Kaveri Ponnapa worries that her small community of Kodavas are slowly getting dissolved in the monoculture that the world is morphing into. She tells her book The Vanishing Kodavas could be the starting point to explore the people from the hills of Kodagu
So we sing.
Singing this song/ What do we gain?
If we sing with faith…
Planted vegetables will thrive/
And the baby in the cradle will live
This excerpt from a song of the Kodavas exemplifies the simplicity and beauty of the life of the Kodava community. It offers a whiff of the essence of the community — establishing its agrarian roots, its oral tradition, the questioning of what one gains in continuing a tradition, of the hope that its warrior people will flourish…
The song is one of the many lesser-known aspects of the Kodava people, that author Kaveri Ponnapa has recorded in her book, The Vanishing Kodavas. In popular culture, knowledge of the community is limited to facts such as they are good-looking people, valiant warriors with a phenomenal presence in the country’s armed forces and the place is home to beautiful hill stations, is where pandhi curry and bamboo-shoot pickle comes from.
Born and brought up outside Coorg, and having lived a large part of her life overseas, Kaveri was mesmerised by how “the presence of Coorg within me has been a constant part of my interior landscape”. That presence drew her back to her homeland, where right through childhood, she spent two months a year during summer vacation. “We all shift cities, countries, continents. We should look at ways to internalise culture and pass it on, carrying it within us,” is Kaveri’s hope for her people. Painstakingly researched over 15 years, the book goes deep into the community’s history, its grand houses, laws of the land, customs, worship, songs of the warriors, the forests and sacred landscapes, coffee, stories of its people.
Kaveri holds a masters in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London. Even her thesis was on the culture of the Kodavas.
“After I shifted to Bangalore 16 years ago, I started visiting Coorg more often. It was a search to find what hold this place had on me. It became a quest for identity, exploring the unarticulated parts of you.” Slowly she started documenting festivals, ancestor propitiation ceremonies, whatever she witnessed in the villages of Coorg, and what came out of conversations with people on the rural areas. “I became conscious that the culture was vanishing and dwindling away.”
As she kept going back year after year, fewer people were attending annual celebrations with each passing year, older people in the community pointed out how youngsters weren’t learning their songs; how young men don’t know the ritual dances. “When I titled the book as ‘vanishing’, people from within the community too questioned me. It’s such irony that though numerically we are larger than we ever were, we are becoming like everybody else. Monoculture is a global problem. Just as there is a need for biodiversity for survival, so is it with people. Now with borders being porous, how are we going to continue looking at ourselves in new circumstances…that is the question,” she elaborates. The culture, which has been maintained in the living culture of the villages of Coorg, says Kaveri — “even there an erosion has taken place, with economics in play, and people moving away…”.
“Small cultures are well balanced with the environment. The link to land and agriculture anchored us to our culture. Now you have a dominance of the economy and tourism. While we were the prominent community in Coorg, we maintained equilibrium with other communities. There was great foresight among our forefathers to acknowledge that we can’t survive on our own,” says a passionate Kaveri.
The research that went into the book took Kaveri on a search for records. Official records, correspondence, colonial accounts, recorded history of the Rajahs of Kodagu… she sifted through them all. The book also has a detailed account of the Lingayat Rajahs and their council of Kodava chieftains and the role they played in the rise of the East India company in south India.
Finding archives was not easy, she admits. There were a few books from the early 20th century and gazetteers written by Missionaries from the then Britishadministered Coorg.
“The thing that really struck me is that the history of my people from manuals and gazetteers spans about the last 200 years, but we’ve been around 2,000 years. But the people had a definite sense of history that comes out in folk histories. I’ve interwoven these micro-histories into the book. Just because it wasn’t in a book doesn’t mean those events didn’t happen.”
She travelled alone into the villages, introduced herself, having the advantage of being an ‘insider’ to participate in ceremonies, got invited into ain manes (ancestral homes).
Some events, she went back to every year, sometimes seven years running! “It possessed me and sucked me in…I was no longer the writer,” observes Kaveri, who, incidentally chronicles oracles and spirit mediums in the Kodava community. At the end of it all, she had developed a great network.
Elders were forthcoming and gave permission to photograph intimate ceremonies related to everything from birth to death.
“Despite the photography being intrusive, I’m grateful to my community that they placed trust. Not one door was closed on me…so in that sense it’s not my book really.” So when the book was published in September this year, she launched it in Madikeri, Coorg, where 250 people from the villages turned up to look at the book they had made together. “What struck me was the great sense of dignity in their lives, the beauty of their lives and how they balanced between the hard times they have had. Despite being a warlike people, there was a tremendous sense of justice and fairness.”
“The book was a personal journey; despite both our families (hers and husband’s) being rooted in Coorg, we knew very few people in the villages…with education and going away, you tend to lose links,” she points out.
You definitely can’t dismiss it as a coffee table book laden with fantabulous pictures, though it can also be seen that way. “For the non-reader who would want to just look at the pictures, we put in detailed captions that should make you go back to the text. This is to bring in the younger generation, yet retain the depth of the work.”
Proceeds from the sale of the book, priced at Rs. 7,500 will be donated to the Coorg Education Fund.