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Urban Folk Project : Our Beginning

Urban Folk Project : Our Beginning

Urban Folk Project imagines itself as a beginning for a usable archive of music and songs from the hinterlands. We are a team of practitioners who have been wanting to bring forgotten, in the process of being forgotten, rare and known but different folk forms to urban spaces and to contemporary artists. The global contemporary is both drawing from older/familiar forms as well as forgotten/alien forms. How can we help establish a stronger connection with the older and alien? What happens when the lines are blurred between familiar and older, gender and nature, etc? These are some key questions that anchor our work.

What began with small efforts in documenting ‘Grandmothers’ songs and looking at the ways in which language was used, became a way of looking at how structures of social hierarchy, as well as gender roles, become fluid in certain contexts and how, once stripped of its artifice, roles ascribed by society become blurred. This also led to the use of these collected songs and music in a contemporary theatre piece that we are in the process of developing further. The catalyst for this mapping project is the process of a contemporary production based on Yellammanaata. Yellammanaata is a ritualistic overnight play hosted mostly during the Dussera[i] season by lower caste Hindus around parts of Hyderabad, Karnataka and the Southern Maharashtra region. The contemporary play ‘Yellammanaata Mela’ is performed by an ensemble of actors and musicians that intend to recreate the experience of ‘Yellammanaata’ for an urban audience, while sticking to the original music and form as much as possible. We have encountered few versions of Yellamma’s story, and different ways of telling it. The people we seek to reach out to are ideally musicians/artists who are looking for forms and material to create new work.

In order fuse more folk into our lives, we stepped out into lesser-known semi-urban and rural territories of Karnataka. The artistic infusion we found within each community in varied regions of Karnataka has been overwhelmingly eye-opening. We were fortunate to meet inspiring and experienced practitioners across Karnataka assuring us a lifetime of working with extinguishing folk forms, instruments, rituals and more! – Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota

Poster of ‘Land of Ashes and Diamonds’.

Why this play you may ask? The Yellammanaata Mela is the brainchild of Shilpa, who has been watching these performances since she was a child. As it were, the meaning of these performances did not take hold until some years ago when working with Koumarane Valavane (Artistic Director of Indianostrum).  The production was called ‘Land of Ashes and Diamonds’ and resurrected four important women of mythology. It was during this time that she truly revisited Yellamma. That the deity is popular in the region of the village/town her family was from is a known fact. But what struck her was that the play was different every time she witnessed it. What grew from this was a need to see what the stories were around this goddess and why those who followed her were particularly not of heteronormative identities. The performances were comical, informal and intimate presentations of Yellamma’s story, told through a series of songs and improvised scenes. The play is usually hosted as an auspicious follow-up ritual at naming ceremonies, housewarming and festivals (mainly Dussera, Deepavali and Nagara Panchami).  The ensuing research with other team members has yielded a rich repository of stories and songs. It has also brought the team in contact with multiple folk forms and practitioners.

This work will also be showcased as a beginning for the platform. Each form will be described and its uniqueness identified in the larger canvas of folk performance in India. The material will be placed under a creative commons license which will then allow people to use the material. The next step for this project is an extensive mapping of songs, poems and performances. Added to this is the intangible knowledge that these art forms provide.

These are the questions we are asking through our work:

  • What has been carried over and why?
  • What are the socio-cultural structures and impacts of these forms?
  • Why do we adopt the styles, forms or ideas that we to do today?
  • As an artist, what do we practice? How do we choose to practice it and why?
  • How can we pave the foundation for an environment inclusive and conducive to the arts?

So much of the art practised today in our urban environment has its roots in our folk culture. As artists, we benefit to know the roots of what we practice. We need to bridge this gap between artists and audiences so resources can be shared and help support a community that will help shape our individual and national character.

Efforts to document and archive various art forms have been done in different ways in India. Multiple methodologies of creating a usable archive and methods of making films or just putting together a museum space are not new to those who want to preserve or ‘save’ traditional arts from dying out. The fallacy in this idea of being the ‘saviour’ is that the people who are being saved often don’t want to be. As mentioned earlier, due to the effects of globalization and changes in social and economic orders, many people move to the city or move away from their traditional jobs/crafts in order to be able to sustain themselves. As a constitutional right, it is not fair to force them back into jobs/crafts that will not let them lead a meaningful or respectful life. There is also the idea that folk is always contemporary, so can there be collaboration between those who have the knowledge and those who want to make new kinds of work? The idea behind Urban Folk Project is to make accessible format, material and forms that are in some sense dying or forgotten, in order to make room for exploration, collaboration and experimentation.

The team at Urban Folk project does not think of itself as very new or even very unique. There are several organizations and Institutes that have physical and virtual ‘collections’ of folk forms, to name a few: Folk Culture ArchiveKamat’s PotpourriAsia Art ArchiveArchive of the Indian GovernmentNational Folklore Support Centre and Janapadaloka. Though the Asia Art Archive restricts itself to Modern and Contemporary Visual art from Asia, the others give a rough sense of what folk forms are there and also offer up detailed material on origins and practices. What this project can aim to do differently is offer up material like songs and musical traditions to be used by contemporary artists. It is not limited to music of course. The earlier efforts have been exhaustive and very influential in keeping some forms from dying out but does it serve the purpose of being truly folk, if the forms remain from a different era?

A Jogathi and Jogappa performing at Saundatti, Belgaum.

Literature on archiving folk forms points towards a tendency in organisations to ‘want’ to preserve these forms for posterity. There is a desire to keep these forms immaculate, avoiding the very basic idea of Folk. The Contemporary art world also draws from the rich inheritance of folk and indigenous forms as well as traditional knowledge. Sarah Ralphs, in her essay on Indian Contemporary art (Ralfs, 2016) speaks of the ways in which the political manifest in works of contemporary art. The essay is important in informing us that Folk forms are also inherently political. The songs of the Jogathi’s and Jogappa’s speak of their right to their gender identity; While it appears as a traditional ritual performance, the Yellammanaata is actually a ‘presentation’ of one’s choices to the community at large, which is a political statement. The performers have a certain agency here.

Contemporary India with its millennial, plural forms of cultural expression and economic practices, situated within diverse cultural landscapes, epistemologies and worldviews, is also drawing from multiple histories and continua – pre-colonial, colonial, modern and now emerging trans-modern urbanism. They span oral, literate and neo-digital cultures; traditional, informal and formal economies, situated within rural, peri-urban and urban settings. There is a layered simultaneity to such expressions and practices, not easily captured or subsumed within a typical linear frame (Goswami, Revi, & Anand, 2013). What the paper by the team at IIHS tries to locate are the ways in which contemporary India is linked to its past and how the present has also evolved in a certain way that cannot disassociate from the past. Folk forms also are indebted to tradition but they feel the pulse of the contemporary and are able to respond to it. The songs that will be recorded, the poems and texts that will be accessed, are all tools to develop new works in contemporary art.

Urban Folk Project also takes inspiration from the Pad.Ma archives. Pad.Ma is the acronym for Public Access Digital Media Archive. On this platform, videos are posted alongside dense annotation and transcriptions in English are available for all Indian Language films. What Pad.Ma achieves is a way to avoid falsification and obfuscation of the knowledge presented in the videos. The archive that we hope to build will also be the foundation of future work for the collective. The play that was staged at Gender Bender2017 in Bangalore also drew from the songs learnt while documenting the lives of Jogathi performers in Karnataka.

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