Preserving the Theatre Community

    15-Oct-2020   
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The very existence of rural theatre communities like the Sillekyatas is on the line. The community which was already besieged by the change in preferences of the rural folk and internet penetration their earning opportunities faced a deadly blow by the Corona pandemic. Being a part of Bharatiya traditional knowledge system, it is our duty to safeguard, nurture and sustain the community
 

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Sillekyatha community is a nomadic Janjati
who are a community of play actors, puppeteers and rural theatre artists
 
 
 The Sillekyatha community, sometimes also referred to as Killekyatha, is a nomadic Janjati spread across Karnataka and few parts of other states. They are for generations a community of play actors and rural theatre artists. They make a living by enacting Puranic, historical, social and in recent times contemporary stories in villages and rural parts of the state. They are mostly on the move and travel with the troupe, equipment, temporary tents, musical instruments and costumes. Entire families in the Sillekyatha community, which come under the Scheduled Caste category, are into the professional rural theatre, in one or the other role. While large theatre groups like the Gubbi Veeranna company catered to the towns and cities, this community of theatre artists focus on rural areas. They were the messengers and educators for our rural folk. They are even today a rich repository of our cultural and civilisational knowledge.
 
However, today their very existence is on the line. The community which was already besieged by the change in preferences of the rural folk, internet penetration and lack of earning & acting opportunities, were dealt a deadly blow by the Corona pandemic. Their already meagre earnings came to a halt.
 
Few years ago, there were atleast 15 such theatre groups from the Sillekyatha community. As most of them quit the profession due to various reasons, some took up odd jobs and those who did not have any other skills or were not fit in any other vocation, were forced to beg. Today there is only one theatre group of about 15 members from the community which is living in a village near Sira in Tumkur district.
 
A team of journalists met the community members at the Uddramanahalli village near Sira town. The village of Uddaramanahalli hosts several families from the Sillekyatha community. The Silakekayata community members, under the auspices of the Samskara Bharathi Karnataka, was part of a workshop to prepare for two historical dramas one two great queens: Hemareddy Mallamma and Keladi Chennamma. We interacted with their theatre group named the Sri Sangameshwara Nataka Sangha, witness the way they prepare for their plays, grasp their lifestyle and also tried to understand their woes.
 
Ganesh, who heads the only active Sillekyatha theatre troupe today, had almost given up on the future and had decided to move away from the profession. During our interaction with him, he said that he was at his wits end after making all efforts to revive their moving theatre; from pleading the government for support to trying various avenues to showcase their talents. The group has hired a minivan to carry their equipment and tents for which they have been unable to pay the rent for many months now. The owner of the van will not bear with them longer and unless they pay up soon, they will lose their only mode of transport. It is impossible to carry all the equipment and tent through public transport and reach far off villages which is their play area.
 
 

The Sillekyatha Community

 

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Sillekyathas as recorded by the British
 
Siltekyathas constitute a Scheduled Caste who traditionlly lived in the areas which came under the former State of Mysore consisting of Bangalore, Bellary, Chikmagalur, Chitradurga. Hassan, Kolar, Mandya districts.
 
In the 1901 census, the community was described as "mendicants nearly allied to the Jogis whom they resemble in every respect...... These are generally puppet-show exhibitors and are found in large numbers in the Shimoga and Chitaldrug Districts". Some were also identified as fishermen as per the British census records.
 
It can be understood that the community was into theatre art forms even during the time of the British.They are called Bommalatavallu in Telugu and Togalu Bombeyavaru in Kannada, meaning community of puppeteers. A 1906 British gazette describes the Sillekyathas as "They travel round the villages and give a performance wherever they can secure sufficient patronage. Contributions take the form of money, or oil for the foot-lights ... Their profession is enacting religious dramas before the village public (whence their name, meaning baffoon). The black kambli (blanket) is their screen and any mandapa or village chavadi, or open house is their stage. Night is the time for giving the performance. They carry with them pictures painted in colours on deer skins, which are well tanned and made fine like parchment ...... "
 
Though more than a century has passed, the lifestyle of the Sillekyathas as more or less remained the same.Their population is estimated to be not more than a few thousands, mostly living in Karnataka and border areas of Andhra Pradesh.
  
 
When no support came their way, he had almost accepted the fact that his members would soon be living an uncertain life and could also end up begging. He was about to sell all their belonging and return to his father's village in Davanagere, when destiny decided otherwise. Na Srinivas, a senior theatre director and artist from Mysore came to know about their travails through RSS inspired Samskara Bharati and decide to take up their cause.
 
Na Srinivas arranged a small team of trainers including a women artist who is a member of Karnataka Nataka Academy, a Kalaripayattu expert who is also a dramatist, a theatre musician who could personally involve and help the Sillekyatha theatre troupe to adapt to newer theatre skills, new story lines, and upgrade their entire approach to the profession. Srinivas told us that the community members need no training either in acting or music or even scripting as they are already experts in them, but they only needed a supporting hand and a way to adapt to newer methods in theatre. It is pertinent to mention that the community members are so talented that they learn though dialogues just by repeating the lines on their own as most of them can neither read or write. Script which is deemed as the heart of a play, is an alien concept for them! Many including a aged lady we met learnt the keyboard just by observing on her own. Another member learned tabla on his own. None received formal training in music or the instruments. Such is their inherent talent.
 
Srinivas who has experience of about 25 years in theatre and has written hundreds of scripts and staged more than thousand plays, says that this form of theatre is not only a profession but also the best counselling mechanism. It not only offers the artist the confidence in life but also offers them an avenue to channelise their inner travails, emotions and abstain from deviant allurements in the society. Srinivas is also the founder of Creative Academy for Theatre Science (CATS), where specially designed programs improve the creativity of the artists using latest developments in theatre science in an interactive and thematic format. The Edu-Socio Lab program of CATS focuses on children and children with Learning Difficulty where Psycho-drama and counselling gives the healing touch. It is this healing touch which he employs while training these rural theatre artists which will help them to adapt to newer theatre techniques and also equips them to handles stress in life.
 
 
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Sillekyatha community is struggling for survival as their traditional art of rural folk theatre is on the edge. Ganesh (right), heads the Sri Sangameshwara Nataka Sangha, the last of their community theatre groups 
While large theatre groups catered to the towns and cities, Sillekyatha community of theatre artists focus on rural areas. They were the messengers and educators for our rural folk and are even today a rich repository of our cultural and civilisational knowledge
 
Girish, a Kalaripayattu practitioner and a dramatist trained in institutions like the National School of Drama (NSD), Ninasam, etc was also roped in by Srinivas to be part of the training camp for the Sillekyatha community. Hailing from Melukote, Girish chose theatre as his livelihood over his family vocation of teaching and Panchayat representatives as he saw its inherent ability to keep people positively engaged. Girish, who is also the founder of Drushya Trust which is into training in theatre, says that not just artists but society too has to come together to ensure that we do not lose such traditional folk art forms and communities which practice and safeguard them. He says real theatre can be found in such rural areas and we must do everything to support them. Though they are experts in acting and dialogue delivery, they need our support in better presentation and diversity on stage, he said.
 
Girish is also helping the Sillekyatha community members to employ few Kalaripayattu techniques in their plays which will engage the audience better and also help them to present action scenes in a engaging format. Training in Kalaripayattu will also help the community members to safeguard themselves from attacks by hooligans and anti-social elements which they have been facing over the years. Local hooligans have attacked the community members when they are camping for take away they materials. Self-defence was also a need not just for theatre but also to safeguard themselves, says Girish who has dedicated several days of the month to train the community where ever they are camping.
 
 
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Na Srinivas, theatre director and founder of CATS, along with Samskara Bharati
has been working with the Sillekyatha community to ensure the continue their vocation
Engaging people in this form of rural theatre is not only a profession but also the best counselling mechanism. It not only offers the artist the confidence in life but also offers them an avenue to channelise their inner travails, emotions and abstain from deviant allurements in the society
 
Attempts of Samskara Bharati and Na Srinivas have started to bear fruit. The team is upbeat and the inherent talent of the community members is being tapped to create a bright future for them. What they need now is further support from the society. Srinivas says that the society can help them by arranging their plays in towns and villages where they have good contacts. People can also help them by urging the government to aid them suitably and recognise their talent better.
 
Radha, a seasoned theatre artist and presently a member of the Karnataka Nataka Academy, has been part of Srinivas and Samskara Bharati’s attempts to revive rural theatre scene. She is also closely associated with the Sillekyatha community members in helping them gain confidence, adapt to newer acting methods and also becoming their voice in the administration. She said that she could sense the helplessness in Ganesh’s voice when she first met him as he had given up hope. He had told Radha that the Sillekyatha families found it difficult to even get a square meal a day as they were unable to stage plays for even a small amount of Rs. 20 per ticket. Their woes made her firm her resolve to help them and get them due help and opportunities, informed Radha.
 
Radha further says that she is striving hard to get the recognition they deserve for the Sillekyatha community from the government and the academy. Though she was successfully able to get few members of the community a small one-time honorarium during the lockdown, much more needs to be done to help them sustain the lifestyle. Hailing from a poor background in Kodagu herself, Radha says she understands the difficulties of the community more than anyone and hence has decided to stay with them and handhold them until a logical conclusion. Theatre artists in towns and cities who get opportunities to stage their plays, showcase their talent, and can easily reach people through social media channels do not really need government support. It is such small communities who are illiterates and are not visible on social media or in urban theatre scene but are the repository of our traditional knowledge who need government and support and recognition, says Radha.
 

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Girish (Left), Kalaripayattu practitioner & dramatist and Radha (Right), theatre artist
and member of Karnataka Nataka Academy are part of the effort to revive rural theatre scene
 
 
Towards the end of our interaction, Ganesh says that this effort from Samskara Bharati and Srinivas & team has given them a lease of life. Though Corona put a stop to their livelihoods, it brought them in contact to people who are hand holding them to ensure that they have a future. Though the future is still uncertain as people still fear coming close and watching plays within a tent due to Corona, they are now hopeful of getting more opportunities.
 
Union Minister Smriti Irani at a recent lecture on Disha Bharat platform said that knowledge in India has never meant only books and pen. It also includes several forms of verbal knowledge systems transmitted across generations. Such community theatre groups of the Sillekyatha community is one such knowledge system. If we are proud of our heritage we need to safeguard it, nurture it and sustain it. They are ready, are we?