BENGALURU: A journey that started merely to find out what’s the fuss behind Yellamma’s story, took Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota and her husband to North Karnataka, documenting different versions of the story of Yellamma. The performance is also part of the Urban folk project an initiative to archive folk art forms in Karnataka.
“It will be in the form of a sit down bhajan mandali. Stories are narrated about the goddess, local songs sung along with use of the endangered instrument ‘Chowdike’. The performance will throw light on the followers of the cult, the three kinds of patrons being Jogathis (transwomen), Devdasis and Jogappas (Men dressed as women),” says Shilpa, who began her research last August.
They found that the only way to preserve this art form was to learn the music itself. They found mentors in Radhabai Madaar and Manjamma B Jogathi, who taught them Chowdike and about 50 odd local songs. The myth has thousands of variations, having been passed down by word of mouth. One of them is that of Renuka, a girl married to a sage who makes her perform several duties.
While sitting near a river and making a pot for him, Renuka loses concentration when she sees a couple frolicking in water. She returns home with a broken pot, a symbol of infidelity and is beheaded by her son Parashurama, on orders of his father.
He wishes for her resurrection. She arises in the form of Goddess Yellamma and becomes a role model to all women oppressed by patriarchy. “Yellamma was a symbol of women liberation as she encouraged women to live without depending on men, spreading her word through stories, songs. She is said to have created the Chowdike from the ribs, thigh bones and head of King Kartavirya,” explains Shilpa, adding that followers of the cult were ambassadors of temples, which were cultural and religious centres.
“Over generations, the cult came to be associated with prostitution, as they were expected to sleep with the king, ministers. Girls on reaching puberty were pledged to the goddess and brought up in the temple, receiving training in the art form. At some point, purity came into the story as well,” the artist adds.
As the practice is banned by the state, the art form and music is also being forgotten. “We want to archive the myths and the story of Devdasis and Jogathis, who performed the art. We intend to make it a free online repository of information. The songs’ lyrics are never Sanskrit but crass and straightforward rural Kannada, with verbal abuses. It shows the blatant truth.’’