Indian musical instrument with rich history on the verge of extinction

Four years ago, Dakkali Balamma sat on the ground in front of her thatched hut in the village of Mambapur in Telangana, bending intently over her kinnera. When the 86-year-old strummed the instrument, it produced a melodious, high-pitched sound. Her voice was slightly hoarse with age, but her grip on shruti, the measure of pitch, and laya, or beat, was firm. After a few minutes, she looked up at her audience and waited for his response. The heavy applause did not disappoint her.

When Balamma was younger, residents of her village said, she rode on horseback, much to the fear of her Dakkali tribe. Her voice, at the time, was more powerful, and her impressive performances with the kinnera in the villages of the district were rewarded with money, food and clothing by the Madigas, the patron class. Fortunes have changed over time. By the time Balamma passed away in December 2018, she was penniless. The villagers had to pool money for his last rites.

Balamma was one of a dozen people in India who still played the instrument. The kinnera is a stringed instrument originating from the nomadic tribes of the Deccan plateau, such as the Dakkali and the Chenchu. A kinnera performance involves song and music, and the ballads are sung primarily in rustic Telugu. But today, it is an almost forgotten practice.

Dakkali Balamma. Photo credit: Jayadhir Thirumala Rao.

Origin story

Scholar and poet Jayadhir Thirumala Rao says the origins of kinnera date back to “around the 4th century AD, in and around the Deccan Plateau”. “The Chenchu ​​tribe [also known as Chenchus or Chenchulu], who were part of the Nallamalla Forest, played the instrument while singing and telling ballads or hero stories, ”Rao said. “The Dakkali tribe of the Mahbubnagar district in Telangana [in the area near the Nallamalla forest] performed it at least from the 12th century. The Dakkalis are a sub-caste of the Madiga caste, once considered outcasts.

The kinnera has several variations – it comes with seven, nine, 12 or 13 frets. The larger ones have three resonators, while the smaller ones only have two. Just like the Saraswati veena, the instrument is made with organic materials. Its neck is made of bamboo and the resonators of sun-dried, hollowed-out bottle gourds. Pangolin scales are used for the frets and honey wax for the binding. Ropes were once made from female hair, ponytail hair, and even animal nerves, but have long been replaced by thin metal ropes.

The ballads accompanying the music are usually taken from historical incidents, the lives of local heroes and sometimes from songs of the Jamba Puranam. the Jamba Puranam is one of some 40 Telugu Puranas that differ from the Sanskrit Puranas in that their content is specific to a local community. The ballads are often interspersed with simple and short monologues, often dramatic. The tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language change with the mood of the song.

A kinnera. Photo credit: Shilpaka Venkatadri.

Drop in attendance

Researchers say that aside from the last surviving kinnera artists in the Mahabubnagar and Vikarabad districts of Telangana, there may be a few other artists in Karnataka, the Adilabad district of Telangana and the Gond tribal areas of Madhya. Pradesh.

Darshanam Mogilaiah, who is part of the Dakkali tribe, plays the 12-fret kinnera. He received the state’s highest honor, the Ugadi Purakaram, in 2015. There is even a chapter about him in a school social studies textbook. Another member of the Dakkali tribe, Pochayya, from Mahabubnagar district, was honored by Hyderabad University in 2015.

But such honors and awards failed to make a difference in the lives of these artists. Their performances are rare – at occasional academic gatherings or art festivals – and pay has declined. Most of them are forced to live on Madigas allowances.

There are several reasons for this decline. According to Rao, a popular story among the tribes is that a woman was so engrossed in the music of the kinnera that she cut up her baby with the vegetables she had in front of her. Naturally, the elders of the tribe warned everyone against using the instrument.

Another reason, and the most likely, is the lack of raw materials. With the decrease in forest areas, it has become difficult to get the right kind of gourds and pangolins. A third reason is the decrease in patronage for this art form, which in turn discourages the younger generation from playing kinnera. Another factor is the unconventional nature of the instrument. Unlike drums, which are still popular in rural areas, the kinnera requires special skills, both to make and to play it.

Wake-up attempts

KV Ramanachary, cultural adviser to the Telangana government, said the state has held performances and workshops at educational institutions and music schools with the aim of preserving art. But he is aware that these initiatives “only provide a temporary boost and financial gain.” The government wants to appoint a few tribal artists as visiting professors at a music college or university. “But for that, we need a sufficient number of students to enroll,” said Ramanachary. “A lot of people are happy to attend and enjoy these programs, but no one is showing up to learn the instrument. Without students, how can you appoint a teacher?

According to Mamidi Harikrishna, director of the Department of Language and Culture, “performances and lectures-demonstrations for artists like Mogilaiah and researcher Dasari Ranga” have been organized in the recent past, both indoors and out. out of state. A documentary was also made on Mogilaiah. “But given that it is a narrative art form, the language used – Telugu – limits the extent to which it can be understood and therefore promoted outside the state,” he said. he declares.

Rao has been actively working to ensure that the art form does not die out. His interest in the kinnera was piqued when he read the story of a Telangana folk hero named Panduga Sayanna “whose songs were sung with the accompaniment of the kinnera”. “The mention of an unknown instrument intrigued me and I started looking for what I could [do] about it, ”he said. His efforts were complemented by those of Guduru Manoja, professor at Palamuru University in Mahabubnagar.

The two lobbied the government to give artists more opportunities to perform as well as a pension.
In 2015, a team from the Telangana Rachayithala Vedika (or Forum of Telangana Writers) and the University of Hyderabad, including Rao and Manoja, decided to rediscover their lost heritage to the Dakkalis. After obtaining official permission to travel to remote tribal areas and the Tiger Project area, they took Pochayya and his seven-fret kinnera to the village of Appapur in the forests of Nallamala on August 9, International Day. indigenous peoples.

It was a fruitful journey – not only did the tribes recognize the instrument, but in a moving and poignant moment a blind man ran his hands over the kinnera and said, “I would love to play again. But, it seems to only have seven frets and I’m used to the 12 fret version. A few others held the instrument and played it from memory. We are so touched, they told visitors – it has been almost 50 years since we played kinnera.

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