Tuning into better future: When 'The Kattunayakkars' outgrew token tribal festivals

The Jenu Kuruba community, a traditional honey gathering tribe, is among the original inhabitants of the forests of the Western Ghats that stretch over three states – Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Last Updated : 05 April 2024, 10:03 IST
Last Updated : 05 April 2024, 10:03 IST

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Bengaluru: Twenty years ago, Jenu Kuruba (J) B Ramesh, all of 26 years old then, turned to music to vent out his frustration against injustices meted out to his tribesmen. He and his friends grabbed whatever they could find – discarded plastic drums and satellite disks, as well as a motley of musical instruments made of bamboo and dried bottle gourd that were passed on by his ancestors – and formed a 'band'.

The Jenu Kuruba community, a traditional honey gathering tribe, is among the original inhabitants of the forests of the Western Ghats that stretch over three states – Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Majority of the Jenu Kurubas are from Karnataka and post 1970s, they are relocated around Nagarhole and Bandipur forests to enable tiger conservation project.

"Initially, our songs were about how badly we were treated by the government. We were seething with rage – we were not only ripped away from the Nagarhole forest – our home for generations – but we were also denied the rights to the land where we were relocated," said Ramesh.

His family was among those 74 families relocated to Nanachi Gadde Hadi, one of the Jenu Kuruba settlements on the periphery of Nagarhole forest in the Coorg district.

"We were not allowed anything here – we could not cultivate nor build pucca houses; we still don't have access to proper water or electricity," added Ramesh.

At Nanachi Gadde Hadi, home to Ramesh and his band mates – about 15 of them at present, including four women singers – ‘development’ is yet to make inroads.

Everything is introduced with huge fan fare, said the musicians, pointing to the few solar panels installed by the government and the foundation stone promising tapped water. But it is never followed through, they added.

In the last 20 years, nothing really changed for Ramesh in many ways – just like him, his children are now trying to cram the books under the flickering light of petromax lamps. Just like him, more attuned to instinctive learning they too are struggling to cope up with the demands of the modern education system, which leans more towards rote learning.

Ramesh managed till Class VIII and his eldest son, 22-year-old Udaya, who plays ‘bidru kotta’ (a bamboo percussive instrument) for the band, dropped out of school after Class X – as is the case with most his age.

But what education failed to achieve for them, music managed to, said 43-year-old J S Rama Krishna, another founding member of the band. 'For one, we travelled to places as far as Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, ironically, singing our protest songs in government-organised events to showcase tribal people. We learnt a lot from interacting with tribal communities from all over India. Two things we realised: that music could change the game for us and that we needed to organise ourselves better,' said Rama Krishna.

With a renewed focus, about a couple of years ago, the team started to get more professional with the band. They decided to call themselves The Kattunayakkars (king of the forest), in a nod to the popular reference to Jenu Kurubas.

Lead singer J G Kumar (37), another founding band member, said singing has always been a way of life for the Jenu Kurubas.

"We realised that just as we sing about injustice and police brutality, the songs of our generation, we must also sing the songs of our long-lost ancestors, who celebrated nature. Because they all tell our story," he added.

In his 2021 short film, called ‘Kanavu’, Malayalam actor Nebish Benson, who was last seen in the breakout hit film ‘Manjummel Boys’, has documented how the various tribes living in Wayanad, the Kerala side of the Nilgiris biosphere, recorded their stories in songs too. His documentary is about a special school called Kanavu that espoused a more interactive and intuitive learning, especially for Adivasi children.

"I was about 17 or 18 when I came across the school. It was no longer functioning, but I met the generation of Adivasis who were benefited by it. While researching, I realised that in the absence of written history, songs are all the indigenous people are left with, linking them to their past. Schools like Kanavu, which tap into this wealth of knowledge – and their songs – bring the best out of them," said 23-year-old Benson to PTI.

As for The Kattunayakars, the efforts paid off – the band’s reach outgrew the token tribal festivals. Quite recently, they collaborated with Chennai-based percussionist Charu Hariharan for the second edition of the Mahindra Percussion Festival in Bengaluru.

Hariharan said she was impressed with how willing the musicians are to learn. 'They are not musically trained, but when we recorded them, they needed no pitch correction and we did it mostly in straight takes,' added Hariharan.

The growing acceptance of indigenous music has also translated into movie deals for The Kattunayakars. Ramesh said they have sung in four yet-to-release Kannada films.

"I was introduced to the band by my producer, Pavindra Muthappa, who is from Madikeri (Coorg). When I listened to them, I was so impressed with infectious beat of their songs that I modified the script of the film a bit, justifying the presence of Adivasis and had the band singing and dancing for us," said Kannada film director Rudra Shiva, whose debut film Shabhash featuring the band is slated for August release.

Published 05 April 2024, 10:03 IST

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