On a routine day in Sagara of Shivamogga district, this spacious home draws the attention of passers-by. Sounds of drums reverberate through its doors and windows. On stepping in, one can see a group of girls from a local school with drums hung around their waists practising Dollu Kunitha, an arduous folk dance form, traditionally performed solely by men, especially from the Kuruba (shepherd) community. Instructing them is septuagenarian Choodamani Ramachandra.
Women have always nurtured art forms and the culture of the society in private, while men have dominated the public space through performance. Likewise, the men dominated strenuous dance forms like Veeragase and Dollu Kunitha and women performances were limited to folk singing and simple dance. Added to this, women's presence in the public space has often been criticised. But this criticism hasn't deterred them and they have time and again broken barriers of patriarchy, and excelled.
Women dance troupes
Similarly, the women troupe led by Choodamani Ramachandra transcended boundaries set by the society and began performing Dollu Kunitha. "Dollu Kunitha is said to have originated and flourished in Sagara and we grew up watching it. We were drawn to it but never got a chance to learn it, as it was performed only by men. Two decades ago, a few like-minded women aged between 40 and 50 gathered and showed interest in learning Dollu Kunitha. We approached a teacher near Sagara to teach us the drum-dance. However, he was apprehensive about women learning it, as it involves energetic and swift dance movements and stunts with drums. But where there is a will, there is a way. We had made up our minds. With hard work and determination, we learnt the dance and since then, there has been no looking back," recalls Choodamani who leads one of the early women Dollu Kunitha teams of Karnataka.
Her troupe, Snehasagara Mahila Mandali, has given a number of stage performances in India and abroad. The experienced ones have trained around 300 women and prepared a number of teams.
Durgamma of Veena Kala Sangha of Kudligi in Ballari district and her troupe of 13 women learnt Dollu Kunitha after being encouraged by the Department of Kannada & Culture. They have performed in a number of cultural fests like Hampi Utsav, Dasara festival, Kittur Utsav, Janapada Jathre and more. Hailing from modest backgrounds, these women are using their talent to make a living. "Learning Dollu Kunitha was not easy at all. Besides, we had to make an effort to garner support from the family to perform in public circles. But women must not shy away. They must become financially independent and be empowered," says Durgamma.
For Savitha Chirukunaiah of Talawadagi in Mandya district, performing the ritualistic Puja Kunitha was not easy. Her father was a Puja Kunitha artiste and Savitha picked up the art while her father taught it to her brothers. She was barely nine when she began performing. Though she had support from the family, she was highly criticised by her relatives and other villagers as this dance is usually performed by men. Braving this odd, she excelled and became the first woman Puja Kunitha artiste of the State. "While social hindrance is one barrier for women artistes, performing Puja Kunitha is also quite challenging. Balancing the huge wooden structure with the deity on the head is difficult. The structure normally weighs around 20 to 30 kg. In some religious observances, it even weighs 50 to 60 kg. Dancing to the tunes carrying this large structure is a challenge. Wind disturbance also makes it challenging for an artiste," says 32-year-old Savitha. Today, she is a celebrated performer.
Warriors in the making
Veeragase is another male-dominated folk dance which requires strength and stamina. However, Shruthi and her troupe of youngsters from Chikkamagaluru have proven that women also have the potential to perform rigorous dance forms. After learning Veeragase from her school teacher nearly 15 years ago, Shruthi formally formed a troupe named Shri Durgadevi Veeragase Tanda five years ago. Holding a wooden plaque in one hand and a sword in another, these women perform the dance with verve.
The word veeragase means the clothing of a warrior. As women have entered the stage, they have adopted a dress suitable for women and call it 'Veeragache'. "There are many college students in my troupe and appreciation for their performances has motivated them. There is a need to promote this art, which has been neglected due to many reasons," says Shruthi.
The story of Mallavva Berudagi and her group from Somankoppa in Kalaghatagi taluk, who learnt Kolata, another folk dance, is also inspiring. "I used to sell fruits in Mutagi, where some women had formed Kolata teams. We had a group which used to sing Sobana Pada (folk songs) and I encouraged our village women to learn Kolata. These women were in the age group of 40 to 50 years, yet were quite energetic. All of us gathered every night for around one hour to practice. Initially, it was tough and also the family members were not convinced. But our dedication and passion helped us get family support and earn money as well. Now we have given a number of performances in Mysuru, Bengaluru and other places,'' says Mallavva.
Karnataka Janapada Academy chairperson, B Takappa Kannuru, says that there are around 30 A grade women folk artistes in the State and the academy is making an effort to train more women. Be it for the love of art, financial empowerment or social independence, these women have made a mark in the field of folk dance and showed that nothing is impossible for them.