When Nugli Ganesh Gouda, 55, speaks, there is an unmistakable lyrical quality to her sentences. She drags the syllables, shakes her head in tandem and her words string together a lilting melody of their own. For as long as she can remember, Gouda has sung more than she has spoken. Rather, there has been very little distinction between the two.
Gouda, a farmer, belongs to the Halakki Vokkaligaru tribe that is spread across Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. The women of the tribe sing their way through their daily lives as they sow paddy, walk through their fields, tend to cattle or work their grind stones. The songs — some rehearsed and handed down generations and many composed spontaneously — are about all that their lives were made up of: deities and duties, nature and nurturing, land and longing.
As you navigate the narrow, dusty roads of Ankola, an industrial town near Karwar, about a three-hour drive from Goa, you can spot them from afar. An aboriginal tribe of Karnataka, the Halakkis now form an integral part of the towns they inhabit. Many of them stand out in the crowd. They are identifiable by their ankle-length wrap-around saris, bare backs, rows of black and yellow beads worn around their necks and hardy bodies that speak of the labour invested in paddy fields.
A little ahead of the main town is the house of Sukri Bomma Gouda, known simply as Sukri ajji’s home. At 82, the grand old doyen of the Halakki culture belies her years with her energy. “I have never been afraid of anything in my life,” she says. Among her treasured memories is Indira Gandhi taking her black-and-yellow neckpiece and wearing it in Hampi. Two years ago, she walked up the carpet at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive the Padma Shri at the hands of the then president Pranab Mukherjee. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also there. He told me that I have done a great job for my community by preserving the tradition of singing. But I answered that I would have been much happier if instead of the Padma Shri, he had conferred the SC/ST status on my community, our longstanding demand,” says the outspoken matriarch, as she sits on the porch of her small house, made mainly from grants given by politicians, individuals and some organisations after her fame started to spread. “The Padma Shri had no cash award,” she adds.
Sukri was not always a professional performer. “Some 25 years ago, when there was a programme at the local university, they asked the Halakkis present there to come up and sing. No one dared to but I went right up and sang. There was no fear. This is what I had been doing all my life,” says Sukri.
Since then, she has travelled to Varanasi, Ayodhya, Pandharpur and Delhi to spread awareness about the music of Halakki women. “I have even travelled by air four times,” adds Sukri. How was the experience? “Good, it was as comfortable as the bus.”
For many decades, the music has been the women’s way of expressing their emotions as well as protest. So, even as they sing praises of god and the deities, they compose lyrics on the evils of dowry, patriarchy and poverty. At the last programme she was called upon to sing, Sukri says proudly, she sang about the need to be aware of health hazards like AIDS.
The men of the community do not sing at all. Patriarchy continues to be a harsh reality despite the fact that there is a 2:1 gender ratio in favour of the women, who also end up being the breadwinners and the ones toiling in the fields. Most men, says Purnima Gouda, associate professor at the Gokhale Centenary College, Ankola, have taken to drinking. According to the 2011 census, the majority of the Halakki tribals, numbering over 200,000, dwell in a cluster of villages dotting the coastline from Sirsi to Karwar near Goa. About 35,000 of them are in the Karwar constituency.
As dusk descends, Sukri ajji’s porch starts filling up. A host of women are returning home after a day’s work in the paddy fields. About half-a-dozen are in the traditional Halakki attire, but most are attired in saris worn the contemporary way. Laxmi Gouda, 70, rues that “girls these days want to wear salwar kameez, tops and shirts. And even with saris, they want to wear a blouse.” For the older lot, wearing a blouse is simply trying to be too modern.
Of all the traditions phasing out, it’s the music fading away that hurts the older women the most. “Sukri’s niece sings beautifully. But she is almost 60, maybe the youngest of the singing lot. The new generation has no time to learn these songs. They would rather study and do government jobs,” says Purnima Gouda, 49. A teacher at a local school sometimes takes the girls to Sukri to learn some traditional songs, but these are efforts not likely to sustain in the long run.
It’s twilight now and Sukri’s porch comes alive with Laxmi, Gouda, Kusali and a few others, who bring the day to a close as they normally do. Their strong voices fill the air as they sing: “O brother what shall I tell of my family; I am married in the jungle; I go from my village to collect grass; I have become so hard over the years.”