BENGALURU: One theatre practitioner, in her goal to keep the past alive in culture and tradition in the city aims to recreate the Yellammanaata experience for the city’s urban audience Yellammanaata is an overnight play hosted mostly during festivals by Jogathis, who are the transgender disciples of Saundatti Yellamma around Telangana, Karnataka and southern Maharashtra. Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota will be presenting ‘Yellammanaata Mela’, an ensemble of actors and musicians in Bengaluru to recreate the experience of ‘Yellammanaata’ for an urban audience, while sticking to the original music and form as much as possible. The piece is presented as a mime of the ritual that allows the audience to engage in a complete theatrical representation of Yellammanaata.
“It is a fresh perspective on a region and form of folk art in Karnataka,” says Shilpa. The folk forms often break a number of binaries, but is entrenched in patriarchal systems that do not allow women to perform, informs Shilpa. The imagination of gender is fluid in folk forms such as Yellammanaata, Therakoothu or Yakshagaana. This makes it perfect for contemporary artistic expression that is free of institution, prejudice and boundaries.
“In this case, a man is performing a woman’s role and a woman is pretending to be a man – for acceptance by the community,” says the Bengalurean. In one understanding, the performance of such roles is a way of asking for community acceptance. This also questions gender stereotypes in performing arts, says the filmmaker and singer.Shilpa’s team encountered several versions of Yellamma’s story, and the different ways of telling them during field work and research for this project. “Like any epic, the story deals with multiple themes but the ones that are timeless and celebrated are motherhood, sisterhood, dharma (duty), and liberation,” she says.
The ensemble attempts to showcase these themes in all authenticity with the help of folk mentors and counterparts. “However, the narrative, language and duration will differ in order to introduce this school of art to an urban audience,” adds the alumna of Mount Carmel College.Shilpa’s initial interactions with Yellamma were through her grandmother. The epic play is around six hours long, and seemed different every time she witnessed it.
“The performances were comical, informal, intimate and melodramatic presentations of Yellamma’s story told through a series of songs and improvised scenes,” she says. The play is usually hosted as an auspicious follow up ritual at naming ceremonies, house warming and festivals (mainly Dussehra, Diwali and Nagara Panchami).“It is up to collectives like ours to take the first step in bringing these practices to the city,” she says. The project received a grant as part of Gender Bender from the Sandbox Collective and the Goethe - Institut.