The bahurupis of Karnataka, categorised under the OBC category by the state’s census reports, are itinerant performers of hagalu vesha or pagati vesha. Also known as the ‘sadhus of the cemetery’, they impersonate mythological characters and stage amusing episodes that also comment on daily events. Largely, only male members of the community perform the musical traditions that have been orally passed down and nurtured within specific families of performers. The performances mostly comprise an assortment of dasara padas (devotional songs in Kannada), Basava’s vachanas (rhythmic poems of high devotional content), Purandara Dasa’s keerthanas (musical compositions), Marathi abhangas (devotional lyrics in praise of Lord Vithoba) and so on.
This interview with Chennappa Ganachari and Maruti Ganachari, two bahurupi performers from Belgaum, Karnataka, looks into various aspects of their art form, hagalu vesha.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on September 9, 2018, in Balehosur, near Ranebennur, Karnataka, with the help of Jayaditya Vittal, who follows Marathi as well as the northern dialect of Kannada that the bahurupis speak.
Priya V. (PV): Bahurupi is a strikingly poetic term. Please tell us what the name of your community means to you.
Maruti Ganachari (MG): We are called bahurupis for the many veshas (roles) we assume. Our performance is called hagalu vesha, daytime performance. They call us hagalu vesha dharigalu, the people who wander the length and breadth of the city, hardly spending any time at home. We are the people of many forms—Rama, Basava, Maruti-Anjaneya, Parmatma—we become them. We are ‘bahu-rupi’: bahu meaning many and rupi meaning forms.
We wear our costumes, tell riddles, we sing, and in the end we ask for money. That is our life. We have been engaged with sangeet kala (art of singing) since the ancient times.
Chennappa Ganachari (CG): We have no property, no house. We move from town to town. We erect jhopdis (huts) in deserted places. In the morning, we finish our baths and prayers and put on the patras(costumes for particular characters). Sadhu, Lambani, Kanakadasa, Rama-Lakshmana, Bhima-Arjuna, Ravana-Hanumanthu, Bedare-Kannappa, Police Patel, Mohini-Bhasmasura and Ardhanariswara are some of the characters we assume. We carry a damri(a percussion instrument), tabla and harmonium. We tell them the shastra-puranas (ancient sciences and epics), we give everyone in the house happiness, show them manoranjane (entertainment) for eight days. In the old days, they would give us 10 rupees for the performance. It is similar to getting a thousand rupees today.
PV: Tell us more about how your closely knit community functions. What is the sociocultural mix, how is it maintained, and what norms are followed in marriages?
MG: We marry within the community. Our caste is Budga Jangama, within which marriages happen. Our attire includes tulasi mala (sacred necklace), rudraksha (prayer beads) and linga (an icon of Shiva). Those who wear the linga are swamis. Within our jati (caste), we are Ganacharis (equivalent to priests). There are many sub-castes including Sahachara, Vibhuti, Gunachara, Ganachara and Jangama. People wear lingas on either sides, some also wear it around the neck. Then there are also those who wear the sacred thread.
CG: Budga Jangamas have always been around. It is a caste of wandering bhikshus (religious mendicants). They go around wearing a topi (cap), holding a matiki, a staff and a jholi (cloth bag) in hand. Ours is a Lingayat samaj (society).
PV: What do you feel when you don the costumes of gods? Do you feel like one of them? Do people look at you as divine beings?
MG: Yes, that is exactly how we feel. We feel like we are the gods. People also view us as gods then. They feel we are worthy of naivedya (pious offerings). They greet us, usher us to our seats and ask us to sing. Some people, believing we are gods, even worship us.
CG: We have all these vesha-bhusha (costumes and accessories) needed for our art. After taking a bath, we pray to god and don the vesha and then we become the god. We put on the costume and that is it! If you put on the Kanakadasa patra, the Gopal hutti and the tulasi mala, the god descends upon you; the god gives you that shakti (power). The shakti comes to you as you assume the form. And then, when you take off the samaan (meaning both baggage and accoutrements), you become as you were. We are popular among the masses. We bring them happiness. They take our photos. When we go somewhere, it becomes a festival.
PV: Is there a difference between how you feel when you are in costume and how you feel when you are out of it?
CG: Having prayed to god and received blessings, one does not have any negative feelings. Without those blessings, one cannot do anything. As you have done seve(service) for the gods, they will protect you. One cannot say I did a puja, why has god not given me what I want? How will he give? One must do seve (service) to receive anything.
(Chennappa proceeds to narrate the popular myth about Purandaradasa’s transition from a miserly goldsmith to an ardent devotee who gives away all his wealth and turns into a sadhu-poet in order to express his fervent devotion to his chosen deity. The way he narrates this myth not only underscores the importance of selfless service but also lays bare an imagined terrain where the act of putting on another’s form is an everyday matter.)
CG: Now, see, what bhagavantha (god) gives must be earned, difficulties must be endured to get it. A person is not born successful, they have to become. They must be fed, nourished, educated, and then when they grow up they will attain success. Bhakti too is like that. Seve too is like that. I will sing a song for you now.
[Together they sing the Purandara bhajan ‘Aaagathella ollede aithu’, roughly meaning ‘Whatever happened, happened for the best.’]
Whatever happened, happened for the best.
In the service of our Sreedhara,
Prayers became [my] wealth.
To hold the shoulder-staff,
My head was bent in shame!
To make me as modest as [my/a] wife,
He made me hold the shoulder-staff.
To hold out the hermit bowl,
I was as shy as if I was the Master of the Earth!
To make me as modest as [my/a] wife,
He made me hold the hermit bowl.
To wear the tulasi mala,
I was as embarrassed as if I were a king!
Made me wear the tulasi mala.
[As if to further illustrate his point, Chennappa starts narrating the life story of Shishunala Sharifa, a nineteenth-century Muslim poet and mendicant popularly known as the Kabir of Karnataka. Sharifa is said to have challenged a Hindu guru, questioning the irrationality of dividing people in terms of religion. There are affective affinities that his telling strikes with both Purandaradasa and Shishunala Sharifa, who were wandering minstrels in their own ways. In Purandaradasa’s near perfection of attachment to a personal divine and Sharifa’s selfless asceticism beyond religious barriers, Chennappa finds figures worthy of emulation. The influence of Lingayat ideologies are visible especially in the case of Sharifa. I view such narrative modalities accessed in self-representation as emotively charged acts of validating a collective self that is facing erasure in a world where the very notion of entertainment has had a sea change.]
PV: Are the songs you sing written down?
MG: No. From the time of my great grandfathers, we have been in a musical tradition (sangeetha parampara)—my ajja (grandfather), later my father and now me. Whether it is Ganesh Chaturthi, Satyanarayana puja or a housewarming, people will call us to sing for an hour at least. Two sugama sangeetha, two bhakti-geethe, two bal-geethe, two natya sangeetha—after singing all that, we sing the mangala (blessing/concluding piece). Then they do the aarti (puja rituals with lighted lamps), give us dakshina (monetary offerings) and drop us off. Or, in the temples, if the mathadi-pathi (head of the matham) comes, they call us. We do the welcoming; we sometimes even sing the naamasmarane (invocations) of the god. The bhaktas (devotees) who come for the functions are elated. We sing twelfth-century Kannada poet and social reformer Basava’s vachanas, Marathi abhangas (a form of devotional poetry), Purandaradasa’s keerthanas and so on, a tradition that continues from our ancestors. This is our tradition. We work and try to put our children in schools. We also make them sing, show them the costumes and introduce them to the art. This is how we get through life.
CG: There are granthas (books) printed from Bangalore. We have bought them from there. There are several such books. But I cannot read. I did not learn from them. My father taught the songs to me. My father had studied till second or fourth grade. He knew how to read and write. He taught me everything, Puranas, keerthanas, bhajanas. As a young boy, sitting by his side by gyannpana-shakti (enthusiasm to learn), I learnt everything.
MG: His father taught him, he (Chennappa Ganachari) taught me and I have taught my children.
CG: The books are there, but they are in bad shape. We live in tents and there is rain, plus the books are old.
PV: Is there a particular age at which teaching of music and dance starts? And do you have any initiation ceremonies as is the custom in several performing communities?
MG: There is no age. By the time we are eight, nine or 10 years old, we would have already started with the harmonium and tabla. The house reverberates with music. The children pick it up from there. No ceremonies. We teach them early. They have to be performers one day, right? They have to know what and how to play.
PV: Does your repertory include non-Puranic songs or themes?
CG: My father had other books too. He brought us the books from Bangalore. Over there, there were Jain people (the Pattegars). They were weavers, you know? They would keep saying, ‘Our god is greater, our Jain deva is greater. From us, from our god only, you have clothes, vastras, saris, everything. Before this, you (the bahurupis) had no clothes. You used to wear leaves. We have given you clothes, so our god is greater.’ We said, we don’t want to hear this.
This story is some 60 years old. My father narrated this to me. My father was playing the role of Renukacharya (the sadhu) for which he was in town. For the part, he was given two books: one of Renukacharya and one of Devara Maharishi. He read them and narrated the story to the town. The Neykars (the Jains) told him, tell us about our god. My father having read those books knew how their god had been born and he narrated that story. The Jain god was the supreme being Parmatma’s son (emphasising a relation between all gods). What does that mean? It means that everybody is related.
You cannot go around saying ‘only our god, only our god.’ My father used the same books to point this fact out to them. He read them for a year and kept them. I do not have books. My uncle and I learnt from my father. In the old days, there were no schools. Our people would learn a few aksharas (letters) and with that much knowledge my father would recite. Now that I have learnt it, I recite it.
PV: And these are all very old songs?
CG: Yes, very old.
PV: And you don’t write any new songs?
CG: No, we don’t write new songs.