The undying beat of the Dappu: How a traditional drum signifies dignity, revolution for the Madiga community

To upper caste communities, the Dappu is an untouchable's instrument, a drum to be played only at funerals. But for the Madigas, who are the only ones to create and play this instrument, it is a tradition with roots in folklore, an integral part of their lives, and a way of protesting oppression

Jahnavi Uppuleti April 12, 2020 10:08:20 IST
The undying beat of the Dappu: How a traditional drum signifies dignity, revolution for the Madiga community

“Mana thaathalu antha sachipoyinlu! Yaadiki botharu? Mattloki poyina thappetu kottalsindey, cheppulu guttalsindey! Aakasam loki boyina, mabbulameena nilabadi, dappulu gottalsindey!”

(All our ancestors are dead, but what difference does it make where they are, alive or dead?

Even after being buried in the ground, they will still have to play the Dappu and they will still have to sew shoes!

Even if they soar to the skies, they will have to stand on the clouds and play the Dappu!)

—From ‘Mallemoggala Godugu’ by Yendluri Sudhakar, a prominent Dalit Telugu writer and poet.

Celebration and art have been a vital part of the culture of the Madigas – a community predominantly residing in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. A significant number of them also live in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

As you enter a Madiga gudem (ghetto), there are a few things that you will inevitably find: the smell of tanning leather, people who live a life of hardship, and a Dappu in every house.

It is a sleek, flat-faced drum which is made of the skin of buffaloes, cows or goats. It catches the attention of the listener instantly. An instrument with a significant connotation socially, culturally and politically, it is one of India’s oldest type of drums. It has many names, too: Thappu or Parai in Tamil Nadu, and Daff in Maharashtra.

QUESTIONS OF CASTE AND CARRION

“We have scavenged animals, carefully removed their skins, tanned the leather, and made cheppulu (footwear) and Dappus out of them. This is what our ancestors did, what our fathers have done and what we continue to do,” says Ramana, whose eyes sparkle when he speaks. Leather is a luxury, he adds, and people own leather products, whether it is clothes or music instruments. "And yet, they despise the people who make it, they despise the sight of our names on their accessories, and they despise the Dappu because they despise anything that is part of our culture,” Ramana asserts.

Because they scavenged animals, hide was always available to the Madigas, whose primary occupations consequently became tanning and shoe making. They were made to clear dead cattle and animals in towns and villages, and dispose them off on the outskirts.

The undying beat of the Dappu How a traditional drum signifies dignity revolution for the Madiga community

The dead animal is tied to a long, sturdy stick which is carried on the shoulders. After disposing off its body, the skin is carefully peeled off and cleaned. Often, the meat of the deceased animal would be kept aside for consumption. For this, the Madigas were ostracised by the upper castes. “Sacchipoyina goddu mamsam thintaru endi galeez ga!?” (How can you eat bull/cow meat after it has been dead for several hours? Disgusting!) they'd taunt.

The name-calling has followed them down the centuries; they are referred to as ‘beef eaters’ or ‘decayed meat eaters’. Restrictions placed by upper castes on the consumption of other foods by the community made eating this meat a vital part of their diet.

THE ART OF MAKING THE DAPPU

Though it may look simplistic, the process of making this percussion instrument is time-intensive and requires a great deal of patience.

“Depending on the thickness of the skin, we would decide if it has to be tanned for shoes or Dappus. Extremely thick skin is used to make the sole of a cheppu (footwear), thinner versions are used for Dappus and straps. We would put together the different components of the meat, take it to our gudem (ghetto) and distribute it among relatives and friends,” says 80-year-old Yellaiah, who has worked as a cobbler over 50 years.

The circular frame of the Dappu is made out of wood, usually of the tamarind or neem tree. It is referred to as gundu in Telangana and palaka in Andhra Pradesh. This frame is tightly covered by the skin which is processed with chalk and tangerine wood. The skin is then stuck to the wooden frame with an adhesive composed of tamarind seeds, and then tied to the frame with a thin string, to make it firm. The instrument is then exposed to fire, to tighten the edges where the skin may have hung loose from the frame.

The Dappu is played with two sticks: the shorter and thicker sirra, held in the right hand, is used to mainly strike the bottom of the drum, and the thinner and longer sittikenna pulla, held in the left hand, is used on the upper left side of the drum. While the sirra creates rhythm, the sittikenna pulla controls the pace of the rhythm.

ROOTED IN LORE

Penli ayina chavu ayina, Dappu debba padilsinde (Whether it is a wedding or funeral, the Dappu’s sound will always be heard),” says Yellaiah, letting out a proud laugh. He says that there are several reasons why the instrument has such a central presence in Madiga culture, but the most important of these is the sense of dignity the instrument accords to the community, which was deprived of basic dignity by the upper castes and confined to working with animal hide.

Yellaiah believes the Dappu was born when humans were primitive beings. “The aghra kulalu (upper castes) isolated us from the society that they built, but we went on to create our own world which has less pretence and is marked by spirit,” he says.

The folk lore of ‘the monkey and the drum’ is widely narrated in Madiga communities in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, says Ramana. According to it, there was once a man who had gone to the forest to hunt. He saw a male and female monkey sitting atop a tree; the male monkey was playing a flat, one-sided drum, and both primates were dancing and swinging to its beats.

The man wanted to hunt the monkey, and since killing female monkeys was forbidden, he set his target on the male. He missed and accidentally wounded the female. The male rushed to his partner and applied a mix of crushed herbs.

He began playing the drum, in the hope that it would wake her, but this was not to happen. Heartbroken, the male monkey mourned near her body, leaving behind the drum. The man, who had been watching this all along, picked up the drum and took it back to his village.

He narrated what he had witnessed to his fellow villagers and tried playing the drum. Fascinated by the power the beats of this instrument held – the villagers had begun to dance, just like the monkeys on the tree – they all learnt to play the instrument and make it. Even after the demise of the man who had found it, others continued to play it and passed on the knowledge of its music to future generations, who would go on to play it with sticks.

“The Dappu’s origins are believed to be in this lore. We know it is a fictitious story, but the folklore is nonetheless an integral part of our culture,” says Ramana, who was demonstrating the workings of the drum with great joy.

A dance form known as Chindu has evolved alongside the Dappu. It involves synchronised steps set to the rhythm of the drum.

‘CLASSICAL’ VS ‘LOWLY’

Dappu performers play a prominent part in jataras, processions and political announcements. Every celebration in a Madiga household starts with the family playing the instrument and dancing to its music. To this day, announcements in a village are made by a Madiga who walks around playing the drum. Only Madigas play the instrument, and the men of the community have, through the generations, been patrons of it despite having other jobs and sources of livelihood.

The undying beat of the Dappu How a traditional drum signifies dignity revolution for the Madiga community

Despite this, the Dappu is mainly associated with funerals. The many processes that are part of a funeral, from playing the drum to assembling a grave, are performed by Madigas. Notably, other instruments made of leather like the mridangam and tabla have been classified as classical; the hide used to make them is tanned by Dalit communities like the Madigas. Unsurprisingly, stores that proudly house other instruments which contain leather will be unwilling to sell the Dappu, refusing to even speak of it. Their sale is confined to small stores owned by Madigas. The hypocrisy of upper castes, who look down upon the lives and art of those who process the leather for their instruments, so that they won’t have to engage in this work, is hardly veiled.

Since those Dalits who are engaged in animal scavenging now work under the government as municipal workers, they are restricted to clearing dead cattle and handing over the skin to leather factories, where it is sold to by the government. Madigas have thus lost access to hide. Since this development, people have shifted to using synthetic covers to make the drum. This is especially true of towns and cities. There seems to be a monopoly on animal hide, as instruments patronised by the upper castes continue to be made of leather.

A SYMBOL OF REVOLUTION

After 1980, the fire of Dalit resistance was lit in Andhra Pradesh. In the Karamchedu massacre of 1985, several Dalits were axed, beaten with sticks and killed by Kamma landlords, for standing up for their right to fair wages and fulfilment of basic needs. Many women were tortured, raped and sexually assaulted by these landlords. In 1991, Reddy and Kapu landlords brutally hacked eight Dalits to death in Tsunduru. Some bodies were cut up, stuffed into gunny bags and dumped into a river canal.

These two massacres led to massive outrage and resistance against the crimes of the upper castes and the political backing they received from the Telugu Desam Party. With the rise of this movement, Dalits asserted their culture and the presence of Dappus become integral at gatherings. Artists like Kaleikuri Prasad began narrating the stories of these gruesome incidents while singing along to the drum.

In 1994, Madigas took to the streets in large numbers, demanding the categorisation of Scheduled Caste reservations, since internal hierarchies existed within Dalit communities. This movement came to be known as the Madiga Dandora. Dandora translates to the process of making announcements with a drum. Following the formation of the Madiga Reservation Porata Samiti, Dappu rallies become a common phenomenon.

Communist artists and leaders, too, have embraced the instrument in their party and at gatherings. Prominent artists like Gaddar have sung several revolutionary songs with it.

Despite the Dappu holding such great importance in Madiga households, it has been played only by men. Women only participate in the celebratory dancing and singing that takes place alongside the playing of the instrument. Recently, several women have broken these barriers and taken to the drum. Leaders like Vimalakka have been known to perform revolutionary songs with it, inspiring others to continue in their path. Still, the act of women playing the drum has not yet been normalised. This, however, won’t stop Madiga women from wanting to learn the art of their ancestors.

A BEAT THAT REFUSES TO DIE OUT

Playing the Dappu continues to be associated with shame by other communities. Many avoid playing or acknowledging it in public, to avoid unnecessary stares and complications with upper caste communities. It is perceived as an untouchable’s instrument. Nonetheless, the Dappu’s sound continues to embody the spirit of anti-caste movements, and is a matter of pride for the Madigas and other Dalit communities.

“Ee desam cheppu ni mingesindi; ee desam Dappu ni kosesindi.

Ippudu thiragabadda cheppulu, jendalu ayyi payiki lechayi.”

(This country has swallowed the shoe; this country has torn the Dappu apart.

Now the shoes that revolt, have risen up as flags.)

–From ‘Kotha Gabbilam’, a poem by Yenduluri Sudhakar.

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