The chowdike itself is simple in structure – cylindrical, usually made of bark, and sheathed with hide on one end. It has a wooden arm close to its mouth. The percussion usually prefers the company of shruti, a taller but similar stringed cousin, plucked with hand or a pick.
One of its most vibrant stories of origin comes from North Karnataka’s folk myths and the powerful deity Yellamma: That chowdike is indeed the head of a murdering king, Kartiveerya, who murdered Yellamma’s husband Jamadagni.
“Every deity is also geo-tagged. So, at Saundatti, Belagavi, Yellamma is believed to have to taken over the king-less kingdom, and given its women these instruments as a means to step out of the house, traverse the world, sing and dance, and claim their rights,” details Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota, co-founder of Urban Folk Project, who specialises in Yellamma padas (folk songs) and is on a mission to stop them from dying.
Latched on to such a story, chowdike then becomes an object of liberation for women from patriarchy, points out the folk artiste.
She argues that myths, in the hands of artistes, have the flexibility to accommodate reality. And often, micro myths in songs are indeed woven with stories by women that reflect their status and place in the region.
Chowdike also brings to the fore the jogatis or devadasis, those dedicated to goddess Yellamma, and not allowed to marry a mortal. This practice has been outlawed.
“The more traditional the form becomes, the more elaborate the instruments become. Those that don’t stay in trend, drop off the map. Jogatis are upholders of art. Yes, some of the practices are regressive. But the folk tradition itself is not. It’s a way for all of us to speak without speaking, dream collectively, imagine things together,” she asserts.
Devadasis were once under royal patronage and got centre stage for their performances, before they were marginalised due to societal and sexual oppression.
Radha Bai, a chowdike pada artiste, has the distinction of shunning the identity of devadasi, but holding on to its musical counterpart. At her home in Kokatnur, in Athani taluk, Belagavi, there was once a time when her father, a player of chowdike, fearing the loss of the folk tradition, tried to teach his elder daughter. Radha stood by and grasped the lessons.
The uninterested sister left the father teary-eyed. Radha pleaded with her mother to convince her father to teach her instead, or give her a chance. When she got one, she impressed her father with a verse, and since then has been playing it.
When traditionally pushed into becoming a devadasi, she persisted in convincing her family about her desire to marry a man, and not a deity. She found a husband.
Radha also remembers busking in her village for daily ration. “So was our situation. But things turned around slowly. Now, I play in Bengaluru and at many cultural programmes organised by the government. I have been asked to weave social messages in this format, and it can be done. This art is beautiful. I see why my father didn’t want the art to die,” the 50-plus artiste says.
For some, chowdike means a bigger stage for recognition of talent and financial stability.
The presence of these instruments carry the heft of at least 2,000-3000 years, according to Kuruva Basavaraj, the curator of Janapadaloka, a sprawling pocket in Ramanagara that is home to Karnataka’s folk culture and art. “And they have both refined – from the Puranas - as well as crude – from the folklore - backstories. They are predominant across North Karnataka even now. The chowdike gets its name from the sound it makes,” he adds.