Field Notes | Society

Karnataka’s Jogappas can now live a gender-fluid life

Jogappas in Bengaluru.

Santosh Jogappa speaks a language that is an indistinguishable mix of Kannada and Marathi. “My language seems to have become like my gender, no?” he laughs. “But as long as you understand what I am trying to say, that is enough.”

Sitting on the steps of Enne Gonda, one of the many water bodies on a hill in Saundatti town in northern Karnataka’s Belagavi district, famous for the Yellamma temple, he begins telling his tale.

Santosh is a part-time Jogappa, a community that dedicates its life to the goddess Yellamma (‘mother of all’) of the Saundatti temple. He dresses up like a woman and offers prayers at the temple on special days such as amavasya (new moon day) and the annual Yellamma festival. But on other days, he is an ordinary guy in trousers and t-shirt who juggles several odd jobs — construction work, part-time work at a tent-house setting up pandals for weddings, or being a messenger for tradesmen.

Santosh was born to a landless family that reared goats in a small village in Belagavi district. He did a few years of primary school.

When he was in his teens, his family decided he was ‘not normal’ because he liked to dress like a girl. He was bullied by friends for being effeminate. They abandoned him, and he grew up homeless surviving on odd jobs.

A rebirth

It was then that he befriended the Jogappas, a transgender group of Yellamma devotees. He recalls the night he too became a Jogappa like them. “I remember that night clearly. It was like a rebirth. We bathed in the Jogula Bavi well; the water was so cold. We then performed a pooja at the temple. The guru tied a thread of ‘pearls’ made of plastic or glass around the boy’s neck, and his induction was complete. His life would now be spent in the service of the goddess.

 The thread of ‘pearls’ that completes their induction as Jogappas.

The thread of ‘pearls’ that completes their induction as Jogappas.

Santosh’s speech is liberally peppered with profanity. “People tell me I use a lot of cuss words, like men do. Do men have a monopoly on that too?’’ he laughs.

Manjamma Jogti, 61, is a full-time Jogappa and folk artist from Ballari district. “People like us become Jogappas as it guarantees us some amount of respect,” she says. By 13, ‘Manju’ felt like ‘a girl trapped in a boy’s body’; and at 20, an uncle, also a Jogappa, took her to a temple where a guru tied a string of muttu (pearls) around her neck. Manjamma was 25 when she first danced in a play on Yellamma along with another Jogappa.

In 2010, she won the Karnataka Rajyotsava award, and now heads a troupe of 10 Jogappas and folk singers who have performed in most cities across the country.

Ramappa Jogappa, who is bathing near the Jogula Bavi, is reluctant to talk about his community. “People insult us for being queer. We are driven to places like Saundatti and Hulagi where queer people gather,” he says. When he was growing up “different,” Ramappa’s parents consulted an astrologer who asked them to take him to Saundatti, where the family gave their son up to the deity and departed. He has since made a living begging and participating in rituals where Jogappas are fed and given money.

Saundatti has been “like a foster home for such abandoned kids and Yellamma the matriarch of the insulted and the abused,” says Rahamat Tarikere, writer and professor in Hampi Kannada University, and the author of a series on the Sufis of Karnataka.

“Queer people rush to Yellamma just as children run to their mother after being body-shamed. They are looking for emotional security,” says Tarikere.

 A Jogappa folk artist from Saundatti in Belagavi.

A Jogappa folk artist from Saundatti in Belagavi.

The myth of Yellamma is that of a brave woman who defeated all the men who opposed her. Stories and songs about Yellamma “are all about reclaiming the right of sex and the right of maternity from a reluctant society,” Tarikere explains. During the Yellamma jatre (festival), Jogappas, attired in colourful saris, strings of necklaces, with bindi, turmeric and ash adorning their foreheads, sing folk songs, including Sufi songs, with an ektara and cymbals or drums in hand.

Art to the rescue

“Manjamma’s life is a sad story, but it is so common it can be the story of any queer person in the country,” says Arun Jolad Kudligi, research scholar at the Hampi Kannada University. It reflects a patriarchal society’s response to a boy who turns into a girl, he says. “It is seen as a defeat or surrender. They are disowned by parents, shunned by friends, ridiculed by the society, and abused by the authorities like the police.” Art and religion thus become their saviours. “The Jogappas find solace in this,” says Kudligi.

Predictably, being transgender does little to dilute caste or religion. Lakshman Guru, born into a Dalit family, talks of how she faces caste-based discrimination — “people point us out” — but “it is tolerable as we live in a fraternity,” she says. For others, it’s been much worse. When Hussein Ahmed and Abdul Ali died, neither would the Muslims bury them nor the Hindus who had accepted them as Jogappas all their life. Finally, a band of Jogappas buried the two in a common graveyard after convincing the two communities.

Most of the Jogappas don’t have a clue about the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377. But Manjamma Jogti welcomes it. She realises, however, that there’s still a long way to go before the community can live a life of dignity. “Can you eat rotis the day you planted jowar in the fields? No. You have to wait for the crop to grow, harvest and clean it, grind the grains and then make rotis. It will take a generation for our community to understand the meaning and implications of the Supreme Court order,” she says.

One of Yellamma’s songs goes: ‘Messe mattu kase iddavara / solisi seere udisidavalu Yellamma’.

Yellamma, it says, defeated all those who sported moustaches and lungis and made them wear saris instead. It’s a victory over decreed masculinity that the Jogappas have sung about for a long time, and which is finally coming true now.

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Printable version | May 8, 2022 12:39:42 pm |