The epitome of folk tradition

The epitome of folk tradition

There exists a society where each member of the tribe carries a song from the womb to the grave. I read about it some years ago and the story has stayed with me all these years. A unique tribe in Africa stands witness to this custom where a woman of the tribe on knowing that she has conceived, sits and knits, not a cap or a sweater but a song for her baby-to-be-born. The song develops as the child grows in the womb. She shares the song with the child's father and then with the community.

When the mother is in labour, the women come together and sing the song for her. The child is welcomed into the community with that very song. Whenever the child cries, the song becomes the lullaby. While growing up, if the child errs, the community flocks around the kid and sings the same song in sorrow. A song is intertwined with the life of an individual and that song weaves the individual with the community harmoniously. Finally, when that person is dead, the entire community sings the same song for one last time.

This story resonates whenever I think of Sukri Bommu Gowda, the woman who carries as many or more songs on her lips as the beads of her traditional necklace and the wrinkles on her face. Sukrajji, as she is fondly called, hails from the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe in Uttara Kannada. The tribe has a rich singing lineage. Sukri is the one of the custodians of Halakki tradition.

A song for every occasion

Sukri has a song on her lips for every occasion ­- be it birth, wedding, farming activities or day-to-day activities like filling water and storytelling. Sobane pada, Kami, the traditional Halakki song, and the Arjuna Jogi song are some of the popular songs she sings. Sukri learnt the songs from her mother, Devamma. She has added many more songs to the treasure she inherited from her mother and other women of the tribe. This list grows each day. She infuses life into the stories with her mellifluous voice. While she retains the rhythm, she keeps on improvising the content. One interesting song she renders is the song of Anjugana Hakki, which gives an account of how life is formed. Its story goes like this: when nothing was there in the universe, there appeared a bird called anjuga. The bird laid some eggs. One of the eggs was broken and the contents formed the universe. The water in the egg became the sea, the white portion became the sky and the remaining solid part became the earth.

Sukri is also well versed in rural riddles called ogatu and knows the medical qualities of locally available herbs. Additionally, she is an expert in performing tarle - a Halakki dance form, which she teaches to those who are interested in it. She does not represents just the Halakki song tradition, but is the representative of the Halakki heritage in all its sense. Songs have stayed with her all through her life. She was married at an early age to a much older man. At a young age, she lost her children and husband. "Did you ever stop singing for any period?" I asked. "Never, I always used to sing and I will continue to sing till my last breath," she said immediately. Songs come naturally to her. She makes songs out of everything she sees, listens and feels.

When asked how many songs she knows, Sukri quipped, "Once, some people came to record my songs. They asked me the same question. In turn, I asked them how many songs they would be able to record." This incident happened when researchers H L Nage Gowda, Kareem Khan, H C Boralingaiah and others were archiving her songs. Shripada Shetty, a retired Kannada professor from Ankola, later told me that, her songs, when recorded, would exceed 800 hours. He fondly remembers her like this, "Sukri halliya magu, ettikondavara kaigoosu." It means, Sukri is the child of the village, who belongs to those who pick her up.

She must be around 80 years old now, but her enthusiasm and stamina would put a person half her age into shame. She still cooks, grinds, and works in the fields. Neither recognition nor age has made her sit idle. She lives in her koppa - a Halakki Vokkaliga settlement - along with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. She has also been bestowed awards such as the Nadoja award, Janapada Shri and the Padma Shri. More than the awards, what matters to her is the happiness of the people around her. She always believes that she is one bead among the many beads in the colourful necklace they wear.

Social concern

Sukrai is not just a carrier of the heritage. Her greatness lies also in the way she reacts and responds to the society around her. Sripada Shetty remembers how she along with the late Dinakara Desai fought for the rights of the landless labourers. She strongly stands for girls' education. She has learnt to write her name by practicing on the walls of her hut.

Along with the late Kusuma Sorab, Sukri worked for women's welfare, environmental protection and ban on liquor. She was also a member of the Belikeri village panchayat. She has travelled across the country and has taught university students about Halakki heritage and music.

Writer and researcher  H C Boralingaiah is an authority on Halakki Vokkaligas. He says, "Sukri's uniqueness lies in her social awareness. Her organisational capacity and active participation in social movements make her exceptional. If fact, these qualities make her relevant to all ages." He then explained about a tradition in the community. When a girl comes of age, a function is organised where each woman of the tribe removes one necklace from umpteen number of necklaces around her neck and puts it around the neck of the girl. This is how the girl is blessed when she stands at the threshold of womanhood. This reminded me of the African tradition, mentioned earlier in the article.

Sukri represents the indomitable spirit of the region. Modern education has indirectly confined us to cherish only the written words and written history. Here is a woman who has silently spun a koudi of oral tradition comprising songs and stories. It's time we not just acknowledge but also consider this rich treasure as a part of history.

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