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Singing songs of folk

My morning visits to Cubbon Park began in November 2017 as an attempt to learn and practice my instruments in an open space; without the fear of shattering windows or bothering my neighbours. On the first day, when I reached the park with my Shruti in one hand, my Chowdki in the other, and my ‘chaape’ (a knitted floor mat made of naturally dried grass commonly used in South Indian households) under my arm, I had no intention of conducting any form of folk-singing sessions, let alone conducting them for over two years. So, in reality, the idea of singing came about before laying the foundations for Urban Folk Project. 

My relationship with the Shruti-Chowdki pair began with the conception of my directorial debut, Yellammanaata Mela: Chapter 1 – the Birth of Parashurama, in September 2017 at the Gender Bender Festival (organised by Sandbox Collective) at Goethe, Bangalore, and at Indianostrum, Pondicherry. While the play was well-received, with all the adoration and praise from artists and the larger audience, the play was put on hold. There were several setbacks; the minor ones were the usual lack of funds, space, and actors. The bigger issues that the play struggled with were what I would call the ‘real setbacks’; urban actors portraying subaltern characters as per aesthetic codes set by me – an outsider, and the inability to deliver ‘Yellammanaata’ as a ritualistic performance but only as a proscenium play – which according to me was shortsighted and did not do justice. To add to this, there was also my need to share more about the realm of Yellamma itself. There was so much more to the myth, and the lives of practitioners of the folk forms such as the Yellammanaata, Chowdki pada, and Jogathi Nruthya that was calling to be explored and brought to light. The format seemed to me, limiting, and to merely adapt these rituals to the proscenium form was not the end goal. Instead, I was convinced that I needed people to fully experience the ritual aspects of the folk performance. As a first-hand observer of the practice, I decided that the format of my portrayal of the story needed a rework. You could even say that it was a lack of confidence. This new format needed to tell the story, wholly and fully, in an urban perspective. This, to me, seemed more natural; it would give me the opportunity to pace the story in a way that would allow for other stories and related experiences to intercept.

Siddhanth Sunder and Teenasai Balamu began to join me at Cubbon Park during my morning practices. Both Siddhanth (Renuka) and Teenasai (Rangappa) were actors in our take on Yellammanaata, and we came together to explore the best possible way to do justice to the story of Yellamma; a way that covers all parts of the story; a way that includes the songs of Yellamma we had discovered while in the field. After a few such deliberations, we started inviting friends who wished to learn the songs and were interested in the piece that was gradually taking form. ‘Yellamma and other stories’, we called it. 

Our first showcase of this new format was in mid-December, 2017, at Urban Solace, Bangalore. Not only was it well-received, the show also gave me immense clarity as to why I needed to tell this story the way we were telling it. The opportunity to politically address gender, class, and caste hegemonies was not just necessary, but also instantly gratifying. In Janurary of 2018, we opened ‘Yellamma and other stories’ out to the public. Since then, it has been two years, and during this time, several students have helped us tell this story 70 times, to 70 audience groups, in various corners of the country. In parallel, we continued our journey of meeting and building relationships with the actual practitioners of the folk ritual; of establishing artistic connections with this and other related folk forms. 

During this time, it became apparent that what I had to offer in a huge way as part of ‘Yellamma and other stories’ were songs; songs that I had learnt as part of the Yellammanaata play, the ones I had learnt from my grandmother…..

-Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota



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