There are many archives, but who is accessing these apart from scholars? I decided to perform and bring these art forms to the urban mainstream
During a casual conversation on folk forms, Bengaluru-born documentary filmmaker and artiste Shilpa Mudbi was taken aback when Kuruva Basavaraj, a former curator of Janapada Loka in Ramanagara, told her there were over 250 folk art forms across Karnataka.
Enthused by this piece of information, she set on a journey in 2012 to document the folk forms of the state. However, she was able to list only 30 to 35 active folk forms like Hejje Kunitha, Kamsale and Jogathi Nrutya. This set off her quest to bring lesser-known folk forms to the mainstream.
She launched the Urban Folk Project in 2017 to bring Karnataka’s rare art forms to urban spaces, and represent diverse communities. Run with the support of her husband, Adithya, the project identifies, highlights and teaches less popular folk art and music.
She also performs traditional songs like sobane and jogula, and has collected around 60 such songs since 2012.
In her work as a researcher, Shilpa noticed that Dalit and North Karnataka traditions are rarely represented. “There are many archives, but who is accessing these apart from scholars? I decided to perform and bring these art forms to the urban mainstream,’’ she explains.
One of the art forms she is currently working to highlight is Yellammaanata, practised by people from the Devadasi and Jogathi (transgender) communities in Bidar, Kalaburagi and Ballari. The folk form is tied to the worship of Goddess Renuka Yellamma and holds deep connections to marginalised communities.
Shilpa says there are around 1,000 variations of Renuka’s stories across India.
Shilpa’s interest in the art form was kindled in 2015, when she was working with the Indianostrum Theatre in Pondicherry. The centre’s founder Koumarane Valavane wanted to make a film about the war between Sinhalese and Tamils, wishing to portray a deity who receives people with universality.
Shilpa associated such traits with Goddess Renuka Yellamma.
Yellammaanata calls for the empowerment and liberation of women from oppression. The form also highlights motherhood, sexuality and feminism.
Being from the marginalised Madiga community herself, Shilpa grew curious about what Yellamma meant for her community and how her hometown, Mudbi, accepted the goddess. She had heard many stories and songs from her grandmother. Wanting to delve deeper, Shilpa and Adithya moved to Kalaburagi to explore other folk forms in the region.
"Earlier, Yellammanaata was only performed in our communities. Shilpa broke the barriers by learning the art form and taking it to others,” says Padma Shri awardee and artiste Manjamma Jogathi.
Keen to share this knowledge, Shilpa has been conducting workshops and classes to teach these songs and also playing traditional instruments with Jogathis. “Urban people may have encountered the transgender community, but they may not know that they come from a rich folk tradition,’’ she says.
Kuruva Basavaraj says, “Shilpa’s hard work and focus on research are admirable. She presents Yellamma songs just like the community members.’’ Basavaraj adds that due to her efforts to do justice to the art forms, she has never hurt the sentiments of the community.
Shilpa and Adithya conduct workshops in public spaces and in homes. They also teach people virtually and conduct workshops in colleges. The Urban Folk Project has conducted regular teaching sessions for singing at Cubbon Park.
“I saw Shilpa’s Yellammaanata at the Living Room Kutcheri in Bengaluru. Though I was tired and thought I would only stay for some time, I ended up watching the entire 90-minute show,” says Odissi dancer Meghna Das, who produced a Yellammaanata show for Shilpa in Bengaluru, after watching her previous performances.
Understanding the language is not even a prerequisite, thanks to Shilpa’s interpretation. “As Shilpa knows the songs very well, she first interprets and introduces the songs in English,” says Meghna.
This enables the audience to understand the story as it unfolds through Kannada folk songs during the performance. “Even my non-Kannadiga parents enjoyed watching Yellammanaata,’’ she says.
Seeing how artistes play the shruti and chowdki, folk instruments used in Yellammanaata, was a visceral experience.
She soon started collecting these traditional instruments. However, very few shops sold them. “Shop owners would laugh and ask why we were interested in buying them,” says Shilpa. With great difficulty, the couple was able to source instruments from the Miraj market in Maharashtra.
Today, through the project, well-known artists have been trained in playing these instruments. Others in the folk art circle too, are showing interest and learning to play. “The instruments are not difficult to learn. They are closely intertwined with music and rhythm, and even more connected to our culture,’’ says renowned singer M D Pallavi.
Due to how the Urban Folk Project tells the stories, Yellammanaata holds great appeal, even for people unfamiliar with the tradition, says Pallavi. “Being an urban musician, I admire how Shilpa has found a way to connect modern performance with the Kannada folk art forms from her roots,’’ she adds.
As a filmmaker, Shilpa has made documentaries on 30 farmers across Karnataka, in collaboration with veteran film director P H Vishwanath. “She could have worked in any television channel with her qualifications and led a comfortable life. Her passion to work on the lesser-known folk art of a marginalised community is commendable,’’ he says.
Mainstreaming the stories of communities is key to Shilpa’s work and to the Urban Folk Project. The couple’s ultimate ambition is to set up an experiential space for folklore, like the Karnataka Folklore University in Haveri.