Becoming Manjamma

Ekta M.

WHEN I asked Manjamma Jogathi about the story behind her very large bottu (red dot on forehead), she laughed and said, That is a very long story; it keeps me centred for sure.

We had invited Manjamma for our annual arts festival in Bangalore Chinmini Cross, (Glittering Cross) which is an imagined space where we stage performances that have been systematically rejected or erased by dominant cultures in public spaces. The intent is to take note of the beauty, horror, and pathos in everyday life. We wanted to highlight arts practices that were unfamiliar to the urban bourgeois middle class, where the structure of the performance is not considered worthy to be shown on artistic platforms. These kinds of performance tend to be either fetishized or neglected completely.

We wanted to ask the critical question Why isnt this recognized as contemporary artistic practice? These erasures have a lot to do with the nature and identity of the performer which caste, which performance tradition they practiced. Manjamma, who at that time was just going to be appointed as the President of the Karnataka Janapada (Folk Culture) Academy, had already been touring with many shows of the Yellammana Pada (The story of Yellamma). I wondered if she would trust our intention.

As a renowned Jogathi Nritya performer, she and her troupe are one of the very few still practicing this form. Our curation of their performance within the context of Chinmini Cross would address questions of preservation, patronage, and sustenance. That these performers continue to believe in their practice is unexpected, because it exists outside of the arts market and within informal networks of complex power relations.

When I went to meet her to introduce myself, I was nervous. Addressing me as her daughter, she asked if we had nine hours to spare and a captive audience: That is how long our story is. Nowadays, everyone wants this remix version, we dont do it like that. I told her that we need to prepare an audience for that especially in a city and that is why we need to start slowly. She need not complete the story or alter its pace, but could instead stop it abruptly, leaving the audience craving to know what happens next. She smiled ruefully and said, I like your faith in people. Lets do it, but you have to pay bus fare, food & lodging, performance fee for all performers. This is our only bread and butter. There were no more questions. Once we agreed on the date and time, we crowdfunded and organized all three performances to happen as we had imagined. On that evening, the rains mercilessly drenched our stage, but these dancers gracefully led us elsewhere.

Through my travels on film and research work, I learnt that many believers of Yellamma had a legacy of dance and performance. Their practice gains legitimacy through ritual sanction, tradition, and morality. Many of them are identified as devadasis, Jogappas and Jogathis across North Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh. With the abolishment of the Devadasi system, the performance traditions took new shape and form. The artistic practice slowly started to fade among the community, with very few continuing to sing songs, perform and play the chowdki. Simultaneously, some of these traditions were socially and politically appropriated by dominant caste groups. Yet the faith in Yellamma has not faltered. I have been curious to know how the few remaining performers subsume their hidden desires and struggles in the retellings of Yellammas story.

 

A sketch of Manjamma, in appreciation of her persona.

Back to Chinmini Cross: Manjamma and her troupe strummed their chowdkis, sang about the bravery of Parashurama and the courage of Yellamma to endure the pain Jamadagini put her through. In their performance, we witnessed the pain and pleasure of delivering a child, we grieved the loss of a mother, the raging anger of a husband a father, a wise sage. We saw a long journey of narrow escapes and the unacceptable consequences of a boon, which transforms into a living faith in Yellamma. She shines the light for many who are subjugated by societys blindness to discrimination and difference.

The performance is informed by the experience of this subjugation, where their bodies and voices carry the memory of hidden injustices. The dramatic rendition does not shy away from shedding it layer by layer, with each performance. The quest with Manjamma and her troupe was relentless. We could not immediately decipher the performance, given that it was a compressed version. We were far from the whole experience, and it would be a long time before we could prepare the audience that she demanded from us.

Recently, I called Manjamma and told her I want to meet her for writing this piece and asked her if I could meet her in person. She is now officially the President of the Karnataka Janapada Academy. Her phone is usually busy, but she always calls back. She is in a different district every other day, always on the move shows, releases, inaugurations, ceremonies, and talks responsibilities of her position. Vodaadta iritini Ekta, hinge time kalkolatte. (I keep wandering about, Ekta, this is how time passes) If you really want to spend time with me, come home. In the office, I wont be able to be myself. Take a train to Hospet, get off and call Nagaraj, my friend who always brings me home. Business is different from friendship Ekta, friendship is based on trust, business is based on suspicion. That clarified her attitude. She asked me to come to Mariammanahalli. Ask anyone for Manjamma Jogaths house and they will show you to my palace. She laughed and hung up.

As the train exited Bangalore, looking out the train window and feeling the breeze, I felt curious and excited. By dawn the train chugged into Hospet. I followed Manjammas advice and did exactly what she said. Nagaraj was there waiting for me with a warm smile, as if we had already met me before. We chatted about Manjamma and how proud everyone in the village is of her because of her government post. It is the first time so many cars have come to our village Madam. She is a celebrity. Manjamma has created a name for our village. I smiled as I remembered her strong and graceful personality in Chinmini Cross.

Manjamma at her home in Mariammanahalli.

During the auto ride, I imagined her as a politician, protected by several bodyguards, car doors being opened, her secretary booking appointments for her. Slowly the image of her home in Mariammanahalli took shape, a large courtyard, a huge living room strewn with Shantalay sculptures, multicoloured shiny drapes, a television, a wardrobe full of Ilkal sarees, an enormous bed and a huge window with a bountiful wind moderating the dry heat of the region.

Along the highway I saw large infrastructure projects in the making, the greys of the industrial concrete landscapes seen through the screen of the dense green uninhabited forests. We took the service road and I saw the board reading Mariammahalli. 20 kilometres passed by so quickly. Nagaraj drove me through a narrow alley of small houses and finally stopped at the last house.Ide Madam, Manjammana Mane. (This is Manjammas house.)

Manjamma came out to greet me and joked with Nagaraj not to charge me too much. The home smelt of vibuthi and fire from the vole (wood fire gas). There were three old women gathered at the courtyard sunbathing. Manjammas room was filled with her accolades, awards, and images with not an inch of space to spare. There was a bed and large window. It was probably the tone of her voice that made me feel I could ask her anything under the sun. The first question Ramavva, her friend and roommate, asked is if I wanted to bathe. Manjamma insisted that I do so. In no time, there was steaming hot water heated on firewood carried to the stone bathroom separated from the courtyard by a saree. Not having a door or a ceiling, I had the feeling of being in a public bath. One by one, everyone had a shower. As we dried our hair in the sun, she asked. Hellamma, yen kel beku ninage. (Tell me, what you want to listen to?)

She shows off her gold ring to tell me a story. See, I recently received this after a performance as a symbol of respect, pride and love. They even gave the troupe one lakh rupees. We keep getting invited to the Mattas and temples for performances. If the Mattas do not pay, who else will pay for our expenses? We have to accept whatever they give, and we cannot say no to our elders. We dont need any stage to dance, we are ready to perform wherever they ask us to perform. Folk performers have to be willing to perform anywhere, that is how we travel places.

I observed her hands shaking fervently. How has that changed your way of performing? I asked.

We carry steel pots on our heads now! she laughed. Traditionally, we are only supposed carry bronze pots but steel sits better on our heads. Sometimes they even offer us silver pots. We dance with neem leaves in the pots. In return they give us gold earrings, Reshmi sarees. They consider us sacred. Not everyone can perform this art form, it requires an immense level of dedication and sacrifice. Only when I got this platform to perform, I realized this is art.

She prepared what she would wear for her 1 pm meeting white and pink saree, starched petticoat, matching jacket (blouse), matching bangles for both hands, fresh jasmine.

Is your performance popular? Do people enjoy watching it still?

No one will be able to tell the Jogathi Pada. It will be heard less and less often and fade away eventually. We learnt this for our survival but also because we realized Yellammas grace. If this shraddha (discipline) and bhakti (dedication) is missing, one cannot practice this form. Besides, people today are more interested in income, no one will spend time to learn the art form. As long as we are around, it will travel with us, through our bodies and voices. Jatres (processions) are where we are most free, we are among the people, they dance and sing with us, whistle, and dance with us. And all kinds of people join, it takes place on the streets, a place where everyone can feel the same.

What made you take this journey Manjamma? it sounds so tough.

I had 21 siblings, many of whom died. My parents could barely remember our names. I felt neglected throughout my childhood and wanted to carve out a unique identity for myself. In seventh grade, I felt like a woman. I liked to do the things women did. I liked putting Rangoli, cooking food, sweeping the house. Everyone made fun of me and asked why I am behaving like a woman. That didnt stop me, I wanted to dress like a woman. I started wearing kajal, wearing small bottus with kum kum (red powder), putting on face powder, tying my lungi like a saree. I was always attracted to female characters and took part in many dramas at school.

My family had many speculations ranging from illness, to being possessed by Huligemma (our family Goddess) to a curse. I heard that my mother was once possessed by Huligemma, who saw a vision of a baby drinking milk, with five lingas and a seven headed snake. This indicates that Huligemma is present in our house, and she will possess one of us. This happened quite frequently and finally they dedicated me forcibly to the Goddess by draping me in a sari and making me wear bangles. They abandoned me. This is how I became a Jogathi. It is unusual for a member from a Shetty family, an upper caste person, to become a Jogathi, and even more unusual for an upper caste person to dedicate ones life to performance.

To acquire the status of a Jogathi there are strict rules to follow. One has to beg for five weeks and serve a minimum of five older Jogathis with rations and other necessities. After this process, you are given one basket, one saree and one blouse. You are expected to earn their livelihood by playing the chowdki and singing praises of Huligemma, begging for alms. A Jogathi cannot get married. A Jogathi cannot get a sex change operation. It is believed that the removal of the penis disables the body. Life was tough. Everyone in my family stopped talking to me, my father did not allow me to get out. They stopped involving me in any house related work. I felt alienated and trapped. I attempted suicide but failed. I always wondered how a mother can carry a child in her womb for nine months and spare no room in her house?

She spat with spite into her spittoon. She came back and smeared some sunna (limestone) on fresh green paan leaves and shoved it in her mouth and continued.

I found a temple, where an old woman allowed me to stay for minimal rent. She was conservative and would shout at me for coming late. Are you a prostitute? If you want to stay here, follow what I say. I felt humiliated and left. Radhamma, a generous soul, gave me her used belongings, vessels and old saris and I lived on the streets. I used to beg the whole day and barely make any money. On Amavase and Hunnime (no moon and full moon days), I would go in for more collections. I used to get two or three rupees a day. In a month I earned about sixty or seventy rupees. I managed to get a room for rent, which was fifty rupees.

One day I was returning with some ration and some money. It was dusk. A group of five or six boys saw me walking alone. They came toward me and demanded money. They snatched my basket and took all the money. They didnt stop there. Many years later I knew there was a word for what they did to me rape. I attempted suicide again and marched to the railway tracks. I failed again because I was in two minds about ending my life. I drank a whole litre of water and slept as if I were dead. After that I never felt like committing suicide.

All the women from different corners of the house assembled around her and held her hands, her feet, and shoulders. One by one, the tears came to all of us.

On my begging rounds, near the Davangere bus stop. I watched a young boy performing Yellammas nritya, he looked beautiful, I saw myself in him. A desire to learn dance was born in me. I met Mattikallu Basappa, the guru. He said, if you are interested you can learn. I addressed him as Appa, father. He was strict. I started performing on the road as I learnt. I could eat only once the guru had finished. Once they asked me to sit outside a hotel and didnt let me in. They served me food and water outside. I recalled untouchability that was prevalent in my village. I remember after one performance in Ranibennur, they gave our troupe two bags of red chillies, he didnt even give me a fistful of what we earned. We were like slaves, working for his wellbeing. I used to eat rice with dried chillies. In those days, I did three days of dance and three days of begging.

All the earnings from the performance were traded off for the art of learning dance. He hardly gave me any of what I earned. I was scared he would stop teaching me. One year passed like this. I had bought a few second-hand sarees from the old market for two or three rupees. I remember staying at the temple for a month for the Huligeamma Jatre. It was getting too difficult to survive so I moved to Chilkanatti. Distant relatives recognized me and asked me to come home. They gave me a new saree and asked me to perform in some home ceremonies. I met Gollaralli Somakka here who taught me to play the chowdki. I learnt many songs and dances.

I didnt feel comfortable in the way my family looked at me. I preferred staying at the bus stand, even though it was not the safest place for me. People threw stones and often teased me. Luckily, I was offered food and shelter by Sulekallu Virappanna and Sushilamma, a generous couple. I decided to earn money by selling idli chutney and taking tuitions for 5th and 6th grade children. This allowed me to pay for my room rent. But I could not keep the deity of Yellamma in their house as they were Lingayats from
the Veera Bhadra caste. This was considered sacrilege. I had to leave. It was tough.

Ekta, I am like a plant in the middle of the sea. No one will come to take care of such a plant, as they run such a huge risk to themselves.

I asked for a glass of water. Give her, mineral water. The water here is very harsh. Your beautiful skin will get spoilt. We also buy mineral water to drink. And for water, we wake up early, walk a fair distance to fetch water for a day. There is no water source here. My eyes ran across the line of colourful bindiges (pots) arranged inside the house. I gulped down the water as she watched me from the window.

So, when did you master this art form?

It is a rare occurrence when a guru looks out for her student, isnt it? That is how I met my second guru, Kaalavva Jogathi. She taught me the Yellammana Nataka. I was mesmerized by the art form. The vesha (disguise) allowed me to play so many different roles. The first role I ever played was that of Parashurama where I was dressed as young and fierce man. I was content with my performance. I played small parts and learnt by practice. I must have performed in a thousand shows. I experienced all the bhavas of all characters. Only then I started improvising on the script. Kaalavva and I became quite close, we had a love hate relationship. She would get angry with how fast I was picking up.

I remember that I improvized based on what people would like, gestures and tricks no one could do sleeping and simultaneously begging, moving on the back, rotating the pot on the head. People were taken aback when they saw us performing these gestures. In performance, you can show how to make the most impossible things possible. At that time, all kinds of people invited us to perform, because it was the only cultural practice that was relatable to that region and also linked to traditions. All caste groups worshipped Yellamma and she is the home goddess across Uttar Karnataka. We earned from all sources private functions, Government folk festivals, local community-based festivals, and religious institutions. She is knownas Huligemma on our side, but the performance is accepted as a religious, mythological, informative, philosophical, and entertaining tale of the people. The language was accessible, and I learnt how to work on the dramaturgy with practice.

Besides, there was no social media or access to television etc., so this created more demand for our practice. We could earn and eat. As the form gained popularity, people from other districts also started inviting us and as part of religious ceremony, ritual, they ensured our basic needs. I was working happily as an independent artist and performer, with dignity. When we could not make enough money through performance, we would go out and beg. Yet, I felt my journey was incomplete because my mother still had not seen me perform.

How did you deal with playing male characters?

I mostly played male characters, I loved it. But I played it as a woman. In my real life I could never be a man, but in my performance world I could. Kalaavva secretly invited my mother to a performance. After the show, one of the audience members asks who has given birth to such a fantastic performer? Who is Parashurams Tai? She was asked to come on to stage, and even though she continues to regret having lost her son, she was proud that day to be Parashurams mother. It was the most memorable moment in my life.

The responsibility of a guru is to ensure that all Jogamma follow the tradition as known to them and do not get humiliated within the community. Slowly, this responsibility was passing on to me. I had to protect the members of my troupe. It was difficult to get love and respect either as a woman or a man. We were constantly threatened by the police who demanded bribes and took away our earnings. Our families never understood our art, the public was only paying to keep the tradition alive, sometimes as an obligation, a formality. Society is not keen on preserving this art form, that is certainly not a priority. After almost three decades, I got some recognition. My difficult life is now taught as a syllabus in Akkamahadevi Womens University, Bijapur. See how things pay off. People will hopefully read my story and believe in the dedication of arts practice and performance. Lets take a break now Ekta, none of us have eaten.

Manjamma guided me to her kitchen, and I watched her cook for almost ten of us, perspiring in the heat of noon. She was meticulous and barely spoke as she cooked with full dedication. There was conviction with how she held the large vessel, as she upturned the avvalakki (beaten rice).

One of the other women commented, You are very lucky to eat from her own hands. She hardly cooks these days. She commands an unusual form of respect, as a guru, a mother, and a caretaker. The younger Jogathis at home look after her with great care, ensuring she never falls short of anything.

We are all blessed today to eat from your hands, I said as Manjamma tossed the garnish over the cooked avvalakki.

They led me to the altar, where they had meticulous arranged different gods and goddesses. Seated in the centre was the powerful head of Yellamma. Her eyes shone in the light of the oil lamp. The smell of sambrani (incense) and fresh jasmine flowers filled the room. A different kind of energy had formed there, that of love and conviction. First bow down to her, then everything else. They blessed me by smearing turmeric powder on my forehead. We all sat down to eat. It was endearing to see how they served each other. Soon after, she started getting ready to leave. She combed her hair into a bun, wore a green silk saree, two dozen of green glass bangles on both hands and the large bottu at the centre of her forehead. She asked one of her apprentices to start packing for her next trip to Koppal.

Where are you at now?

After this long journey, and because we have been committed to consistency in performance, the state recognized me and appointed me to be the President in the Folk Culture Department. It is complicated to be in this position because I am still a practitioner, but people have a lot of expectations of me. The irony is that I am still trying to build a house and a centre for me and my troupe here in Mariammanahalli. The dream is if any Jogathi or artist wishes to learn Yellammanna Nataka, they can come home, live with us and we would be happy to teach them the songs, the music, and the bhavas of this performance. We are probably one of the only surviving groups who are practicing this form in Karnataka.

You even won the Padmashree, surely your commitment has paid off?

Its my madness. So many people started writing about me, after I received the Karnataka Janapada Academy Award in 2006. I was driven to show my family, this society, and the world at large, that I can stand on my feet having made the choice to live as a woman and be a performer. The Padmashree is an honour, but it feels like one has to go through an extremely difficult and abusive journey to be recognized. Now, I am also respected as a transgender woman by the state. When I went to collect my Padmashree, I remember the applause I received when I blessed the President of India with my pallu. This is how we wish well for others. Until this point, I was a nobody wandering on the streets, trying to find myself. I am grateful for all these accolades, but it will not change my everyday life too much.

Recently, with the help of my friends from Urban Folk Project, we ran a crowdfunding campaign for the construction of my house; many people I have never even met contributed towards it, that means a lot to me. Today, I do not feel ashamed of aging in Mariammanhalli with my friends who have stood by me through thick and thin. I do not wish for us to return to families or a society that scowls at our inner selves. For anyone else, our doors are always open, welcome to our home in Mariammanahalli. Even though it is small, there will be space for all of us.

She walked me to her half-constructed house facing the highway with the deity of Huligemma guarding it. Next time you come, the house will be ready, you can stay here for as long as you want. A living room and a kitchen, a couple of rooms with a large windy balcony. Anyone who wants to learn our art, they can stay with us here and learn. We imagined this home for artists who wish to keep the tradition of this folk form alive. See all of us can cosily fit in here. I remember the nights when we didnt have shelter, those were the hardest times, we dont want anyone from our community to be in that position. It is our responsibility to protect one another.

She started getting ready to leave. Before we left, she took some kum kum from her guru Ramavvas photo and smeared it on my forehead. Come again, she said. Soon we were in a car on the highway. She dropped me off, calling Nagaraj and instructing him to take me to Hampi. Wander about Ekta, you have a long wait for the train to Bangalore.

Footnotes:

*I would like to thank my colleague Ravi Ranjan for supporting me with additional details from Naduve Suliva Hennu, a biography on Manjamma written by Arun Joladakudligi.