Along the Potti
Sreeramulu Road in Mandapeta in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district, past
the shops selling flowers and fruits, and eateries on wheels, past the shops
selling jewellery, stands a huge statue of Hanuman. In his light
orange-and-brown tinted stature—legs like tree trunks and arms like logs—he
raises his right hand in benediction. A woman dusts the feet; a man prays. The
Agasthyeshwara Janardhana Swami temple is just next door.
A priest has just
finished the puja. After the Ashirvachanam, Gorrella Ramam, his brother Krishna
Murthy and his son Srinivasa Rao arrive to give a Burrakatha performance as
part of temple celebrations. Ramu, as Raman is better known, is the leader of
the troupe. On the smooth floor of the temple, they open the bag containing
make-up, mirrors and costumes.
They wash their faces with water, and smear “pana chromatic” make-up cream that will glaze the face, hold off sweat and stop colours from draining off.
Ramu’s face is a rainbow of white, yellow and red zinc-colours. It changes and shimmers under the tubelight. The more they work on their faces, the more the faces glow. Krishna Murthy takes a black pencil, puts a drop of water, and works on his thick moustache flecked with gray, turning it charcoal-black. They apply black and collyrium on the eyebrow and temple, to blacken the gray. Ramu adds a tilak on his forehead.
His brother, Krishna Murthy, the main storyteller, puts on turban, ghajjelu (ankle bells) on the feet and andelu (brass ringlets) on the left thumb. The tambura is on his shoulder and his turban has a crest of crane feathers, while the two hold percussion instruments called dhakkis, also gummetalu.
They wear a clutch of chains, some made of Rudraksha and some of stones. Ramu doesn’t wear the turban because he has a thatch of curly hair sloping like a hillock on top of his head, what he calls “good hair”.
“Taking his lead, some Burrakatha artistes have given up the turban,” his brother says. Krishna Murthy is a burrakatha artiste and retired Hindi pandit. Officially 58, unofficially 54. Although his real age is 54, his certificate shows his age as 58, he says.
Their costumes are brighty coloured (“when you’re telling the stories of valour, no light colours), and they take two idlis each (“stomach shouldn’t be stuffed before the performance, otherwise, you cannot tell the story”).
Ramu is five feet five, and has the inviting smile of a childhood friend. His eyes often water. He is 72, but retains a boyish charm. In many ways, Ramu has perfected the mechanics of Burrakatha. Other artistes look up to him, and try to imitate his effortless, intimate performances.
Instruments in their
hands and tambura on shoulder, chests out, moustaches manicured, turbans tied,
faces gleaming, resplendent in their costumes, the story oozing from their
bearing, the three-member troupe is ready for the stage.
Burrakatha is the most
popular storytelling folk art form in Andhra Pradesh.
In ages gone by, it was used to spread stories from the Puranas and the Ithihasas to unlettered villagers. Listening to the narratives of “Palnati Yuddham” (the battle of Palnadu), “Bobbili Yuddham” (the battle of Bobbili) and “Desigu Raja Kathalu”, people came to know about their martial past.
During the 1970s, the medium was also used extensively by the Central and state governments to spread the message of family planning,” he says, “and it reached a lot of people.
It’s a narrative form that combines knowledge of the puranas and ithihasas, dharma prabodha, and some entertainment to help the mix fix itself in the popular mind. That is probably why the form has stood the test of time. The narration rides on “ragada” and “dwipada” the folk poetic meters, on “ragam and talam”, and the rhythmic follow-up by the accompanists that rev up the performance.
It’s a low-cost
entertainment for village squares and street corners that carries on late in
the night at times, and, sometimes through the night. In the old days, people
would reward the storytellers with alms, now it’s more like a fixed fee.
“It’s a great medium of communication,” says V S S Krishna Kumar, editor of Netitaram Surya, an eveninger in Rajahmundry. “It’s a generalised form to narrate anything.”
The narrative incorporates “history, battles, prevailing social, economic, cultural, political, ethical, spiritual circumstances”, and is thus ideal for “spreading ideological themes and peoples’ issues”.
“During the 1970s, the medium was also used extensively by the Central and state governments to spread the message of family planning,” he says, “and it reached a lot of people.”
In the freedom struggle, burrakatha became the vehicle to instill patriotism among the people. The latest events, the sacrifices of the leaders, their plans, and the machinations of the British were incorporated into the narratives. Fearing its effect on villagers and people in remote places, the rulers banned burrakatha in Madras province and the Nizam’s kingdom.
In the 1940s, the medium underwent a change under the influence of the Praja Natya Mandali (Andhra’s version of the Indian People’s Theatre Association). Art increasingly became a medium for social themes and political ideologies. It was Shaik Nazar who brought burrakatha to the stage, and he scripted narratives on such varied themes as the Bengal famine, Palnati Yuddham, Bobbili Yuddham, and others. He was conferred Padma Shri for his contributions to folk art.
He inspired an entire generation of artistes. Ramu says. “Nazar was six feet tall, neither fair nor dark, nor particularly handsome,” but had “large eyes that could express any bhava. He was such an actor that he could weep through one eye, tears streaming though one eye, while the other remained normal.”
Jr Nazar had a wonderful, mesmerising voice. His songs and poems held people spellbound.
When Ramu was 11, in
class five, he put on “vichitra vesham” and acted in small plays. His first
burrakatha was on “Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose” which was in his text book.
Indranganti Hanumat Sastry, his Telugu teacher, inspired him with a love for
the language. “He had a way, singing poems with all the inflections,” Ramu says
while singing lines from his childhood classes. “The teacher sang in such a way
that it resembled a movie.”
When his friends came over, Ramu would tell them stories, show them newly-minted scripts, note down their reactions, and improve his delivery. In high school, his teachers encouraged him to do more burrakatha.
“I would walk or go by rented bicycle to wherever burrakatha was showing,” he says.
While going I would play talam on the bell.” After completing SSLC in 1961-62, he joined Jr Naazar’s (the most popular artiste of his time in East Godavari region) troupe. “We were dirt poor, we had to earn money. In those days I would get five rupees for a performance.”
“Jr Nazar had a wonderful, mesmerising voice. His songs and poems held people spellbound.”
Narrating burrakatha and listening to the elder artistes, he learnt how to hold audience interest. “I had this overwhelming desire to entertain people with the story.” He became obsessed with developing language to tell the story in interesting ways.
“I had a keen ear, and by reading good literature, Purana and Ithihasa stories, religious stories, I developed my language.
“I would read poetry,
and make notes of particularly beautiful passages.” He is still at it. “If I
liked any expression or word, I would use it in the narration.” Even now, he
has a scrap of paper filled with scribbles.
The grammar of
burrakatha came naturally to him. The troupe consists of three narrators: one
lead who narrates the story in padyams (poems) and two vantalu. One vanta, the
hasyagadu (the funny guy) on the left cracks jokes and the other, the rakjakiya
vanta, on the right, comments on contemporary socio-political matters and
connects them to the main narrative.
Burrakatha is a dramatised narrative form. The side discourse often differs from the central story, weaving in political themes, contemporary social causes, morals and ethics, and synthesising them with main story, thus offering a multi-layered narrative. The narrators don’t act out the characters, but they verbalise the emotions of the story. In this troupe, Ramu is rajakiya vanta his brother Krishna is the lead narrator, and his son the funny guy.
On stage, they start off with a song in praise of Shiva, the presiding deity of the temple. For Ramu, the stage is his world. He discovers himself on stage, and is, in turn, discovered.
“On stage I forget about everything, my sole focus is on entertaining the audience.” It’s a makeshift affair, workers joining a few low tables and throwing a thick carpet over them.
A sparse crowd settles in front. Men in lungis, men on bicycles going home from work, men with scraggly gray beards. Some trundle off; some loiter. A few youngsters lean on their bikes to listen in.
“Old men linger here to listen to us but the younger ones just stand there a few minutes and go away.” Off stage, Ramu walks in small, measured steps. On stage he bounds and rocks like he is possessed, like he celebrates himself, celebrates the story, celebrates his brother and son who share the stage with him, celebrates the life we all lead, celebrates the art. He throws his hands in the air, his face a red cherry, his eyes as wide as the Godavari .
The story is “Veerabhimanyu”. The lead narrator takes off with a poem, providing historical context while rakjakiya vanta and hasyagadu keep up the refrain.
In the quiet of the night, it’s their voices, amplified through speakers that reverberate around the place. The funny guy tells a joke: one man boasts that his wife doesn’t take food until he comes home. “Mine too,” the second guy replies, “because I have to come home, cook and serve her.”
The children, perched on the railing, roar with laughter.
“I like jokes in burrakatha,” says Ankita, a class 5 student, who might have sneaked out of her studies to loiter around here.
The story picks up, the vantas’ hands beating the dhakki. Krishna, the lead narrator, paces back and forth, his face a canvas of feelings. A slim figure sitting in the shadows is all ears. Narasimhulu, an agricultural labourer, cannot have enough of burrakatha.
“I love the way they tell burrakatha,” he says, “they are interesting, the battles, Abhimanyu’s marriage and his going to battle.” After a long day’s hard work, these timeless stories relax. The jokes make him laugh hard. When the lead narrator stops, these two take turns in riffing off, one joking, and the other expanding the message. His hands twirl, trace patterns in space. His hands do a dance as he dwells on the dialogue between the elders and Ahimanyu as he prepares to go into Padmavyuha. As he describes the scene of Abhimanyu’s valour, his eyes breathe fire. He stands daring people. The battle flashes right in front of the mind’s eye.
His words describe the torrent of emotions, his voice now tender as a lover, now rough as a file. “Oh, the narration,” says Ramana, a small-time businessman, “this is music to my ears.” He makes it a point to catch burrakatha, as often as he can.
The night gets muggy. The jokes continue. Hasaygadu regales the audience with some rib-tickling stuff about domestic disputes, of hens and hen-pecked husbands.
Meanwhile, Ramu weaves his words into sounds like swords tinkling and shields clashing, elephants trampling and horses galloping, sometimes just water splashing as a boat cuts through the river. It’s not just the story but the staccato beat of his words, and sentences, the sound more than the sense, the feel more than the facts, that lingers long after the memory of the performance fades.
While the story progresses, people offer a little money as a token of appreciation, 10, 20 and fifty rupee notes. He stops the narration midway—now twice in two minutes—and invokes the Lord’s blessings on them, wishing them and their families prosperity and health.
The narration resumes where he had left off. Feeding off the story, embellishing it, he strives for that elusive attention of the audience and for their approval, and for a little smile on the face of a man sitting right in front of the stage.
His ear for the beautiful word saved him, made him famous, made him a great burrakatha narrator. “Since my childhood I have been in love with beautiful words,” he says, “it was due to Hanumat Satstryji.” He has the uncanny ability to make Telugu itself a big idea in the story. The tone of the language snags attention. Alliteration amplifies the feel for the story.
Words have music, he says. He jots down on scraps of paper interesting words heard on bus rides, boat rides, around street corners, in hotels, conversations with friends, strangers, fellow storytellers, words that tug at you; words that refuse to go away.
“Once I wrote a song while on a boat and by the time we reached the other bank,
the writing was over. I sang it that night.”
His popularity and that of his troupe stems from the way he locates you in your life even if you’re trying to flee from it.
Like a social ethnographer, he gets a sneak-peek into the affairs of men of the village they’re in for a performance by talking with people and observing things. Then, in his narration, he satirises some happenings, or refers to the bad guys indirectly, sympathises with people passing through a particular set of circumstances, and relates them to the arc of narrative in the story.
“If things are too nasty to satirise or comment upon, I stay neutral, and go on with my story,” says Ramu.
“I am very much attuned to the pulse of the people in villages, what they’re going through at that particular point of time.”
The stage is not an easy place to be on. So many eyes watch your every move, so many ears listen to your words, look at your arms, legs, and your expressions, and your costume. Every moment counts in a performance that could go on for three to three-and-a-half hours.
The stage became an arena on which to prove himself, to prove to others he could tell a riveting tale, and provide him, in the process, with a livelihood. The stage was a place he ached to belong, and he belonged.
“There was desire for money,” he says, “I wanted to earn and not starve.”
“I wanted to earn not by any dubious means but by working hard, making stories more immediate, more resonant and connecting, and holding the attention of the people.”
People felt he was compromising his art for commercial purposes. He regrets using burrakatha for commercial purposes.
For instance, fertiliser companies wanted to use burrakatha to spread the message about their products. It was a decisive moment.
Is this compromising my art for the sake of commerce, he asked himself.
For the child who saw his father blowing “whatever my grandmother had saved and bequeathed, two trunks-full of silver coins, and got addicted to liquor and died, and the whole family became dirt poor”, for the man who saw their lands appropriated by somebody else, for the man who had to provide for 13 members, (he was married by then and had three sons), for the man whose thatched house was ripped apart in a cyclone, “the decision to do burrakatha on fertilisers and other corporate products was a no-brainer.”
“I had to have a house to keep my family safe and at home.” It meant a better life for him and his family, not just scraping by.
“People thought I
shilled for companies,” he says with regret. The decision tugs at his heart,
although it provided security.
His commercial performances became a rage during mid-90s and the troupe did it for five to six years before quitting.
Companies use burrakatha for its reach among people, to get their products noticed. Governments use it to publicise their welfare schemes and their party ideologies. It is the cheapest and most efficacious way to imprint the message.
performances on two nights, he is at home in Ramachandrapuram in East Godavari
district. He attends to domestic business: papers to be sent; CDs of
performances dispatched; bills paid. He calls on his friend in whose house
someone passed away to express condolences.
His house brims with certificates, plaques, shields, and the books he references.
Showing the school he studied in, he says they added new buildings. He wrote a burrakatha “perraju pantulu” on his school, and also on Ramanujam “to get children interested in his work” and on Sri Sri “to spread his words and poetry among rural folk.” The brothers discuss their upcoming performance
“I have tried to do workshops to teach this art, and train people, to continue the art. But it hasn’t come to pass.”
“People learn but they don’t want to come on stage,” he says.
The profession and art
has failed to attract enough educated persons who have the language and the
pronunciation, (vachakam), people who can tell a story like lions on the stage,
he feels. According to his estimate, there are 300-400 burrakatha artistes in
Andhra Pradesh. At least 150 families make a living from this art. At the same
time, “many have left this profession.”
For some art runs in
the family. Others learn it from experienced artistes. There are 70 to 100
burrakatha troupes in the state.
Telangana and the region’s culture has been a staple of burrakatha performances for many years. “Artistes have been narrating the region’s story for a long time. Issues such as government schemes in microfinance, health and welfare are also part of burrakatha.”
His son plays the funny guy, but he hasn’t got the passion, the literary bent, the fund of words that can hold the attention of people. “Anyway, he comes along with us for his livelihood.”
During his free days, he writes his own scripts for burrakatha and the troupe rehearses at his or his brother’s house, complete with costume and instruments. Script writing usually takes “five or six days”.
He did scripts and burrakatha on podupu (thrift), agricultural methods, water use, AIDS, and on liquor addiction. Explaining the ease and reach of Burakatha, he says, “In the 1960s there were five or six burrakatha troupes but by the 1980s there were scores.
“Burrakatha lends itself to spreading the message in a unique way. With a small number of people, three, the publicity is more.” Navarasas (sringaram, veeram, karuna, adbhutam, hasyam, bhayanakam, bheebhatsam, roudram, shantam) can be exhibited powerfully through burrakatha.
For folk art, “sangeetham, sahityam and required abhinayam are important.”
As it happens, it isn’t always a case of them performing and the audience listening. At that night’s performance, a drunk who knew the Puranas started his own version of the story.
“The other villagers tried to argue and cajole him. The man wouldn’t stop.
Then the villagers tried to swat him down,” he says laughing as he recounts the experience.
“Then I wove the virtue of patience and of treating trouble makers with patience into the narration and continued the story. After a long time the man calmed down.”
Although his troupe’s performances were on radio and TV many times, he holds TV responsible for declining attendance at burrakatha. TV serials are making people get stuck there.”
Apart from its
entertainment value, burrakatha is a service to the community, he
“People are losing the sense of community that used to be built around performances: villagers would gather, have social relationship with each other and celebrate folk art and that bound people. But now, TV is making people more and more isolated. Even in villages.”
Including all, they perform “110 or 120 in a year.” They earn Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 for each performance, although government and other organisations pay much less.
Each village or town or city he tours, each place he visits, is a new place to tell the story, and be feted, and be loved.
Because “Stories make us. Connect us.”