I am a first-generation city-dweller. My mother and father were born and raised in two very different regions of Karnataka, India. My father was born and brought up in Mudbi, a village situated in Bidar District the northernmost border of Karnataka. In this region, you will find some of the poorest, neglected communities and settlements along with its varied cultures, rituals, and indigenous practices. Given the strong ties my family has in Mudbi, I grew up exposed to the agrarian life my ancestors lived and my relatives continue to live. My grandparents were more than just my pillars of strength but the source of most of my inspiration. The very first ‘folk songs I learnt were those that my grandmother sang to me. However, urban life with its convenience and abundance is etched into my lifestyle irreversibly. It was not until recently, the romantic idea of moving to Mudbi and turning into a farmer disappeared. Well not entirely…
I travelled to Australia to complete my Masters in Filmmaking in 2007, only to come back to the rapidly changing metropolitan of Bangalore. Overwhelmed by reality, unable to indulge in fiction, I decided on shooting documentaries. My fix lay in the rural hinterlands of this country documenting agrarian strife, food production, organic movement, and women’s rights. Over time my indulgence with rural life evolved towards folk music, dance and theatre. As a filmmaker, I began filming folk practitioners and their environments. As an artist, I wanted to know ‘how one becomes a folk practitioner’. For further reference, we define folk as a sea of knowledge that has been passed on through generations. It was not until recently that much of this folk has been documented and studied through the education system. It encompasses not just the performative and ritual aspects but more importantly knowledge about existence and ethos. Folk practitioners are more than just performers. They have other day-jobs and income generating activities that sustain their existence. Since their performativity is connected more to caste identity than artist identity, they make fine examples of people who practice what they preach or perform. After meeting several artists from varied communities, the question ‘why is folk not easily accessible or transferable?’ was answered. It is because folk is not just the form but a lifestyle.
Karnataka is known for its cultural diversity and is known to be the place of origin of over 250 folk forms. Each form has been practised and progressed by a certain community which is commonly defined by caste. Homogenous in few ways the key traditions and rituals vary from one caste to another depending largely on the hierarchy of the caste within the larger social structures. Higher the caste the more complex and sophisticated the traditions and rituals. There are known to be over 1500 languages 3,000 odd castes and over 25,000 sub-castes in India. In Karnataka there 94 social groups which contain several hundred castes. The abundance of folk culture within this state alone is baffling. By culture I mean written and oral traditions, theatre, music, dance, rituals, myth, and taboos. As I travelled around the state I witnessed stories/myths and differently rendered tales from various communities. Some commonly heard off and several more unique, unusual and rare. I started to collect and archive these lesser-known tales. The idea was to collect stories from our rich and diverse past that contain themes which are relevant even today. Great place to start! Now…more questions have presented themselves: As contemporary artists, how do we perceive these stories? How do we look beyond the perspective of the traditional storyteller(s) view and their collective work objectively and holistically? Can we draw from folk to create contemporary works? How do we justify such inspiration? How would we present such work to a globally aware audience?
The vision was overwhelming for a mere individual to execute. Thus, creating a collective, in order to join hands with like-minded people on a similar quest became apparent. Personally, I hope understanding the ‘folk’ around me helps build a lifestyle for the future for me and fellow seekers of an inclusive art community. On discovering the value of understanding our collective history through folk art, I am now helping create a trajectory of work for a lifetime alongside Adithya Kothakota and Sumitra Sunder. Work that will satiate our need to be meaningfully connected and engaged with both worlds: urban and rural, folk and contemporary
The challenge now lies in building the right platforms and designing an engagement plan. As a collective, I believe Urban Folk Project will be a means to create a pool of folk practitioners who will share with us their folk lives. A group that aims to grow into a community defined not by lineage, caste, religion, space, sexuality, or politics but Art.
Watch this space to know about our very first dive into understanding folk with Yellamma. Will share some orally passed down stories of this deity and her followers along with the many questions we will dabble with as art practitioners. Feel free to contact us on email@example.com for more information or to support and/or join us in our endeavour!
Written by Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota