Saturday, June 20, 2015

Kodagu's Kunde Habba (Festival): A Story in Hindu Business Line's BLInk

We finally made it to the festival this year. An account of it is in this week's BLInk supplement of The Hindu Business Line. Read it here, or see below for a tad unedited version.


To my utter delight later that day, I would see that the tree which a few thousand tribals congregate under, the spearhead of their religious fervour that day is a frangipani tree, a personal favourite. Deva-kanagile in Kannada, a name as gorgeous as the white petals of the tree, rimmed with a happy yellow - God's flower. It is a consoling sight, after being subjected to filthy abuse and below the belt remarks.

Some friends and I are at 'Kunde Habba', or 'Bedu Habba', the annual abuse festival of the tribals of Kodagu district in Karnataka. Held on the fourth Thursday of May in Devarapura village near Gonikoppal, 200-something kilometres from Bengaluru, the festival is one day when the tribals let rant all grudges, vent all anger against their God and fellow man, in some of the choicest, filthiest words in Kannada and its slight dialects that they speak.

Kodagu, or in travel agent parlance, Coorg, is home to some two dozen tribes, hill/mountain dwellers all. Some are honey gatherers turned elephant mahouts, some hunters. A majority from nearly all the different groups today work in coffee estates that dot the verdant landscape of the district. They spend all the days of the year in subservience, in hard physical labour, and their evenings in the company of dulled stupor brought about by cheap country liquor. Once a year, they let loose rants that can only be a making up for the things the other classes must heap upon them.

Ayyappa, the god of the tribals, is said to have taken a bunch of them into the forest for hunting. While in the thick of the jungle, he came upon the beautiful goddess Bhagavathi, fell in love and eloped with her, leaving the hapless tribals behind. Angry at this betrayal, the tribals reserve this one day of the year to abuse their god, for this old mistake, for not bestowing the boons they might have prayed for, for the weather, for dreams unfulfilled and wished unheeded. Over time, it has extended to them letting out their anger towards their employers - most often wealthy coffee planters - and everyone else they come across. 

The fun part of the festival comes in the way they dress up, employing everything from a handbag for a hat to a ratty onion sack for a dress. Curiously, a majority of them take great pains to be in drag. Their work hardened muscles, gleaming with white sweat, if not silvery paint, sport tight bras stuffed with rags, miniskirts balanced precariously around belted waists. Make up, most times, is gaudy. A little boy, in just underwear, pins a white flower near his crotch. Save for their size, there is little difference in boys and men young and old. Anything from fertilizer tins to mineral water bottles filled with stones to large blue storage bins become drums for the day. Upcycling and recycling are clearly the norm, even if they might never have heard of these new age terms.

Out ahead in Gonikoppal town, during a little break for tea that is made too strong, almost bitter, we are bombarded by men in dresses, skirts and tight tops rattling bottles, beating their drums. There seems to be no method, yet a strangely catchy rhythm ensues. The going rate to get them to leave you alone is ₹10. 

Groups of men - the festival is largely male dominated - barge into shops, collect money and towards afternoon congregate at the temple at Devarapura where a village fair comes up too. Plastic toys and knick-knacks, things to eat and shop and tattoo artists line up in the vicinity. Crude images of hearts, tigers, even Ambedkar are cut into chappal soles and PoP. These are dipped in ink, pressed on to the skin and then the tattooist uses an incredibly crude apparatus to poke through the design, rubbing colour and in the end anti-septic turmeric on. Tattoos are cheap, starting at ₹50, or ₹10 per letter, if it is a name.

Several rounds of dancing around the tree continue. Devotees who have promised sacrifice to the gods throw several shocked chicken into the crowd, those who catch them get to keep them. My friends are slightly miffed at not catching any. The drums get louder and louder, reaching a crescendo, until all the drums merge into a dull relentless thud, women get "possessed" and run in circles (only to sit back and check messages on their phones a few minutes later) and the dances get raunchier as the alcohol kicks in. After prayers, the tribals will go back to their haadis or settlements for a feast and many rounds of drink. 

Heartily abused, we feel like we could use a drink too. But instead, the oddly catchy tune they employ to string abuses gets stuck in our heads. We make up words to go along and drive further ahead deep into the district, for elsewhere.

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