The kinnera’s last strum: Meet Dakkali Balamma, the oldest surviving kinnera player in Telananga

Legend has it that a Chenchu woman, lost in music, cut up her infant along with the vegetables

August 19, 2017 04:21 pm | Updated 06:07 pm IST

Dakkali Balamma, the only woman perfomer of the kinnera, is 95 years old.

Dakkali Balamma, the only woman perfomer of the kinnera, is 95 years old.

The only proof of the umbilical connection between the Chenchu tribal group and the exquisite kinnera musical instrument is now in the archives of The School of Oriental and African Studies,University of London. The rich repository of photographs in these archives includes a couple by eminent Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf.

The pictures show the headman of Mallapur hamlet in present-day Amrabad Tiger Reserve in Mahabubnagar district of Telangana, playing the instrument on its 13 frets.

This magnificent string instrument — with a bamboo neck, dried and hollowed gourds as resonators, strings made of human hair or animal nerves (replaced now with metal), and pangolin scales for frets — has all but disappeared from the cultural lives of this vulnerable tribal group who live in the Nallamala forests spread over Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

But a variant of the kinnera with seven frets was traced decades ago by renowned Telangana researcher and academic Jayadheer Tirumala Rao, to the Dakkali community, a Dalit sub-caste of troubadours who live in a few districts of Telangana. Rao’s interest, in turn, was stoked three decades ago by two lines he had read in Andhrula Sanghika Charitra (Social History of Andhras), which mentioned that the song ‘Panduga Sayanna’ was sung with the Kinnera.

Alms for a living

Historically, a section of the Dakkali community would sing the ‘Jambava Puranam’ that explained their subservience to their chief patrons, the Madigas, while another section would play the kinnera. Both took alms from the Madigas for a living. There is no plausible explanation for how the kinnera came to be part of the Dakkali group while losing its relevance where it had originated. Groups from the Chenchu tribe might have been influenced by the ‘Sramanaka’ culture of Buddhism, and left their tribal life to be part of the caste hierarchy, Rao surmises.

There is, however, an interesting albeit gory anecdote. According to it, a Chenchu women was cutting vegetables and listening to the mellifluous notes cascading from her husband’s kinnera. Lost in the music, she cut up her infant too. The entire tribe was horrified and banned the instrument from the hills.

In the Amrabad Tiger Reserve, Darshanam Mogilaiah from Avusala Kunta village is blissfully unaware of the rich cultural ancestry of the kinnera. He is, however, the only person in Telangana who can play the 12-fret instrument today. On his elaborately painted and decorated instrument, affixed with a wooden turtle-puppet that bows, jumps, and salutes the audience, Mogilaiah lends his stentorian voice to hair-raising stories of ‘Panduga Sayanna’, ‘Miya Saab’, ‘Endematla Fakeeraiah’, and ‘Vettem Ranganayakamma’, popular folklore heroes.

Recognising his talent, the government awarded him the Ugadi Puraskar in 2015 and incorporated a lesson on him in the Social Studies textbook. Ironically, this has not altered Mogilaiah’s social or financial status.

Unable to earn a living in his village, he recently shifted to Hyderabad, where he rents a shack in a slum by a sewer line. His son is a daily wage worker, and his daughters collect garbage.

Outcast among outcasts

Mogilaiah apart, only a few others in the Dakkali community play the kinnera. The oldest of them is Dakkali Balamma, the only woman performer. She lives on the outskirts of a remote village called Mambapur in Vikarabad district. At 95, Balamma plays the instrument and sings the story of ‘Panduga Sayanna’ flawlessly.

Probably the only woman to have learnt the art and performed it, she has lived off it since her husband’s death 30 years ago. “I learnt from my father. Those days, we would travel from village to village on donkeys, and play and sing. People were generous with food and money. Not any more,” she says.

Now living in a makeshift shelter covered by plastic sheets, Balamma and her son, Dakkali Jangaiah, live in the village as a family of outcasts among the outcasts.

Attempts by the State government to revive the kinnera have fallen flat. Cultural advisor to the government, K.V. Ramanachary, tried to introduce a teaching programme in Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University with Mogilaiah as trainer, but there were few takers. “Nobody wants to listen to or learn the archaic songs any more now. We’ve been supporting Mogilaiah by having him play wherever possible,” he says.

Three kinneras have been assembled and displayed at the university. A few tales sung by the Dakkali community have been compiled by Rao, an important part of documenting this rich subaltern cultural history. But we need a little bit more to keep this exquisite instrument from slipping into oblivion.

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