KALABURAGI: When Ashok Totnalli joined the Government High School in Jakanapally village in Sedam taluk bordering Telangana in 2008, there were just six students. Efforts to get more children to attend school weren’t paying off. That’s when this drama teacher, who is a product of the Shivamogga-based literar y-theatre organisation Ninasam, entered.
Totnalli closely interacted with the villagers, and learnt about their hidden talent of Doddatta, a theatre form akin to Yakshagana. Totnalli tapped this talent and used Doddatta as a tool to woo children back to school. Today the school has a strength of 73 students , and Totnalli is credited with this remarkable turnaround.
Villagers acknowledge Totnalli’s efforts in not only getting their children to study but also in reviving the forgotten art of Doddatta. He also prodded the villagers, who spoke only Telugu, to converse in Kannada as well. By giving a contemporary flavour to Doddatta, he also made the art form relevant to the younger lot.
Chandrashekhar Reddy, Gram Panchayat member of Jakanapally said, “Nine years ago, our children used to run away if they saw any teachers. Totnalli mingled with the villagers and actively took part in Doddatta and won the hearts of the villagers and children. Though we know Kannada, we used to speak in Telugu as our village borders Telangana. He helped us converse in Kannada as well. ”
Fondly called Nataka Master, Totnalli began his mission by first constituting a forum of the villagers called ‘Tingala Sanje Vedike ‘ through which he started staging Doddattas in Jakanapally and neighbo u ring villages. As the dropouts began trickling into school, Totnalli says, “I set up the Naanu Nammuru-Shala Makkala Vedike involving the children to hone their skills in theatre. After school, the children would attend theatre workshops in the afternoon where we would stage plays.”
It wasn’t easy though, recalls Totnalli. The children were semi-literate and making them learn dialogues by heart was challenging. But with his encouragement and their enthusiasm, the Nataka Master and his young drama troupe began to stage Doddatta performances in the village and later at inter-school events. Soon, th ey began earning accolades and awards for their performances.
Totnalli’s dedication is such that sometimes he buys costumes and the equipment required for the plays from his own pocket. Devappa, a class 10 student, says, “Thanks to Master, I have been able to speak confidently ever since I began to participate in the plays.” The Vedike is a student-driven one, with the current president being a Class 9 girl Jayashree.
Ashwini, a class 9 student, says, “It is Ashok sir who brought us out of the four walls of the house.” Sangeeta, another student, says the drama team got a chance to visit different places due to the programmes.
The in-charge head master of Jakanapally government High School Subhash says because of Totnalli and his activities, the students are active in academic activities too. Over 60 per cent of students passed SSLC exams last year.
Anupama Prakash of India Foundation for Arts says, “He has identified a local folk performance art form called Doddatta, which has been fast disappearing from the region, central to his project. For Ashok, this is of immediate interest since the last generation of the Doddatta performers are in the school neighborhood.”
Getting hitched during a play
In an interesting incident last year, Totnalli’s wedding became part of a play. No rituals, no extravaganza. It happened when a play was staged by the school students on the subject of a protest against a factory causing harm to the farmers and villagers. Ashok and his fiancee were donning the role of protesters. But the villagers told the duo that they could take part in the protest only if they got married. “Well, I didn’t protest much,” chuckles Totnalli. “We got married in the play.” Some happy ending that.
Winning hearts and awards
In 2013, the play ‘Dharma Mattu Mochi’ and in 2014 ‘Beralugalu’ staged by Jakanapally students bagged first and second prizes respectively in the State level Pratibha Karanji contest organized by Public Instructions Department at Kalaburagi. The Sciece-based play ‘Gandhi Banda’ was selected for the state level in 2016. This year ‘Baa Belake Baa Gaali’, which focuses on the need to harness wind and solar power, bagged the first prize in the regional level contest. So far, students have staged 28 dramas across the state in five years.
Ashok takes a firm stand not to play the revivalist. Instead, he wishes to engage the artists as facilitators. He encourages children to experience the form from different perspectives. Starting from reading the texts, understanding the lyrics, designing the vibrant costumes and set designs, directing the actors to managing the audience – all of this is part of the children’s learning.
Anupama Prakash, programme director, India Foundation for Arts