An art form that defines cultural diversity

Imagine Lord Hanuman with a mace aggressively preparing to defeat Ravana, the demon king. Also, picturise Devendra and Viswamitra engaging in a debate; Bheema waiting to fight Hidimba; the affectionate conversation of Ram and Lakshmana; Sita’s dilemma and troubles when in Lanka. All these mythological stories and characters come alive when artistes of ‘Hagalu Vesha’, a traditional art form of North Karnataka, perform.

Wearing a variety of make-up, donning various characters and enacting different episodes of mythological stories every day, these Hagalu Vesha performers move from one village to another each day, entertaining people. Though their life looks as colourful as their dresses, a conversation with them gives an overview of their socially insecure life and everyday struggle.

Hagalu Vesha performers, who impersonate as mythological characters and enact episodes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other mythological stories, are extempore storytellers. Having bequeathed the folk art from their ancestors, these artistes have kept the art form alive by taking it up as a profession now.

A majority of the Hagalu Vesha families come from North Karnataka and can be seen scattered in Kudrimothi, Chikkabommanahalli, Huligi, Hanumasagara, Kutugangalli (all near Koppal), Gutturu near Harihar, Karatagi and Deval near Shirahatti in Gadag district and Haligeri near Ranebennur in Haveri district.

There are also a few families practising this art form in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Gaining expertise in the language of the State and the region, these storytellers move from one place to another, giving live performances. When the number of performers in a certain area increases, they themselves earmark some villages for each performer to cover.

These artistes basically come from Budaga Jangama nomadic community and don’t settle in a particular area. They pitch tents in every village for around 15 to 20 days and perform on major streets every morning. Once they cover the entire village, they get money, hens, cows, grains and other things from the people as a reward for their performance and then move to the next village. Moving along with their horses, cows and sheep, they visit every village under their ambit only once a year and run their household mainly with the offerings they get for their performers. Most of these artistes are illiterate and do not know any other skill. In their off days, they sing and play harmonium, tabala and other folk musical instruments at religious programmes and discourses to earn a little extra.

These artistes get so much involved into the mythological role models and legends they play that they imbibe qualities like patience, perseverance and humbleness in their real-life personality. They are well-versed with the stories narrated in epics and other Puranas and can enact them without any script. Along with the stories, they also convey social messages and morals to the audience and are respected in the villages. The artistes know most of the people in the villages they visit and thus build an emotional bond with the people there.

Every year, families of all Hagalu Vesha performers gather during Muharram at Kudrimothi in Koppal district. It is here that they come up with marriage alliances and discuss various issues. In this platform, they also resolve personal differences, if any, and make a roadmap to face other social problems and challenges faced by the Hagalu Vesha families.

Every day, they wake up early before dawn, have a bath and offer prayer to the God before wearing the make-up. During this time, they decide on the plot, characters and dress up accordingly. Then, they visit every household in the village in the guise of that character, giving live performances till 10 am.

Traditional entertainers

They know most of the mythological songs of yesteryear Kannada actor Dr Rajkumar by heart and after every scene, they entertain people with dance and songs. As most of the performers are males, they themselves enact female characters as well. After their performance, they come back to their camp and remove the make-up. Later in the day, they prepare themselves for the next day’s performance. They continue for a few days and accept the rewards only when they are about to leave the village to move to the next. The artistes never demand any money or valuable but accept whatever given with affection.

Though a common art form, most of the villagers are unaware of the struggle behind keeping the art alive. In recent times, the costumes and make-up (colours) have become costlier and they find it tough to buy them. This apart, they paint their faces and bodies with chemical colours and many times, these colours cause skin problems. To avoid skin irritation after removing the paint, they apply butter to their faces. But buying butter has also become unaffordable for them.

“Our life is not as colourful as it looks when we act. Though we have enough money to feed ourselves, the reward we get is not sufficient to run our household. But we do not feel like leaving the profession which our community has followed for generations as we earn the love and respect of the people by our performances,” says Parasappa, head of a Hagalu Vesha family.

As these families are nomadic, they do not have a permanent house and their children lack education. Though they are entitled to get some funds from the Kannada & Culture Department as they are promoting a unique folk art form, they fail to get it due to lack of proper knowledge about paperwork. Due to these problems and challenges, many artistes are slowly giving up the art and inclining towards other occupations. The government and people must extend some support to ensure that this unique art form does not vanish in this modern era.

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An art form that defines cultural diversity

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