Spectrum: Women of grace & grit

Spectrum: Women of grace & grit

Not limited by gender With women breaking the glass ceiling in various fields, fine arts is not far behind. Bannanje Mahila Kala Mandali in Udupi exemplifies this change

Members of Bannanje Mahila Kala Mandali performing ‘chande’

Coastal Karnataka greets tourists with a kaleidoscope of traditional art, culture and dance forms. One such art is beating the traditional chande, a large cylindrical wooden drum that is hung on the shoulder. Its tough leather top is percussed with wooden sticks to create sequential thumping beats. Known for its characteristic rhythm, chande is commonly performed at utsavas, processions and religious ceremonies, infusing positive energy and leaving spectators in awe.

Breaking barriers

Until recently, chande music was only performed by male troupes. This all changed when artistes Shashidhar Vadapandeshwara and Subramanya Bhat decided to train a group of 22 women with the purpose of promoting an all-women troupe in this arena. After a month-long training, Bannanje Mahila Chande Balaga was formed in Udupi nine years ago. This team of highly passionate women was gladly embraced by the people when they began performing. Soon, they became a sought-after team in all the festivities in and around Udupi. Their popularity was such that, at times, they had even given three performances in a single day!

Undeniably, there are prerequisites for a person to be part of this physically demanding chande performance. “First and foremost, one should have a liking for this art. Also, chande is around 10 kg and is hung on the left shoulder. Its lower part hits the left knee constantly as we walk. Most of the times, the procession goes on for hours. During the day, it is very sunny and at night, the visibility is less. Hence, one should have the adequate stamina to endure all these,” shares Vidyalatha Shetty, the leader of the team.

They have performed all over the State, in places like Mysuru, Davanagere, Chitradurga, Dharwad, Belagavi and Hubballi, and also beyond — in Mumbai and Tirupathi. The team members fondly recollect their performance during Padmavathi Utsava in Tirupathi, where the public response was extremely positive.

Though they have experienced immense success and are hailed as star performers, their road to success was not the one without any difficulty. For instance, in some places, they were not treated with respect or they were snubbed because of their gender, or their accommodation was not up to the mark. “Since we are all women, the organisers try to take us for a ride regarding the payment too. We need to be firm and shrewd,” says Vidyalatha.

New ventures

The rising demand for women chande players has led to the genesis of several women troupes. “Women have joined and left us over time. As of now, we have 20 active members,” says Vidyalatha, who consistently yearns to do something new and different. Eventually, the team started an entirely new venture – hulivesha, a distinctive folk dance form of Dakshina Kannada-Udupi region. Here a group of men paint their bodies and faces like tigers and dance during Navarathri and Krishna Janmashtami. 

Initially, they had to face opposition for venturing into the male-only sphere, but Vidyalatha did not give up. She designed the thick fur-like costume for the all-women troupe. Artistes Jagdish Bannanje and Ashok Raj offered to train the keen women. “Training was held for approximately a month. For hulivesha too, stamina is a must. Women should wear the thick costume and be able to dance in hot weather. It takes about an hour to paint the face. The men use actual paint on face and we should be ready for that too,” says Sujatha, a member of the team.  

Though this is originally a street dance form, the women had to restrict their acts to the temples only, again because of their gender. Once they started, there was no looking back for the team. “We are the first all-woman group to do hulivesha. We are also called Bannanje tiger team,” quips Vidyalatha. The troupe has performed hulivesha in many places. All their performances, including the recent one in Delhi, help at the Rashtriya Rani Abbakka Utsava earlier this year, have won them accolades.

The troupe has honed its skills and has acquired new skills to keep pace with the changing times. Today, it has specialised in many art and dance forms. Apart from chande and hulivesha, they also do Yakshagana. Dramatics is yet another of their pursuits. During Krishna Janmashtami, a grand event held in Udupi, the troupe has put up stage shows like the Dashavathara, Navadurga and Draupadi Vastrapaharana that have earned them tremendous appreciation. “We set our own stage. We have experts who implement our ideas. For Draupadi Vastrapaharana, we had made a 300-metre-long saree that had been rolled down from top. For Goddess Durga’s 10 hands, we had made moulds of our own hands to give a lifelike appearance. In Dashavathara, rope entry was used when Garuda entered, carrying Vishnu. It actually looked like they descended from the sky and the cheering of the crowd was phenomenal,” recall artistes Anupama and Kusuma.

Having done so many shows over the years, it is of little wonder that they have achieved success. “For the past few years, we have not done any shows. If we do, we want it to be perfect. We need more women and young girls to join us as we have ideas but need more enthusiasts to implement them,” says Vidyalatha. With proficiency in many art forms, now the troupe is called Bannanje Mahila Kala Mandali. True to the name, they are a group of women beating the gender divide through art.