totnalli, a drama teacher based in Jakanapalli, Gulbarga, Karnataka. When I say I haven’t, he explains: “It’s a local performance art form, much like yakshagana, and is traditionally performed for over 6-7 hours." Sadly, dodatta is fast disappearing. “In the past 14 years, one hasn’t seen much of dodatta performances. The youth is not interested, it is culturally damaged," he says. He is trying to change that, bringing old singers and instrumentalists together with schoolchildren to revive the art form.
“We have taken short stories from the Ramayan and Mahabharat and created half-an-hour-long performances," he says. He has tweaked the costumes—earlier made of wood—to suit the needs of students. “We have made the costumes lighter. The make-up for dodatta is also very unique. So I have got resource people to demonstrate the style. The students now feel a sense of kinship and ownership with the art form as they are participating in every aspect of the process," he says.
However, he is not keen on donning the mantle of a mere revivalist. Rather, he wants to use the art form to intellectually stimulate students, opening their minds to contemporary issues. “There is an episode in the Mahabharat when Kamsa orders his minister to kill Devaki’s children. His minister cringes and says this is against the law. In Karnataka, an IAS officer, D.K. Ravi, is believed to have committed suicide in 2015. He was known to be a very strict officer. So, we have likened the minister to D.K. Ravi and politicians to the ruler. Kids should not only know the ancient stories but also what’s happening in modern society," he says.
At the high school in Gudadoor in Karnataka’s Koppal district, drama practitioner and teacher Gururaj L. is linking songs about domestic work with classroom learning. “Be it weddings or birth celebrations, everyone holds small musical soirées at home. These are not performances but gatherings where people break into a song, modifying the lyrics using the newborn baby’s name or the bride’s name, or singing about the situation at hand. There is a lot of information in these impromptu songs," he says.
As part of his project, Gururaj has been visiting the homes of students with a small video camera and filming them talk about the family, about the child’s education, his or her strengths, and the songs specific to their households. Students are then encouraged to use a similar approach to a lesson or a poem in the curriculum, in the classroom environment.
Anoirol: the art of movement
“Anoi means movement and rol means language. Together, they mean the art of movement. This is an ancient text of the Meiteis, the majority ethnic group of Manipur, which has been increasingly invisibilized in the otherwise vibrant mainstream discourse of the performing arts," says Usham Rojio, a theatre practitioner and research scholar at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is trying to view Manipuri dance practices through the prism of indigenous texts such as this, rather than the Natyashastra, a text that is not local to the region.
Anoirol was practised as an oral tradition, sung by balladeers called penakhongba and performed by priests and priestesses, known as amaiba and amaibi respectively, during the Lai Haraoba (Rejoicing with the Gods) festival. “It entered the written form somewhere around the 17th century. There is a substantial body of literature in which Anoirol is found, such as Pongthourol Thouni, Panthoibi Khonggul, Pudin, Leithak Leikharol, Mahou Yangbi, Ukak Latha, and more," says Rojio. “It not only contains a vast bank of knowledge on the creation of the universe and life cycles, but also presents the world view of the Meitei people and theories on the origin of body movements." For instance, the Meitei believe that the universe is like a foetus in the womb of the goddess—Panthoibi, worshipped as the mother of the universe. The movement of the Meitei suggests life in the womb.
Rojio believes the study of Anoirol is important to move away from the “Sanskritized" study of Manipuri dance. “I have a problem with this generic name of “Manipuri" dance. The state has 35 tribes, each with their own unique movements. Only the raas-leela style of dance has been classified as classical dance. Why is that? Texts such as Natyashastra came to Manipur much later. Sadly, indigenous texts such as Anoirol have been subdued," says Rojio. He is trying to retrieve the songs sung by the penakhongba through interviews and recordings. Using historiography, he will then attempt to generate an alternative history of the performing arts of the Meiteis, compiling it into a monograph.
The soundscape of work songs
It was during the research training programme at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata that Shubhasree Bhattacharyya decided to focus on arts from the margins.
“To me, work songs were forms that had not yet turned into folk artefacts. The earlier studies of these were folkloristic in approach. I wanted to do an art and sound study of the same," says Bhattacharyya, who is a soundscape researcher and artist. She made a documentary film on the songs of pedal-husking (using an instrument to dehusk rice called dheki) in Rasulpur, West Bengal, which used to be sung by women in what is now Bangladesh during weddings. She also looked at boat-rowing songs.
“Over time, I have become interested in the construction sector in particular and have a collection of songs on piling and roof mending. I don’t use the word song in a conventional sense. Spoken words, utterances and ambient noises during manual labour form a part of this," says Bhattacharyya. “My interest shifted to practices in the contemporary urban space. That is what I engaged with in the course of my PhD. Thereafter, I came up with a project which also looked at a creative take on the politics of documentation and archiving at The Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology, Gurugram," she says—she already plans “listening sessions" for people.
She is trying to find answers to questions such as: What does it mean to be listening to a sound from 1930s in 2017? How do we react to those sounds now? Instead of an academic approach, she is looking at a creative application which will reach the listener.
A foundation in documentation
The archiving of neglected and niche art forms gets a boost through IFA grants and sustained research
The link that ties all these experiments together is the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), a not-for-profit that supports the practice of, and research and education in, the arts. “There are different kinds of grants. For instance, Usham Rojio’s grant comes out of the art research project, which looks at making critical enquiries. The idea is to not just look at older traditions but at newer practices within them as well," says Arundhati Ghosh, executive director, IFA.
Soumya Sankar Bose’s grant, on the other hand, came out of the art practice programme, which looks at different styles of art—film, theatre, photography, sound, painting, sculpture, and more. “What is impressive is the criticality of questions that these grantees are asking. These are social, political and historical questions that have not been asked before. Also, we focus more on areas which have been underrepresented in a larger context," she says.
Do these projects extend beyond the duration of the grant? “Seven-eight years ago, we gave a grant to photographer Sandesh Bhandare to document the lives of Tamasha performers. He came up with a brilliant book, titled Tamasha: Ek Rangadi Gamat. Now, he wants to go back and see how their lives and performances have changed. So the projects change form and shape, but continue to sustain themselves," says Ghosh.
Similarly, Moushumi Bhowmik got a grant to create a sound archive of biraha songs from Assam and Bengal. It’s now housed within The Archive and Research Center for Ethnomusicology in Gurugram, near Delhi, and the ‘World and Traditional Music’ section of the British Library, London, and is accessible to researchers and music lovers from all over the world.