There is something deeply intoxicating about drums. Perhaps it is that the dull thuds hark of ancient times when around the yellow fire the shaman invited spirits into his body to solve discords and cure illnesses and danced to please his ancestors. Or perhaps it is the monotony of repetition in those beats that puts you in a trance like state, which even seven days later, you only need let your eyes drift to hear the drums in your ears. Or perhaps it is that we simply cannot erase the primitive streak we all carry within, in spite of generations of ‘civilized’ lives. There is just something deeply intoxicating about the beat of drums, even when the drum is just an overturned plastic vessel or an empty kerosene can.
I have heard the tribals before, and imagined their sounds, their dances many times more. It was the promise of those drums and the lure of seeing what I imagined that drew me to the day-long tribal festival in my hometown Madikeri, Kodagu. The local station of the All India Radio, immensely popular in the hilly district for their inclusive programs from unheard of villages, organized Kadina Makkala Radio Habba, literally meaning the radio festival of the children of the forest last Wednesday, a full moon night, the Holi Hunnime.
Before I get there, I imagine it must be something akin to the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland every December, a government led congregation of different tribes strung together to bring in the tourists and attract the businesses that would keep these tourists happy. The thought seed might have been the same, but the Radio Habba is a celebration of pure joy, of being alive, of being able to appreciate being alive. The very many tribes of Kodagu have been brought together to showcase their dance and music forms, to interact with each other, with the non-tribals, to see the city. It is the first time ever that the tribes, spread far and wide in the forests and in deep set villages of the district have been brought together in one place. The habba is meant to be a noon to midnight celebration; the agenda lists stage performances before ending with dancing around three to four bonfires.
Three friends and I take ourselves to the Gandhi maidan, something of an open air stage in town. The heat is almost painful, it isn’t just a feeling alone that our skins are burning. The weather and how this can’t be a hill station keeps coming up in conversation throughout the sweltering afternoon. But the tribals of many colour, height and attire couldn’t be less bothered. The women are checking each other’s clothes, adjusting jewelry strung from wild berries around their necks. Men have bells on their feet, long sticks and cymbals in their hands and swirled lengths of cloth around their head. The Honey Bee liquour bottles are conveniently hidden behind the thatched huts almost daintily perched on the slope beside the stage.
There is an air of camaraderie hanging around each hut. One or two are made with green leaves and merges into the background. Others are brown and bigger, others low roofed. Groups from different tribes practice their song and dance routine inside, get their dresses ready. Everyone is nervous. It is only one group of Jenu Kurubas, traditionally honey gatherers, who slip in and out of their designated hut and break into impromptu dances throughout the day. These people instantly become our favourite. One of them wears different coloured feathers in her hair, necklaces of wild berries that I want too and a fancy belt of leaves and flowers around her waist. A slightly older woman is the Rastafarian of the group; she keeps her long mated hair hidden under a traditional flowing head cloth, until the bonfires lit up later in the night and she breaks free of the shackles of the headgear to dance with abandon round and round the fire.
The announcers of AIR, all local celebrities, introduce the groups; there are over 20 of them. They include the Jenu Kuruba, Betta Kuruba, Panjari Yerava, Pani Yerava, Devasoliga, Poomalekudiya, Tenmalekudiya, Kembatti, Medha, Kapala, Kodava and Arebashe tribes. Each perform a song and/or a dance. Almost every group is uncomfortable being on a stage; that is not how they sing to appease their deities or celebrate their marriages. Most don’t wait for a cue from the technicians to begin, they are anxious to finish their number and get off the stage.
There are songs for weddings, harvest songs, prayer songs and songs to abuse their Gods (a popular tribal festival in the district, when tribals abuse each other and their Gods in unspeakable terms – called Bunde habba). There is a man covered in black paint prancing about, for comic relief. On the side, there is a small exhibition of the baskets, prayer items and boxes they use, the wild fruits and vegetables they eat, the roots and nuts they use for medicines. There is Ummathat and Bolukhat, traditional dances of the Kodava women and men respectively, performed in a circle with slow, synchronized, warrior like movements for the men, graceful and reverential for the women.
The most commonly recognized song “Cauveramme devi thaaye…” telling the story of River Cauvery’s birth, interspersed with enquiries after visiting relatives and crops for the season take me back to school days when these were regular fixtures at every annual day function. There is the other characteristic Valaga recital, music slow and fast by turns that designs to send the dancer into a steady trance. When they take to the stage a second time, the full moon is up in the sky and members of the audience cannot resist breaking into the traditional dance steps to go with it. One from our little friends group, a Kodava, needs only a nudge before he joins the party too.
Then the fires. Large logs are lit and small circles are formed. Different groups play for the cameras for a while, and then take their dance elsewhere, closer to their huts. Our favourite Jenu Kuruba group is still at it, with the same vigour, with the same infectious energy, unwavering for over several hours. The stage closes, the snack carts and candy pushcarts on the fringes begin to pack up. The bright full moon peeps through the tall trees and the air finally cools down. The tribals still don’t notice. Their wines, their plastic drums, their cymbals and the raging fire have transported them back to their forests. Heedless of the city people, unmindful of the town lights in the background, they raise the dust below their fast moving feet and dance round and round the fire. As we leave them to it, I for one cannot help but feel incredibly jealous.
A version of this story was published in Talk magazine here.