A social and political paradox: In Telangana, the BJP is adopting the dappu

The dappu, made and played by the Madigas, has a long history, from being subjected to casteism to building mass movements.
Telangana BJP Chief Bandi Sanjay and BJYM president Tejasvi Surya embraces dappu in a public gathering
Telangana BJP Chief Bandi Sanjay and BJYM president Tejasvi Surya embraces dappu in a public gathering
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It was typical September weather in Telangana’s Kamareddy town. Mild showers for one hour and scorching heat for the next. A large crowd had gathered and soon, dappu artists clad in saffron clothes were charging up the public’s mood with beats and songs. Minutes later, Telangana BJP chief Bandi Sanjay arrived at the venue, which was part of his 'Praja Sangrama Yatra' and went on to urge people to vote for his party and oust the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). A few weeks earlier in Hyderabad on September 7, Bandi Sanjay had posed with dappus on stage, along with several BJP leaders including Bengaluru South MP and National President of BJP Yuva Morcha Tejasvi Surya.

Dappu artists performing at BJP event in Kamareddy, Telangana

Though the dappu taking centre stage on political platforms and protests is not new in Telangana, it is interesting to note the public embrace of the instrument by the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), given their ideological positions towards the source. The dappu is made out of leather by Madigas, categorised as a Scheduled Caste (SC) in the state, who historically both make and play it.

A dappu made with leather (Image: Charan Teja)

To understand this, one has to look at the social history of the dappu. The instrument has survived although its artful glory has been mired in centuries of caste discrimination and other challenges. Madigas lie in the utmost lower rung of the caste hierarchy, and thereby are at the receiving end of different forms of atrocities. From picking up corpses of dead animals such as cows, bulls, and buffaloes, to meticulously skinning them and making footwear and the dappu, the lives of Madigas are not easily detachable from the leather. Any older person belonging to a Madiga ghetto in a village can easily recollect the memories of dappu making.

Making of dappu

To make the dappu, the skin of the cattle is left to dry after careful tanning and after applying ash and salt to prevent it from decomposing. The processed leather is tied tightly to a wooden circle kept under some weight after applying a paste made of tamarind seeds and tangedu (Tanner’s Cassia) chekka (bark), which is thin and sticky. Later, the dappu is given a stroke with fire to make it tender but still hard. It is then beaten with two light weight sticks called ‘Chirra-Chitike’ in a rhythmic or melodious beat.

Flowers of the Tanner's Cassia tree (Image: Charan Teja)

While folklore asserts that the dappu was the first musical instrument created by the indigenous man to announce his existence, of the many popular legends, one is that an indigenous man created dappu after he accidentally kicked a stone onto some dried-up dead skin, which gave a distinct sound which scared away all wild animals.

Jambava Puranam, Dakkali Puranam and Baindla Puranam, the oral histories or epics which are popular among Dalits, tell different stories on the emergence of the dappu. According to another folk legend, a man who was on a hunt picked up the dappu from a pair of monkeys, after he accidentally killed a female monkey. However legendary the tales are, the instrument was neither respected nor given its deserving space.Despite the relegations, the dappu became an inevitable instrument as its beats permeated into the major affairs of life ranging from weddings, festivals of the folk goddesses, carnivals, to funerals, though the Madigas were treated as untouchables.

Is the dappu untouchable?

Observers say that the dappu was made untouchable since it was associated and invented by the Madigas, who were untouchables. Lelle Suresh, a dappu artist and documentary filmmaker, says, "When a cow is holy, its skin can't be unholy. The making of dappu as an untouchable instrument has a socio-political aspect. To instill inferiority among a specific community, the dominant communities chooses to humiliate either physical features or symbols like the dappu, which are associated with the Madigas."

Dappus being tuned with the heat from a fire (Image: Lelle Suresh)

Over the generations, the dappu has passed on as an art form close to the hearts of Madiga gudems (dwellings) and carved its spaces. Gradually, the dappu, which was also seen as a symbol of defiance, forayed into the arena of social and political movements. Owing to its power of attracting crowds, it has played a vital role in building mass movements on Telugu soil — the Naxalite and Maoist movement, various Dalit movements, and the more recent Telangana movement for separate statehood.

Cadres of Maoist party used to have dappu artists among their cultural troops, and other mainstream Left movements and political parties too, incorporated the instrument in their protests and meetings.

A popular song sung by revolutionary activist Vimalakka and written by poet Mithra in solidarity with the self-respect movements of Madigas says:

Madigolla dappulochene manava hakkula dandoresi, Maatavarasakichina hakkula vaatanaina dakkanaani Madigollla dappulochene manava hakkula dandoresi!

(The dappus of Madigas have arrived and heralded human rights, seeking a share in the rights that were assured at least in principle.) 

Cover of Dr Pasunuri Ravinder's book 'Potethina Pata', a critique of Telangana song literarature

One of the core slogans of the Scheduled Caste categorisation movement by Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS) under the leadership of Manda Krishna Madiga was to bring respect to ‘Cheppu-Dappu’ (footwear-dappu) made by the Madigas. During the Telangana movement led by different quarters including the TRS, the dappu mobilised thousands of people to public meetings and rallies, where the artists used to sing songs to the beats of the dappu highlighting the significance of the separate state.

BJP using the dappu — a political paradox?

Dr Pasunuri Ravinder, popular Telugu Dalit writer and winner of Kendriya Yuva Sahithi Puraskar Award, talking about the dappu as a political instrument, says, “While it’s the Madigas right to use dappu art for their causes (social-political) and fights, almost all the political parties have used it or appropriated it. BJP's move to give space to it has to be seen as a mere ploy to capture the Dalit vote bank and ensure mass mobilisation.”

Dappu artists at a political rally of the ruling TRS in Huzurabad (Image: Charan Teja)

However, Lelle Suresh feels that various parties making it merely an instrument of 'political noise' by using the vulnerablity of artists has contributed to the art form being on the wane. He also points to the presence of plastic dappus in the place of leather dappus and added that deep-rooted casteism drove many Madigas away from the dappu. “It was looked down upon for its features, and composition with leather, by caste Hindus. And many Madigas, fearing shame, have neither engaged in making the dappu nor in practicing it.”

Dappu artists performing in a pre-marraige procession (Image: Charan Teja)

Pasunuri feels that political parties have acknowledged that it is inevitable for them to bring the dappu to their meetings to pull the crowds, and stated that even the BJP is just following in these footsteps. Andey Bhaskar, a PhD scholar in dappu studies says, “The music of the dappu is joined by the voices of singers to create a song. The dappu and singing have an unbreakable relationship, but caste has stopped it (dappu) from getting its recognition. While other artists were given awards or other accolades, not a single dappu artist has been nominated for awards like the Padma Shri.”

At present, what seems to be hindering the BJP's ambitious idea of appropriation is the lack of "their songs" that can be sung along. In one of their rallies during the recent yatra, dappu artists were singing old songs from the Left movement, resulting in a strange paradox.

Dappus in Bandi Sanjay's Praja Sangrama Yatra (Image: Telangana BJP/Facebook)

Speaking to TNM, RSS ideologue Raka Sudhakar says that the presence of dappu in BJP meetings isn't a new phenomenon. According to him, dappu performances have been seen in BJP meetings and rallies for over four decades. Raka, while denying that its a ploy to simply encash on the Dalit vote bank says, "There is no relationship between the presence of dappu and Dalit votes."

Asked if there is a dearth of Right literature that can be associated with the dappu, as the party events seem to be having Left influence, he says, "The Left-wing has stolen the rural folk literature and put their stamp on it. Now the people are taking it back. This is not so-called appropriation." Raka further says that Madiga dappu presence in BJP meetings "is neither ideological appropriation nor a deviation (of RSS) as it is part and parcel of Hindu culture." 

A plastic dappu hanging in a Madiga household (Image: Charan Teja)

Dr Chandraiah Gopani, Assistant Professor in Allahabad Central University and an expert in Dalit studies and Dalit-Bahujan musical traditions, feels that the BJP's usage of the dappu is an act of exploitation. He says, “They're (BJP) exploiting the vulnerability of dappu artists to the extent that it gives them an image as if they are respecting Dalit art forms, which is contradictory to their core political philosophy." Observers also point out that the BJP embracing the dappu, whose origin lies in leather, can only be done in Telangana, given the history of the instrument and its presence in all popular movements.

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