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This ancient Telangana folk artform was struggling to survive. Then Covid pushed it to edge

A Telangana folk art that involves narrations of stories from epics to particular Telugu communities is staring at extinction after taking a hard Covid hit.

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Hyderabad: For the last five decades, Kistayya, 66, has told stories to make a living — finding his calling in an ancient folk tradition passed on to him by his ancestors, and one he has passed on to his children. But the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have sounded the death knell for his livelihood, which wasn’t exactly thriving in the years before.

Kistayya is a practitioner of a Telangana folk art that involves narrations of tailor-made stories from epics to particular Telugu communities. Dating back to 12th century, the artform sees members of a community’s sub-castes going from village to village to narrate the stories to their “parent castes”. 

The tools employed are diverse — song and dance, dolls and idols, and Telangana’s popular Cheriyal-painted scrolls-called ‘Patam’, often 5-6 feet long and dating back hundreds of years. The stories told are ancient mythological tales from epics such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Gonda Puranamu, and Markandeya Puranam, among others, based on the pantheon of gods and goddesses that each community reveres. 

The artform is generally performed before a gathering of people, so the social distancing guidelines imposed for the pandemic rendered performances nearly impossible.

Kistayya, a member of the Kakipadagollu community, said he and his family of seven came to Vishwanathpally village in Siddipet district two months ago, hoping they could resume their art and earn a living. But not a single person is ready to be their audience, he told ThePrint.

“We live by the mercy of our Mudiraju (community) — it’s like we’re existing to tell tales to them. But we haven’t told a single story since March… Now, due to the fear of Covid, no one wants to gather and listen to our stories,” he said.

With this community of artistes struggling to get by, the Telangana government says it is trying to arrange financial assistance for them. However, experts offer a dim prognosis, saying the artform is nearly certainly headed for extinction, like many others, unless a conscious effort is made to preserve it.

Also Read: ICCR to promote India’s heritage online in ‘soft diplomacy’ amid global Covid-19 lockdown

A continuing struggle

Clad in a white shirt and lungi (traditional men’s sarong), Kistayya has three layers of silver chains in his neck and a heavy metal bangle in his left hand. In his ears is a pair of gold-plated earrings. The earrings have been passed on in the family for at least five generations now, just like the patam that Kistayya and his family use to narrate stories.

“The artform is a source of livelihood for the family, but also a matter of pride and identity,” said Kistayya. 

This artform, which is still alive in small pockets of Telangana, is one of an estimated 100 folk artforms in the state.

By tradition, different communities have their own band of storytellers in their own sub-castes, who narrate the stories only to their parent caste. For instance, the Gouds community (toddy tappers) have the ‘Gonda Chettys’, the Chakalis (washermen) have the ‘Chakalipatamvaru’, the Koonapuli-varus for the Padmasalis (weavers community), and the Kakipadagallolus for the Muttarasis (fruit pickers, also known as Mudiraju) etc.

In normal times, each group of storytellers would be paid up to Rs 10,000, or given food for the stories they performed. Now, many like Kistayya and Krishna, 50, — another storyteller stuck in a village nearby — are getting by on the government’s rations support or help from local villagers.

Krishna’s family is among 20 storytellers staying in a few makeshift huts at a village named Darga 10 km away. The troupe includes seven children.

This group arrived in the village before March, but has been stuck here since the lockdown. 

“Our only source of livelihood was storytelling and we have not been able to do it for the past seven months. We did get rations given by the state government, but how many days will that suffice? We have to earn our livelihood and it’s gone, completely,” said Ramulu, one of the members of the group.  

Amid dwindling opportunities over the years, many of the bards have taken up alternative jobs as daily-wagers. According to Jayadhir Tirumala Rao, a writer and academic from Telangana working on subaltern and tribal artforms, there would hardly be 10 families in each sub-caste still practising this art. 

But an alternative career is not an option everyone has.

“We don’t know any other work. A few young people are going to these daily-wage jobs, but, for most of us, it is difficult. I am almost 50 years old, can I do such physical work at this age suddenly? Will my body support me?” Narsamma, who has three children, said.

“Yet, I tried. I went to the fields for a day and had to rest for two days due to a backache. My children and I eat one meal and skip the other,” she added.

Krishna said life has been difficult for many years now. “There were days when we had no food for two-three days and still we had to perform. With a starving stomach knotted tightly, we went about telling stories on some days,” he added. “Only when people liked our art, they gave us food to eat.”

With Covid exacerbating their problems, many of these artistes do not want to pass on their tradition to their children. They want the struggle and the storytelling to end with them.

“Earlier also, it was difficult, but at least we managed to get food to eat,” added Narsamma. “These 8 months, we’ve spent most of our time starving. We don’t want our children to go through what we’ve been, they will not be able to handle it. We want them to study and get into full-time jobs, and not be a nomadic like us,” she said.

Added Arjun, 30, “We don’t know when we will be able to travel, tell stories and live like before — if this continues, we’re scared that we will be separated from our children, we cannot survive like this.”

Also Read: Live shows out, live-streaming in: What the future of performing arts could look like

‘Lot more needs to be done’

Hyderabad-based Cheriyal artist Sai Kiran said he tried to help these groups by conducting online workshops, where he pushed them to showcase their art virtually.

“I tried convincing a few of them and said I would pay them Rs 2,500 for 30 minutes. It did not work out. Even before the pandemic, most of them had left the art and are earning money doing different jobs,” he added.

According to Kiran, a few ‘patam’ storytellers sold their original Cheriyal scrolls and are using an imitation to narrate stories.

“It could fetch them lakhs of rupees. These scrolls could be easily 100 years old or much more. So, selling them at the right place would fetch them money, but that would be killing the art. Cheriyal paintings have a key significance associated with these storytellers,” he said.

With much uncertainty around, many art experts are of the opinion that the pandemic may have finally led this niche art form to its end. 

“This is a literary tradition in underprivileged communities, and has been completely diminishing over the past few years… A few similar artforms went extinct too. If the current generation decides to not conserve it, and pass it on to their future, we will not be able to see any more of this artform,” Tirumal Rao said.

Asked about the lot of the artistes, Mamidi Hari Krishna, director of the Telangana Culture Department, said there are more than 20 communities that have these “dependent storytellers”. 

“The department has put forth a proposal to the state government and the central government for financial assistance to the folk artistes in the state,” he added. The proposal, he said, is “under consideration” by the state government but the department has not heard from the central government yet.

“Telangana is a treasure trove when it comes to folk art. For instance, ‘Chindu Yakshagana’ are a group of storytellers who talk about local legends or the gods in the SC community. So, all the castes in the hierarchy have their own story to tell, it’s not just the upper case or communities,” Mamidi Hari Krishna said.

He claimed that, in its six years of existence, the Telangana government has taken many initiatives to encourage the artform and keep it alive, but admitted that “a lot more needs to be done”.

“We hosted workshops, celebrated folklore days, where these artistes would be called to perform, and paid them a good amount, organised a few performances in temples etc — all these are first-of-a-kind initiatives by a state government,” he added. “I understand the pandemic could have left them with no hope, but these artforms need to live. I know these initiatives are not enough and a lot more needs to be done.” 

Also Read: The story of the storytellers: How writers are coping with Covid-19 and the lockdown


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