End of a story

There was a time when teams of storytellers, armed with painted scrolls, would steadfastly make their way to North Telangana’s villages, after the harvest was over, when their patrons would have some time on their hands to be transported to a mythical world of kings and demons.

But now the sun is setting on Patam, the 900-year-old art of storytelling from this region. Once practised by thousands of artists from 12 sub-castes, the narrations would mostly be tales of the mythological origins of each of the parent caste groups, narrated with the aid of a Patam or painted scroll. Now, hardly anyone from the younger generation can sing these stories that their elders memorised and reinvented and handed down over generations.

The names of the storytelling sub-castes roll out like a litany — Patam vaaru or Masayyala vaaru, a sub-caste of the Chakali or the washermen’s community; Teracheerala vaaru, Kommula vaaru, and Mandahechhula vaaru of the Yadavaor shepherd community; Aenuti and Goudajetti of the Gouda or toddy-tapper community; Dakkali of the Madiga community, Kunapuli of Padmashali or weavers’ community, Gurram vaaru of the Mala community, Kakipadagala of the Mudiraj community, Addam vaaru of Mangali or the barber community, and Korrajuof the ‘Nayakapodu’ tribe.

Each vaaru would only recite the tale of its own parent caste, and the caste in turn had the responsibility of ensuring the survival of these sub-castes with an annual maintenance. This age-old arrangement, which gave the storytellers employment and the parent caste the preservation of its history, has now broken down due to modernisation.

“The scroll with me is the only one left in our community in Telangana. It is 127 years old,” says Puranam Ramesh from the Kunapuli community of Shayampet in Warangal district. For his livelihood, Ramesh does not depend on storytelling any longer. He interprets the Telugu almanac for believers and gives Vaastu suggestions.

The fading scroll is unravelled only when he is commissioned by the State government to perform during special occasions such as Pushkaralu or Telangana Formation Day. Aenuti sub-caste members are even worse off, and have resorted to daily wage labour.

“We only perform when the Gouda community celebrates the Srikantha Malleshwara Swamy festival once in three to nine years. The rest of the time, we beg for alms or are forced into waged labour,” says Akula Ekambaram from Nellikuduru of Warangal district. Thandu Bhiksham from Nalgonda district is the only surviving performer from the Teracheerala community. All the members of his caste are agriculturalists, while his sons are highly educated.

“No community is left with more than 10-15 performers now. This art is a distinct literary tradition among underprivileged communities and, unless conserved, there will be no trace left for future generations,” says Jayadhir Tirumala Rao, writer and academic from Telangana, who has been working on subaltern and tribal art forms.

However, there are dissenting voices too. Dalit scholar Ashok Gurram from the University of Hyderabad says the art forms should be allowed to die their natural death, as they reinforce and justify existing caste and gender-based structural hierarchies. “Each of these caste stories or puranas tries to accommodate the parent caste in some mythology, and thereby justifies hierarchical caste relations. They are not mere art forms but a significant political message inseparable from the Varna system,” says Gurram.

The majority of the stories are sourced from myths such as Markandeya Purana, Aadishakti Purana, Mrukanda Purana, Jambava Purana, and Basava Purana, among others. Significantly, the stories, while tracing the “noble origins” of the caste, always cites a slip-up by ancestors due to which the community is condemned to do penance as a lower caste.

Little research has been done to explore the historical origins of these stories and sub-castes. Some of the communities still own manuscripts of the myths they narrate, which have not yet been deciphered. All researchers, however, agree that at least some of the stories have emerged from the 12th Century ‘Veera Shaiva’ movement propounded by Basava.

Literature scholar Jilukara Srinivas says some stories can be attributed to the entrenchment of Brahminism that successfully crystallised each profession into a caste. “Patam narratives can be seen as attempts to weaken Buddhism, which was strong in this region till the 14th and 15th centuries.

The stories refer to epics that date back to 1 AD when there were attacks on Buddhism,” says Srinivas.

Academic and researcher Pulikonda Subbachari has a different take. “The practice of narrating tales with visual aids existed more than 3,000 years ago, and the caste puranas of unknown historical origins merely rode on the back of these tools for propagation,” he says.

Can the art form be deployed today to propagate Ambedkarite philosophy or at least to educate the downtrodden communities? Nobody seems willing to explore that aspect.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 7:59:51 PM |

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