Chikkamela: In conversation with Surendra Pai

Chikkamela: In conversation with Surendra Pai

in Interview
Published on: 28 April 2020

Savithri Shastry

Savithri Shastry holds a Masters degree in Physics and a Vidvat in Bharatanatyam. She is currently pursuing her Masters in the Sanskrit and has an abiding interest in arts and aesthetics. She is also an artist of Yakṣagana and Talamaddale - traditional theatrical forms of Karnataka.

The interview was conducted by Savitri Shastri for Sahapedia in Dakshina Kannada in 2017.

Chikkamela means mini troupe and is a variant of Yakshagana, practised in off-seasons in Coastal Karnataka. In Chikkamela, the troupe, consisting of a couple of actors and accompanying musicians, go from house-to-house to perform select scenes from Yakshagana plays.

Surendra Pai started Chikkamela at Chautala Puttige in Dakshina Kannada.

Savithri Shastry (SS): Namaskara. Yakshagana is a significant facet of the culture of Karnataka. The custom here is to tie your gejje (anklet) after Deepavali, travel the land to perform for six months, and remove your anklets on Pattanaaje, the last day of the six months. In the period before the next tour begins, artistes have chosen the path of Chikkamela as their vocation—they avail both income and practice in the art form this way. While there are over a hundred Chikkamelas in Dakshina and Uttara Kannada, the Chikkamela at Chautala Puttige, Mudabidire, Dakshina Kannada has a prominent history to it. Surendra Pai, who instituted the Chikkamela here, speaks with us:

SS: Tell us about the background of your Chikkamela? Which temple? Why did this begin?

Surendra Pai (SP): The background, you see, is in 1989, when the melas (troupes) from our Puttige temple were leaving for their annual touring right after Deepavali—the doddamela (Yakshagana)—when we were faced with a question. Do we perform for people—for their vows to God, or only perform bayalaatas (open field programs) which is our tour? The leader of the temple insisted that we only tour and that we did. But the response was poor. We finished only twelve shows by the time we had to remove our anklets—heavy rain and forest-fire impeded our performances. On the day we end, we worship the Lord with our dance. That was Chikkamela: it began as an offering to God. The head priest Srinivasa Bhat suggested that we perform door-to-door—as we do during Navaratri. A hoovu-prashne ceremony was held (where we seek God’s permission for our decision, and if the flower falls from the right side, we are to continue). The flower fell, as we hoped. God’s grace was on us. We cease Chikkamela on the new moon day before Deepavali: that’s the time for doddamela.

SS: How is Chikkamela performed—I mean, how many people?

SP: Usually there are five: one bhagavata (conductor), one maddalegara (who plays the maddale), one shrutikaara (who checks the shruti), and two actors. We have seven.

SS: And how do you decide which scenes you will perform? Do you choose scenes that have only two characters? Do you write them on your own? What about the songs?

SP: Prasanga (scene) is from mythology—Ramayana, Mahabharata—we select scenes with two characters, scenes that conclude in four to five songs.

SS: So, it’s just a smaller version of the performances of your regular doddamelas?

SP: Yes.

SS: What’s the duration of one performance?

SP: Depends. Some are fifteen minutes long. We’ve even performed for half an hour. It depends on where we’re performing. For which family? Are they interested?

SS: Oh, so you learn what the families want? Do they ask for new scenes, revivals?

SP: Yes, we perform according to their interests.

SS: How do you decide where you’ll camp?

SP: Ah, that—we have the idol with us. We can’t be careless about where we stay. We prefer temples in the towns we travel to. There’s the Vishnu Murthy temple in a town; in Mudabidire, we stay at Kotebagilu Veeramate temple. In Karkala, however, there’s an empty house we camp at.

SS: And how do you advertise?

SP: Not much. We’ve been performing for twenty-two years now. At seven in the morning, we walk door-to-door and distribute pamphlets that we’d be performing at such a house or temple in the evening.

SS: And if some family wants you to perform at a later date?

SP: We would agree.

SS: Tell us about the religious customs and practices you perform before you leave—the temple here, and the camps there? And in the camps, there must be a difference between temples and houses?

SP: We leave on the day after Pattanaaje. The priest hands the idol to us, and we take three rounds around the temple premises. After regular puja near the dhwajasthambha (main pillar/ flag pole), we keep the idol in a tempo and leave for our camps. There, we light lamps, you know, all the usual puja. There’s an abhisheka in the afternoon, mostly with water. Before we leave for the performance in the evening, we offer arati to the idol, pour the arati water to the soil, and receive blessings. Once the performance is over, we break a coconut to offer it to the idol. There’s another arati then.

SS: And in the houses, you perform at?

SP: The families offer us prasada—whatever suits them: rice, fruits, coconuts, gingelly oil. Some even give money. They pray for the well-being of the society with the offerings, for which we even give them a receipt.

SS: Doddamelas end on Pattanaaje after a six-month tour. When do chikkamelas end?

SP: On Deepavali Amavasya—the new moon before Deepavali. We bring the idol back to or town by then. First, we revolve around the compound of the temple, then around the inner quarter, before handing it over to the priest.

SS: Tell us about the religious angle of Chikkamela. I mean—some people take vows to invite Kateelu melas to perform at their towns. They take vows for their needs and wishes. Do they believe so for Chikkamelas too?

SP: Yes, a performance we give for someone’s vow is a seveyata. People take vows for many reasons: general well-being, property, money, before opening a new business. Our relatives invite us too. The expenses of travel and accommodation, the entire honorarium goes to the temple. So, our invitees know what to give us.

SS: Is there any monetary benefit for you from Chikkamelas?

SP: Yes.

SS: How much time do you spend in the evenings performing?

SP: Before we had vehicles, it would take us a couple of hours to travel from our camp to houses and back. Now, we spend five to six hours.

SS: And how many performances per day?

SP: Fifteen to twenty.

SS: Again, is it profitable to practice Chikkamelas? How do you manage accounts?

SP: It is profitable. We earn as much as we earn during the tours, and aren’t idle for the other six months too. We share a daily wage.

SS: And how much is that? Approximately?

SP: Around eight hundred to nine hundred rupees per artiste. We share it equally among ourselves. We donate twenty-five per cent of what we receive to the temple. Around three hundred rupees is kept aside for logistics. All the offerings—be it coconuts, rice, oil—is given to the temples. In the last six months, with our Chikkamela performances, we have nineteen quintals of rice, three thousand and six hundred coconuts, and a lot of oil for lamps.

SS: Chikkamela was long considered an act for God. You have been practising it as a performative art for over twenty-five years. What was the societal reception?

SP: It hasn’t been a smooth road. There was a lot of discouragement in the beginning. The interested ones, the ones who believed in the art invited us—and they were only a few. Many shut their doors on our faces. Many shouted against us. They wanted us to stop.

SS: This was when you went to distribute pamphlets . . . ?

SP: Initially, we didn’t. We would verbally invite them. And there are people who agreed to host us in the morning and turned us down in the evening. Now, we’re doing well.

SS: When you perform in houses, you need the room opposite to the puja room, don’t you?

SP: Not the room. We perform in the chavadi (hall) of the house, next to the puja room. Any kind of negative energy in the house disappears after the bhagavata plays his gong. We need the chavadi.

SS: Have people asked you to perform outside the house?

SP: They have. We haven’t though. This isn’t simply dancing for entertainment. There are rules—it’s God’s art. The size of the chavadi doesn’t matter—we perform there, else nowhere.

SS: Any sweet memories from your performances?

SP: Everything. The feeling you have when people hosts you, invite you, request you to come home and perform; and are extremely hospitable to us—that’s the best.

SS: Have the ones who declined your offer started inviting you?

SP: Yes, most of the ones who refused to host our performances early on, now invite us themselves.

SS: Do you think people are introduced to our mythology through Chikkamela?

SP: Definitely. God’s stories. Moral stories. So many people in the neighbourhood walk in to watch our performances. There’s learning happening in the audience too.

SS: People learn moral values from these stories?

SP: Yes.

SS: Today’s youth aren’t very interested in Yakshagana. Do you think they would be interested in Chikkamela?

SP: To go and watch the night-long performance that happens during the other six months—the doddamela, bayalata—you have to sacrifice your sleep. We give short performances, from fifteen to twenty minutes. That suits the youth. Their interest kindled by Chikkamela, they then go for Yakshagana performances. Yes, they have progressed as a better audience.

SS: There is degeneration in moral values in society today. Is it possible to awaken society to those morals and values through Chikkamela?

SP: We use mythological stories in our performances. Like I told you before, they question and answer the status quo. They think about the subtle art of dharma. An audience’s response always concludes in transformation.

SS: How do people react?

SP: They not only like it; they imbibe the thought in it too.

SS: Are there permanent artistes for Chikkamela, or do they come from Doddamelas?

SP: Both. Artistes like Kateelu Srinivas, Balakrishna, Somabhatta, Dinesh Koppala—all of them come after their touring completes.

SS: So, they perform Chikkamela in the rainy seasons, in the period between their bayalatas?

SP: Yes.

SS: This is the age of TV and technology. What’s the status of Chikkamela in these times?

SP: People believe this to be god’s gift and god’s art. They think if they arrange a Chikkamela performance in their house, god will enter and bless it. Our art receives a lot of reverence among the people here—they’re excited, devoted and encouraging.

SS: The Puttige temple is more popular now with your Chikkamela troupe gaining name, isn’t it?

SP: Yes. So many—except the ones living around—didn’t know about our Puttige temple. Now due to Chikkamela, they do. Let alone during the jatre (fest), we have many weekly visitors, mostly tourists!

SS: Has there been an increase in the number of tourists because of Chikkamela?  

SP: Yes. In the annual fair, there are more people than usual.

SS: Thank you, sir, for giving us so much information about Chikkamela.

SP: Thank you too for taking so much interest in our art. It had been my pleasure to answer your questions.