Excerpts from an interview with Addanda Cariappa, Madikeri, Kodagu.
Profile: He is a playwright, actor, director, writer and journalist, having earlier worked with Shakti Kannada daily, Kodava weekly and as editor of Veeranadu Kannada daily. He has directed about 200 Kodava and Kannada stage-plays, with over 5,000 shows in all. He has also served as director of Srishti Kodagu Ranga, a full-time theatre group(repertoire) and as a Kodava news reader at Akashvani, Madikeri. The awards and honours he has received include the best student stage-play director while in college in 1982, Dr B V Karanth-Girish Karnad Fellowship i 1988, Kodava Vidyanidhi award in 1992, Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana Puraskara in1996, Karnataka State Nataka Academy award in 1996, Karnataka State Kodava Sahitya Academy award in 1999, Kodagu Ganarajyotsava Award in 2005, Karnataka Rajyotsava award in 2006, and Karnataka Kodava Sahitya and Nataka Academy membership in 1987. He was appointed president of the Karnataka Kodava Sahitya Academy in 2012. Other posts he has held are as president of Kodava Samaja and founder-president of Appacha Kavi Vidyalaya, both at Ponnampet, taluk panchayat member and president of Kodagu District Journalists Association.
Q. You have been associated with Kodava theatre for a very long time and have witnessed the changing trends in theatre throughout the country. Theatres generally owe their origin in the ‘folk performances’. How far is this evident in Kodava theatre?
A. The origins of Kodava theatre lies in its folk forms. Particularly in festivals like Bodnamme, the theatricality comes alive. Bodnamme festival happens after the harvesting season. They go from house to house, dressed in various costumes, singing songs. The songs are completely satirical in nature, they act, there is background music using makeshift drums, there is chorus by people around, burning torches provide lighting after sunset. Thus a complete theatre space is produced. They critique the ways of the world, and pass comments on the oppressive nature of their masters, with the temporary license obtained in the name of God. These songs are composed spontaneously, on the spot.
Q. Can you give me some examples of these songs?
A. Neenu koode baaro, Oddanda Thimma
You also come! Oddanda Thimma!- rendered by the lead singer and Thalilellela sung by the chorus.
This is the cue for the entry of a character called Oddanda Thimma. He enters, speaks to the audience about a topic, for example, the fertility of the soil this year. After that, he stands in a corner. Then
Neenu koode baaro, Maayatha Devi
You also come! O Goddess!
A female character enters and speaks derisively about the qualities of all the respected men in the village in a satirical manner.
Thus theatre is created.
Q. Kodagu has a rich heritage of folklore and ritualistic festivals. What other folk forms in Kodagu are examples of complete theatre?
In South Kodagu there is a place called Bekkesudlur. The people there worship a deity called Mandattavva/ Parvati. It is a very rudimentary place of worship with no real temple. The villagers light a huge pyre, and for seven nights, they perform several programmes. They even mock the Gods through comical imitation. They imitate all the major events that have occurred during that year, in a funny and entertaining way. People sit around the huge fire pit that provides lighting for the performances, they sing and dance, and speak dialogues, and beat drums for music. The only one rule that applies is that once a devotee (any person visiting the place is considered a devotee) enters the space of worship they are not allowed to exit until the festival is over. Thus there are thousands of people as ‘audience’ for the theatre. Galleries are constructed for their convenience. This is something that is unique to Kodagu and its theatre tradition.
In Greek theatre, it is seen that rituals were the root of theatre, through the worship of Greek Gods. Similarly even in Kodagu, folk along with rituals are the basic roots for the creation of theatre. Kodava Theater has not been studied with the seriousness that Greek theatre has received, maybe because of the lack of popularity of the Kodava language and because of small number of Kodavattakk speakers. Also, since Kodava folk forms have been largely oral literature unlike Greek theatre, Kodava theatre hasn’t received the popularity it deserves. Examples of oral literature can be found in Kodava Baalopaat and Kodava Bolakaat.
Q. From the oral tradition, Kodava Theatre did ultimately grow into a written form. How would you characterize the growth of Kodava theatre since then. Is there any real documentation of the growth of Kodava theatre?
A. The growth of Kodava theatre thereafter is very obscure. There is no material that has documented the progress of Kodava theatre. The first available material on Kodava theatre is by Haradas Appacha Kavi. There would probably have been a lot of rudimentary plays that were conducted in villages in paddy fields, called bayalu nataka. But there is no real record. Haradas Appacha Kavi is the first theatre person we know of. The Kavi was basically a singer, and a great devotee. He was working in the Mujrai department of Bhagamandala where he was in the company of Brahmins who taught him Sanskrit. This was one of the things that aroused his curiosity from a very young age. The way language can be used in so many ways fascinated him. By that time, theater in Karnataka was being performed in a large scale. Gubbi Veeranna of the Gubbi Nataka Company that was making a lot of plays, and Mohammed Peer Nataka Company were two traveling theatres that visited Kodagu at the time. Haradas Appacha would watch their plays very intently and was influenced by their plays greatly. In fact, so great was the influence that he wrote his plays in the style of the Gubbi Nataka Company, which used a lot of Kanda Padya (style dialogue delivery which is neither a song nor a dialogue). It is in this style that Appacha Kavi created the first plays in Kodavattakk, Yayati, Savitri, Subramanya and Kaveri.
Q. Appacha is known as the ‘Shakespeare of Kodagu’. For a person who has studied only up to 4th grade, his literary talents are absolutely admirable. It is interesting that he has chosen characters from the ancient puranas for all his play texts. What are your thoughts?
A. Appacha has taken all his play plots from the puranas. The interesting thing is that these plots from the puranas have been interpreted to suit the Kodava ethos. One should remember that this was the time when Kodagu was ruled by the British. For example, in his plays, a Rakshasa enters, ready to eat his meal:
Chamcha mull bechand
Chamki marchi kuthith
Amki Amki thingolu
Yamanda podi yennang
(critique of the moderninsed Kodavas who use fork and spoons to eat their meals, emulating their British rulers)
He used a lot of rhythm, alliteration and the exact meter in all his verses. He makes the letters dance to his tunes! For example:
Nararara pudichi, thararara tharichi, bararara barthith
Here, the words themselves create drama. For an actor, these words themselves are enough to inspire acting! His plays are thus very interesting. Non-Kodavas would not be able to understand and admire his works. The songs in his plays too are so melodious! He attempts to ‘sanskritize’ Kodavattakk and makes it all the richer!
Neela Kanta Shiva
Shoora Paani Bhava
Kaala Kaala Pani Maalaadhara!
(describes Siva in Kodavttakk)
Naaga jade bichi
(describes Siva, as the God of Bhaagamandala)
Manmatha Maavi ni
Thus on one hand, he plays with the letters, without altering the technicalities of rhyme and meter, and on the other he uses symbols of Gods and Goddesses, enriching the Kodava vocabulary by ‘sanskritizing’ the language. He has written poems about toddy, vegetables, cuisine, and what not! So versatile is his talent that he has explored every aspect of theatre in a sublime way in his four plays! At first glance, the plot is puranic, for example, the characters of Sharmishta, Devayani, Savitri etc. He critiques the British influence on Kodava society by highlighting their misdemeanors and actions, by likening them to the Rakshasas. He has interpreted all the puranic plots to suit his contemporary scenario.
For example, Shakespeare’s plays are said to be timeless. I would say that Haradasa’s plays too are timeless, and are models to emulate even in our present times. When I adapted ‘Macbeth’ to Kodava theatre, I likened Macbeth to Kodagu’s kings. Macbeth becomes Rajendra. His wife becomes Gangu.
Q. There is little documentation of the performance of Appacha’s plays in Kodagu. Theatre in Kodavattakk was perhaps new to the people of Kodagu. How did Appacha perform his plays around Kodagu? Was it well received?
A. Appacha formed his own theatre group called Appacha Kavi Nataka Company and performed all over Kodagu. People called him ‘Kavi’, due to his amazing talents that I mentioned before. He was rightly called the first poet of Kodagu. He was told by friends to write in Kodavattakk, as that would bring him recognition. It surely did bring him recognition and fame. His plays were performed throughout Kodagu even after his death. Several other plays with the same puranic themes were also performed after the death of Appacha Kavi.
Q. Appacha’s works heralded the birth of modern Kodava theatre. How did Kodava theatre fare after the period of Appacha Kavi?
A. After Appacha came the era of social dramas. Throughout Karnataka, at the time, social dramas were being performed and the same happened in Kodagu too. From 1960s-70s, social dramas were popular in Kodagu. In 1980’s there came the idea ‘hosa navya naatakagalu’(new theatre). Similarly in Kodagu there came the period of Kodava Navya Natakagalu. The monotony of theatre was broken by the use of new modern techniques like alienation, unconnected songs, etc by groups like Srishti Kodagu Ranga. I along with other members who had completed their diploma courses at Neenasam Theatre Institute of K.V. Subbanna, formed this group. It is a well-known institute that taught how to create theatre scientifically. The different ways of using lighting and sounds; making costumes that suit the play; and effective use of make- up and properties were all taught at the Institute. But there was a dearth of plays in Kodavattakk. To make up for this, we wrote Kodava plays. We used the history of Kodagu as a theme and wrote plays with characters like Haleri Kings, Diwans etc. Further, some Kannada plays were also translated into Kodavattakk. For example, H.S. Sivaprakash’s Mallamana Mane Hotlu was translated as Biddu Tailor. Western Dramas too, were incorporated into the Kodava Theatre corpus, for example, Shakespeare’s plays like Macbeth were translated into Kodavattakk. Children’s plays and street plays too became a part of Kodava theatre. In short, from 1980s to 95, Kodava theatre flourished. It can be called the golden age of Kodava theatre. Karnataka government even chose a Kodava play to represent Karnataka to perform in Delhi.
Q. Haradas Appacha is now a household name in Kodagu. But are his plays performed even today? What is the condition of Kodava theatre today?
A. Rarely do people perform Appacha’s plays. After the mid 90s, Kodava theatre has diminished considerably. Artists got busy, got married and had a family. Artists with commitment became a rare find. It is difficult to train a fresh actor, because at least three months of rigorous training are required before performing plays. More importantly people do not care to have a hobby now! Nobody wants a hobby that doesn’t pay. During our period, in Karnataka, B.V. Karanth, Girish Karnad and Chandrashekar Kambar were the stalwarts of Kannada theatre. B.V. Karanth even visited Kodagu and directed one of our plays. Chandrashekhar Kambar’s plays were also performed in Kodagu by the name ‘Pushparani’. The reasons for the decline of Kodava theatre are, like I said before, lack of a proper theatre environment, lack of theatre spaces to perform, lack of interest on the part of the government.
Q. Is Kodava theatre active today?
A. No. Kodava Theatre is almost dead today. We perform a play, maybe once a year, with a lot of difficulty. Kodava Theatre has ceased to be a movement today. During the 80s and early 90s, Kodava theatre was a progressive movement. The viewers haven’t reduced. The doers have reduced. The government should conduct theatre festivals in Kodagu and plays on different themes should be encouraged.