How coastal Karnataka was saffronised; part 12: Nagpur-born Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangathan alters history across Dakshin Kannada to fit national religious narratives
The manner in which oral narratives have been altered across Dakshin Kannada to fit narrative of religious forces. The most recent entrants to have altered the local history of Coastal Karnataka are the Nagpur-born Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangathan.
Editor's note: This is the twelfth reported piece in an 18-part series on the contemporary history of Hindutva in coastal Karnataka. The series features interviews, videos, archival material and oral histories gathered over a period of four months.
A Market in Malaya
Seven Jain brothers are seated across each other.
Enter Sulikalla Murava Beary
Muruva Beary: I'll take your leave then, sirs. I will set sail back to my land, there is nothing left to do here, anyway.
(Silence follows as some of the brothers nod. Others keep mum)
Muruva Beary: What has befallen yourselves that all of you sit with such great pain, Sirs?
Brother no 4: What do we tell you, Muruva? Our misery is better left to us. How will a Muslim like you help us with our troubles?
Muruva Beary: Please tell me, I promise to help if I can.
Brother no 2: Our sister is the problem. She is our only sister. We've married her to 24 men till now. Every time we get her married, by the next morning her husband is dead. All of them have died. We don't know what to do with her. If she doesn't give birth to an heir, we are all doomed. What are we to do? Every day we think about our sister and the misery she has brought upon all of us.
Muruva Beary: What will I get if I solve your problem?
Eldest brother: We will give you half our property. We'll give you a share of the profits we make. We'll give you everything that will make you happy. But tell us, how will you solve this problem?
Muruva Beary: No, I shall have none of that. I don't want your property. Instead, let me marry your sister. I will solve this.
(Silence. The brothers murmur among themselves)
All the brothers: But he...? We need an heir... what will... this is better... No... Yes, this is better.
(Brothers turn to Muruva Beary)
Eldest brother: We can't keep feeding her, we'd rather see the last of her. So yes, please, we agree to your proposal. But what makes you think you won't die?
Muruva Beary is a Muslim trader and Muthu is the Tulu-speaking Jainava woman whose fate is being discussed in this aforementioned scene. They are the parents of Bobbariya. Bobbariya is the Deiva of the sea-faring Moghaveeras of Dakshin Kannada. Before the Moghaveeras set out to seas every day, they take the blessings of Bobbariya. He is said to have died at sea, fighting the wrath of nature after which he was deified by the Moghaveeras.
"As we know, the Islamic religion will not allow idol worship or a ritual like Bobbariya and Hindu religion will not allow a Muslim to become their deity for worship. But this is there in the history of Tulunadu. That is the beauty of Tulu folklore," says Purushottam Bilimele, the Kannada Language Chair at the Jawahar Lal Nehru University.
Bilimele has spent years travelling across the coast of Karnataka, listening to the Paddana's of Bobbariya.
What is a Paddana?
Peter J Claus, one of the earliest anthropologists to document Tuluva culture has defined Paddana in "Tulu Paddana's: Text and Performances":
"The Tulu-speaking people who inhabit coastal Karnataka have recorded the stories of their heroes and heroines, their local deities, their great families, and their tragedies in an oral narrative tradition called 'paddana'. As the term implies, the stories "must be sung". Although not written in the script, the paddanas are the closest Tulu speakers have to a 'national' literature."
"But the risk of oral narratives is that they tend to be twisted according to the prejudices of the people of each generation. For all you know, the next generation is deprived of a history which is theirs and is presented with a concoction which might alter their existence, for all you know," warns Bilimele.
Bilimele is referring to the manner in which oral narratives have been altered across the region of Dakshin Kannada to fit the narrative of religious forces which have entered the region through history. The most recent entrants to have altered the local history of Coastal Karnataka are the Nagpur-born Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangathan.
Bilimele gives examples of how the Paddana of Bobbariya is being twisted around. "In 2014, a book was written by Sadananda Uchila titled 'Mogaveera Samaja-Ondu Adhyayna' (Study of Mogaveera Community) where the author wrote that Bobbariya was the incarnation of Babruvahana. They changed his father to Arjuna and mother to a Kerala queen Prameela. This is similar to the tale of Chitrangada, the Princess of Manipur in Mahabharat."
Bilimele has been attending deiva aradhane ceremonies of Bobbariya since the 1980s. He has documented the Paddanas as a part of his research. He says that the "new" twist in the story of Bobbariya has been picked up by politicians and now is spreading across the region.
"Kuntaru Ravish Tantri contested on a BJP ticket from Kasaragod. He has been retelling this Babruvahana story at every possible occasion. This is the best example of what is happening with every deiva in Coastal Karnataka," observes Bilimele. He also says that as the deiva changes form, so does everything around it. "Saffron flag with an om adorn deiva sanas now, an offering of chicken has been replaced with pumpkin, tiny shrines have now turned to temples, Brahmin priests have started officiating at these spaces. The changes are stark."
Another piece of history which has been hit is the legend of Bappa Beary.
Bappa Beary is a Muslim trader who built a shrine for a local goddess. The story is that she appears in Bappa's dream and tells him to build a temple for her. Out of respect, Bappa does so. This temple has been taken care of by the local community since then. To honour him, the place where her temple is built was renamed to Bappanadu.
'Bappanadu kshetra mahatme' is a Tulu Yakshagana act honouring the legend of Bappa Beary. This play has two central characters, one Bappa himself and the other is his apprentice Usman.
Natesh Ullal, a filmmaker, has been watching this play act since he has been a child. "A comparison of what I saw as a child and what I see now will show you how the act has evolved. Bappa, from my early Yakshagana memories, was a trader who conducted himself with dignity and was respected by everyone. Usman was smart and devoted. The Yakshaganas of today, bearing a few, have caricatured both of them. The tale of both the characters revolves around self-deprecating humour and clownish behavior. Jibes at their own culture are common," explains Natesh.
He says that even their dress has been changed in a manner that is insulting to the legend. "The story is that Bappa is a well-to-do trader. Which trader will be shown wearing a banian and a lungi? The ones when I was smaller showed him as a well-dressed and a well-groomed individual."
Bappa Beary has been used to fuel hate in other ways as well. In 2006, a tableau during the Dasara procession depicted Bappa Beary as falling at the feet of Durga Parameshwari. Terming this as objectionable, the Muslim community approached the police requesting them to not allow the tableau in the procession that is taken out across Mangaluru. But the tableau remained a part of the procession. As the procession passed through Muslim neighborhoods, there were clashes leading to looting and burning of Muslims shops. This triggered communal riots in Dakshin Kannada which went on for weeks.
"Deiva ithina, Deva bathina"
When you meet Amrutha and Deekiah, you wouldn't be able to guess that like most cinematic love stories theirs started with an argument too. She had walked up to him at a literary festival and posed a few questions about a talk he had just given. But he dismissed the questions and her as just another Bunt girl with 'malladiga' (haughtiness).
Both hoped never to run into each other again. After a few months, Amrutha spotted Deekiah again when she started working for an anti-caste Kannada publication in Bangalore. "He was writing a poster, without even using a stencil. Yet it was art like I hadn't seen before." She was intrigued. But so was Deekiah. Amrutha Shetty was a popular Tulu orator and a writer.
They fell in love and just when they were to get married, it met the clichéd resistance most inter-caste couples face in Dakshina Kannada. While recounting the reactions of her family, Amrutha recounts what it meant for her in the larger scheme of existence.
"The struggles we faced during our marriage wane in comparison to the struggle both of us have given our lives to. Other than a handful, nobody supported us. The tragedy is they've turned their backs on their own culture, choosing a replacement which will destroy everything that this land has stood for."
What Amrutha was referring to was an attempt by cultural activists like Deekiah and herself to initiate a back-to-roots cultural campaign in Coastal Karnataka. A cultural troupe called 'Aata Koota' was started in early 1990s by Deekiah, Amrutha, and a few others. "The purpose of the troupe was simple. "We set out to perform the real stories of Tulu legends who were being depicted as ganas and avatars of one God or the other", says Amrutha.
Aata Koota performed stories various Tulu Deiva's across Dakshin Kananda. It attracted crowds and also met with a lot of resistance. Eventually, the troupe wound up due to lack of financial support. "Nobody wanted to back an initiative like this for obvious reasons," says Amrutha.
"Yakshagana is an appropriation of deiva-aradhane," says Deekiah. "It is a form of community worship which used to happen among the Tulu speaking masses. There used to be one person who would narrate the Paddana, in a dramatised manner. He will be the channel to communicate with the deiva. This form was later used by Vedic communities, through Yakshagana, to preach their religion. This religion has nothing to do with us," says Deekiah.
Elaborating on why he thinks Yakshagana is an appropriation, he says, "Look at the similarities. Paddana is Bhagavatha, Siri is neri, thala is chenda, thimbara is mandara." (These are components from Aata and Yakshagana, which are similar and almost like counterparts).
Bannanje Babu Amin is commonly referred to as a 'barefoot folklorist' for his extensive work to document Paddanas across Dakshin Kannada. He affirms what Deekiah says. "The only purpose of Yakshagana is Dharmic preaching. Dharmasthala, Kollur, Ashta mutt of Udupi, Polali and all other Vedic temples were used as centers for this propagation.
During the festivals that are organised here, Yakshagana performances were used to familiarise people with stories that they otherwise were alien to." Deekiah said people didn't realise the danger of it. "Now the RSS and its organisations have managed to turn around history in their favour and we watch this happen as mute spectators. This is the truth."
To understand how the RSS is doing this, I asked to be introduced to Dr Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, the RSS main-man of Dakshin Kannada. Some say he is on his way out but there is no denying the clout that Bhat enjoys among the BJP leadership. It is immense.
I received several calls from my source informing me that 'Doctorji' (aka Bhat) will meet me at 9 am. I got off the bus at Kalladka and went to Sri Rama Vidya Kendra, the school owned by Bhat.
I reached the school and looked for him. When Bhat walked of his office, he seemed surprised to see me. He seemed surprised to see a lone woman and even more taken aback by the fact that she spoke Tulu. He walked me towards the prayer hall across the road.
There were posters of Savarkar and Hedgewar inside the school; this was the first time I'd seen anything like it. There were posters of Dr Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh as well. The students stood in neat lines and on the dais a bunch of them were busy setting up a pooja.
I began to scan the groups for students I could interview when Bhat asked if I would join him on stage. The morning's proceedings began with a ritual called ‘Agni hotra’. Three students sat around a fire and fed it dried cow dung, dried jackfruit, and ghee while reciting Sanskrit shlokas.
After the ritual and prayers, Bhat took me on a tour of the school. We walked through a tunnel which led to a cave-like structure, at the end of which was a bust of Hanuman. The school was constructed over what seemed a hillock, where each classroom was a few levels above the previous one. I felt like I was in a gurukula.
He took me to four kinds of classrooms, starting from the ‘Shishu Mandirs’ for the youngest. The activities in the Shishu Mandir were interactive, with the teachers explaining how they taught the children to count, using methods from everyday tasks, like stacking vegetables.
Children in each classroom, that I was taken to, broke out into a Sanskrit song-dance performance. The Kannada medium school, Bhat told me, teaches Sanskrit to every student "help them connect to their samskruthi".
"This school exists to awaken a feeling of nationalism towards Bharat in students," he said. I asked Bhat if students are encouraged to discuss their local culture or whether they are taught about local heroes like Koti Chennayya or Koraga Thaniya. He said they were. However, when I looked around, I didn’t see any local cultural symbols. As we walked through a hanging bridge, he pointed me to the play area where children were making shiva lingas out of clay.
Bhat also told me that "more than 95 percent of the students" belonged to lowered castes. Many were also from impoverished backgrounds and lived in the school hostel. He then walked me across to the campus across the road, where the senior secondary and pre-university sections were. Before entering the classrooms, we toured the gaushala at the entrance. It was an open shelter, with the statue of Krishna at the entrance.
Coastal Karnataka is lined with schools which are owned by the Sangh and its functionaries. Other than Bhat, VHP leader MV Puranik owns Sharada Vidyalaya. One of the earliest members of VHP in Karnataka, Dr Veerendra Heggade owns Shri Dharmasthala Manjunatheswara Education Society. The names of Viinay Hegde who is the Chancellor of Nitte Deemed University and Dr Mohan Alva, who owns Alva’s Education Society, often figure in programs of the Sangh.
Perhaps the work of Vidya Bharathi will contextualise why the Sangh promotes setting up educational institutions by its members. Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan is the educational wing of the RSS, which was established in the late 70s. The RSS had, by then, set up schools at the local level; Vidya Bharati was created as a centralised institution, to coordinate between these schools. Since then, the functionaries of Vidya Bharati have expanded to 2,000 schools with more than 30 lakh students enrolled in them.
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