Meet the Gollas, Telangana's poor singing bards who spread folk wisdom

Their practicising their caste occupation, sometimes unable to break away
Meet the Gollas, Telangana's poor singing bards who spread folk wisdom
Meet the Gollas, Telangana's poor singing bards who spread folk wisdom
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By Aprameya Manthena 

The City and its Other: Gangireddu/Golla

On a balmy Diwali afternoon, when preparations are being made for an eardrum-splitting evening in the Diwali month of the Hindu calendar, a vaguely familiar tune floats into the house. The tone of the nadaswaram (long, reed instrument), when not heard in a temple complex, carries a strange resonance. The gangireddu or the decorated bull, tinkling bells on its fore feet, attired in layers of red, yellow mirrored cloth nods its head vigorously to the tunes of its Yadava (cowherd) companion.

As a child, I was constantly fascinated by the variety of “folk” performers flitting through the colony whose songs waylaid our unsuspecting ears. Budiga Jangalu and Gangiredlavaru mainly earn their living through performing. The Gazette of India brought out by the Ministry of Social Welfare Resolution in 1993 refers to the Jangam caste as those “whose traditional occupation is begging” (page 36). The Yadavas/Gollas, those that accompany and care for the gangireddu are traditionally keepers of cattle.

Velcheti Subrahmanyam writes in The Hindu that, “Rural tradition has it that a calf born on ‘Gandha Amavasya’, the ‘Viasakha Amavasaya’, the day when Sri Varaha Lakshmi Nrusimha Swamy, the presiding deity of Simhachalam, appears in ‘nijarupa’ or real form without the usual sandal paste layer, is donated to the temple. And such calf, given in turn to the ‘gangireddula’ family for a nominal price, becomes a ‘gangireddu’.”

The ephemerality of this performance tradition finds currency in the wandering character of the gangireddu and its performer. They follow the perpendicular streets of residential blocks, practising and exhibiting alternate forms of living. There is an element of blink-and-miss to their musical appearances as they move from one apartment complex to the other. The tunes linger, the echoes playing in your mind, long after the gangireddu and its companion have moved on.

They visit large colonies mainly during Sankranti, Dussehra and Diwali, in the hope of larger earnings. Within their community, percussion and reed instruments and singing play a formative part in their upbringing. The songs and tunes remain embedded in the collective memory and there is always a jolt of recognition when bells and tunes match paces in the undeniable manner of the Yadava and his gangireddu.

 The Yadava/Golla artist takes a break in an alley between two apartment complexes as I hurriedly make my way toward him. Apparently unused to attention, he bemusedly agrees to answer the barrage of questions I have in store.

Bangari, as he has been named, lives with “bachelor” performers under a flyover in Lallapeta, Hyderabad while his family including a large set of uncles, aunts, grandfathers (all performers) is settled in Ankireddipalli, Keesaragutta, Hyderabad. He adds that one of the previous governments (he cannot remember if it is the Congress or Telugu Desam Party) had granted his caste of performers land in Ankireddipalli. However, all his co-performers are stationed across different parts of Hyderabad where large residential localities are situated. He has been touring these streets for the past fifteen years.

This is his “kulamu- vritti” or hereditary occupation. He claims that even though some members of his caste have been educated as lawyers and engineers they were not given jobs as they were required to pay heavy donations. Having knocked at every door, they eventually returned to the kulamu-vritti despite their extensive city education. He hopes that the present Telangana government will be more sympathetic toward their performing caste. He is not averse to a steady job but believes they are very difficult to come by. Because the nature of the profession includes begging (“adukku tinadam”), he has received unsolicited advice regarding his good health and ability to work in a “regular job”.

I ask him about his “choice” to be an itinerant performer. “Anukunte anandam, lekunta ledu,” (“If you believe, there’s happiness; if you don’t, there isn’t”) he replies. He roams through villages during the rest of the year where the audiences are far more enthusiastic. He states that there is true respect for their work there.

“Mottam anandam eh anukovali igga. Mana pani manam cheskuntunnamu.”

(“One has to believe this gives happiness. We are doing our work the best we can.”)

The Indian Encyclopaedia, edited by Subodh Gupta makes mention of the gangireddulata or bull play where a popular Telugu ditty written by Adavi Bapiraju “Doo doo Basavanna, Ayyagariki dannam pettu” (“prostrate in front of the master of the house”) is sung by the Yadava. The bull folds its legs and prostrates or nods its head in acceptance. It raises itself, places its fore/ four (?) legs on the man and performs a dance. Having heard that the gangireddu thus can perform acrobatic tricks, dance, respond to music and perform complicated moves, I ask him if his bull performs too.

He smiles wryly, “He’s too young. The gangireddu that travelled with me before could place all four legs in a single plate. It could place its forefeet on my chest. It could stand on a pitha (a low rectangular stool) and perform tricks. This one has to be trained.”

There is a tired, resigned aura about Bangari. He tucks his shawl in his mouth as he speaks, perhaps shy. He looks away when he answers, his voice muffled and one side hidden from view. His replies are brief, direct, forthcoming. There is no hesitation in his voice. His gangireddu is oddly piled with jeans, shirts and sarees. When I ask him about it, he laughs. “These are “normal” designs. Generally, the bull has big decorated horns and its adornment is very beautiful when taken out in the village. This is the Hyderabad city style of decorating the bull”, he says with a smile creeping gently round his clutched shawl.  

The Telangana government  announced the Bathukamma festival as the state festival and his face perks up as he speaks of the links between the gangireddu tradition and the festival. The fight for the statehood of Telangana, with roots in the peasant struggles and Left mobilization during the Nizam’s time period took on added incentive when the erstwhile Madras Presidency and Telugu-speaking areas under the Nizam were combined in 1956 to form the state of Andhra Pradesh (Vishalandhra) under the aegis of the State Reorganization Commission and provisions of the Gentlemen’s Agreement. The Telangana agitation in 1969 drew attention to the lapse of many of the promises made to the people of the Telangana region. However, after many political gambits and tireless student protests, the state of Telangana came into being in 2014.

The celebration of Bathukamma in early October ensures a wide variety of Telangana performers on the streets alongside the women carrying bathukammas. Newspapers reported the massive scale of the festival and the effort of the state to establish its cultural identity. The larger question of state patronage of living performance traditions haunts communities’ such as Bangari’s. The gangireddu is a familiar sight on Sankranti; infact the blessings of the bull are counted as auspicious in various caste households.

 Bangari has no qualms in identifying himself entirely with the state of Telangana and the exposure that these forms are now getting in the cultural economy of the newly formed state. The lavish celebrations of the Bathukamma festival involved traditional performers from those communities that were missing from previous governments’ cultural patronage. The women dancing around the Bathukammas are accompanied by the gangireddus that perform similar dance movements.

The new state of Telangana  has its own Doordarshan channel. DD Saptagiri which was erstwhile Andhra Pradesh’s state channel shifts its headquarters to the Vijayawada Kendra and DD Yadagiri  functions from the Hyderabad office. K. Chandrasekhar Rao has mentioned that the role of this channel is to highlight Telangana’s art, culture, traditions and language.

Bangari plays a wide range of ragas, though he does not recognize them as such. “Okka ragam ani undadu. Emi unte adi. Adi sagam, adi sagam, adi sagam.”(“We don’t play any one ragam (forms of melody) as such. Whatever comes to mind. Little bits of everything”). He performs the songs of Annamayya and Thyagaraja, long considered exalted musicians of the South Indian Classical canon, associated with songs of devotion (“bhakti”). Because many of the nadaswaram instrument players (as part of the periya melam tradition in South Indian temples) were from the lower castes, the performing and learning of these instruments remained in the teaching arenas of the low-caste families until eventually taken over by the Brahmins by the mid- 20th century as pointed out by scholars (L’Armand and L’Armand in their essay “One Hundred Years of Music in Madras: A Case of Secondary Urbanization”).

As I finish recording our conversation and we exchange pleasantries and walk away, I look behind and the sight of Bangari (meaning “gold” in Telugu) playing the last fading strains of the day and beside him, the colourful, untrained bull jumping and cringing due to the sound of the crackers, the fading refrains of the nadaswaram take on the notes of a calm air.

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