Janamanadata's Ooru Keri, based on one of the most influential Dalit autobiographies in Kannada, was lively and charming

Siddalingiah's autobiography “Ooru Keri” brings to mind yet another Dalit autobiography, Marathi writer Lakshman Gaikwad's “Uchalya”. Both these works recount the trauma and suffering not only of an individual but also of the whole community. Their narratives open up the underbelly of the society; they bring the world of the poor and underprivileged living on the fringes of the society to centre stage. However, there is a vast difference in the tone that these two writers adopt to construct their worlds: Siddalingiah is understated and couches anger and angst in humour, in Gaikwad it is pronounced. What drives Siddalingaih's composed voice? As the late culture critic D.R. Nagaraj put it, it must be “the voice of the creative writer.”

Interestingly, the theatre group Janamanadata, which had staged “Uchalya” years ago, now staged Siddalingiah's “Ooru Keri” at Ranga Shankara recently. With a team of competent actors, the production was lively and charming. The play directed by M. Ganesh, a drama teacher at the Ninasam theatre institute, was a fairly convincing stage version of the autobiography. Retaining the first person narrative of the autobiography, the protagonist was performed by all the actors of the team in turns – making it the story of everyone who shared Siddalingiah's time and space. Many episodes that get a mere mention in his autobiography acquire fascinating visuals in the course of the play.

The sets were minimalist and the backdrop which was a patch of black and white was evocative. Truth, in all its bareness, transcends compartments of black and white. The presentation was poignant in episodes that defy typecasting. For instance, both Siddalingiah's teachers, Nagappachar and Andalamma, were benevolent and refuse to fit into upper class stereotypes. Also, the story of Siddalingiah's uncle, who was well versed with Lakshmisha's “Jaimini Bharatha” which again breaks our notions of the unlettered Dalit. Particularly moving is Siddalingiah's grandfather who was moved by Gandhi's speech and turned a teetotaller, a vow that he kept all his life.

The play kept the emotions of each phase intact: from the joy and surprise of childhood to the more reflective adulthood. In this journey there is also a sharp departure from the community to the individual. In that it moves from a small canvas where personal and public spaces merge to a larger one which begins to locate the self in society. The narrative of the play is sensitive to the demands of the text throughout. However, the play doesn't escape the danger of an autobiography adapted to a stage performance. It changes the tone of the narrative. Siddalingiah maintains a low mimetic, muted expression in the text, but in the play his voice acquires a self-indulgent tone. Siddalingiah subverts moments of deep anguish into clownery, but they become coarse in the production — particularly when Gaddar is invoked.

Music by Swamy Gamanahalli was exceptionally good, capturing all the native nuances. The performance by each of the actors was extremely proficient.

Janamanadata's intervention is important. It not only keeps the tradition of interaction between literature and other forms of cultural expression alive, but also re-examines these texts and the forces that shaped them. Questions emerge: what political and social ideologies would shape a Dalit autobiography of today? Have the marginalised gained in dimension?