Editor’s Note: For an overview of this book and a conversation with the author, click here.
Narratives from the Madigawadas of Ongole by Yendluri Sudhakar, translated by K. Purushotham, published by SouthSide Books, ©2023 by K. Purushotham. All Rights Reserved.
Anyhow, by the time we reached the wedding venue, both Pedabodenna and Sinabodenna were heating their drums over a fire. After their drums had warmed up enough, the brothers sat with us. They said, ‘Sudaiah-bava! You wanted to listen to the rhythm of our drums, didn’t you? Listen today.’
‘Who makes these drums, bava?’ I asked them.
Both answered, one after the other. ‘You want to know who makes the drums? It’s the mastins, the carpenters for the madigas. The mastins belong to our caste group and usually they live by begging for alms from us.. .’
I was curious to know more. ‘I’ve always wondered how they make the drums; I remarked.
‘All we need to do is to get a hoop of neem wood and hand it to the mastins. If it is wood from a fig tree, even better. The mastins shape the wood and strengthen it with iron strips. Then they grind tamarind seeds into a paste, smear it around the edges of the drum and tighten it with ropes. The leather for the drum is the cured hide of a young bull—it’s best if the animal is only one or two years old. The leather is fastened to the drum with a circular strap. The damp drum is placed beneath a stone slab to dry in the hot midday sun. Then they take the drum out, trim the edges and smoothen it. After that, it has to be warmed over a slow flame.
Finally, they test it by beating on the leather to check the resonance of the drum:
‘Abba! That was such a long story. Anyhow, I’m told you play the drum skilfully, Pedabodenna! Please play it for us:
He picked up a drum and played a rhythm on it. ‘Let me tell you the truth, Sudaiah-bava. IfI play the drum after downing a peg of arrack, even Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and the Arts, would start dancing to the beat of my drum. Take my word for it; else, I’m not my father’s son! What do you say?’ He twirled his moustache.
‘Oyabbo! The drum sounds great!’ said Anthony.
‘We can show off all our skills on this drum. Oyabbo, there are so many rhythms! The rhythm of the stick fight, the bhajan, the peerla, sindu, the rhythm of the tiger, the rhythm of the horse, the rhythm of the gods and
so many others. There are many excellent drummers in our caste. Aronu, Dibbaiah and so many others are good at playing all these different rhythms:
* * *
Pedabodenna was not done yet. He spoke animatedly. ‘Now and then, they hold drum-playing contests for the drummers of the surrounding villages. If we enter a competition, the others don’t show up at all! Even our close friends withdraw if we compete. Not that we are superior to them, but that’s how it happens.
‘One can produce all types of rhythms on this drum. We can play the rhythm of a train, of thunder, a rivulet, floods – anything. We practice playing the drums day in and day out. We play for five days straight at temple fairs. The drum produces its best sound only if we down a peg of arrack, though. If a strip of beef jerky accompanies it, we go into a frenzy! The rhythms flow on. If we were to play the drums at fairs without arrack, would the landlords allow us? They would call us names! It’s they who urge arrack on us. Whether we like it or not, we have to down the arrack. What’s the use of all the hard work we put in learning to master the art of drumming? Does it pay off? The landlords pay more to the barber groups who play the sannayi (clarinet) than to us. The barbers join us without playing anything. If they’re paid in thousands, we get offered only a hundred. Why is this, bava? We sweat it out for five full days playing our
drums. But who understands what hard work it is? Only our drumsticks realise it… the long stick and the short one!
‘It’s we who play the drums for the festival of Sreerama Navami, the temple fairs, the Poleramma fair – for everything. The villagers believe that if any ill spirits are around at these events, the madigas will exorcise them. The landlords travel in their bullock carts to worship Poleramma; four of us hold the bullocks and play our drums close to the animals’ ears – khanakhanakhana, enough to maybe even shatter their eardrums. The bulls are petrified. When goaded further with our drumsticks, they begin to run.
‘When the shepherds are ‘possessed’ by gods, we have to drum for them too. When we tire, they offer us arrack to enthuse us, leaving us no choice but to accept it. It’s we who play the drums at the wedding ceremonies of the reddys, and it’s they who ply us with alcohol and they who keep us playing on. They make their servants serve us meals outside their houses. We are not allowed to enter their homes. We sit outside, we eat outside, and leave unseen. Aren’t we the true ‘outcastes’?’
By this time Sinabodenna had worked himself up into a fine rage. It looked as though the day was not too far away when people like Sinabodenna would organise themselves and erupt like volcanoes. ‘What’s the matter, Sinabodenna? The drum was hard till a while ago; but it looks so damp now?’ I asked him.
Sinabodenna got up and started warming the drum again. He explained, ‘It loses its hardness when it cools. We have to warm the drum up above the flame again before playing it. It hardens only when it is warm enough. It’s only then that it will produce the proper sounds, falafalafalafala. When we are high on arrack, we play the drum in such a frenzy that we are sometimes afraid the drum could break.
‘Every madiga house has at least one drum. The reddys and farmers of the village summon us. We must be ready to respond at any time, taking our drum with us. If we do not go, or if we go without our drum, we will not get paid. “Sinabodenna, you didn’t come; you didn’t play the drum; you won’t get your remuneration; there’s no question of paying you!”
‘We play the drum for three days in a row, sometimes even five days. Our hands are often sore by beating on the drum continuously. We are
streaming with sweat and dead tired. And yet they yell at us “Keep playing the drum, ra:’ And they pour more arrack for us.
‘What is left of our bodies after five days of playing the drum with full vigour? Can we move our limbs properly? The drum has no mouth of its own to speak out, and it feels no pain. But what about us? We are full of pain; said Sinabodenna in anguish.
‘You have to teach me to play the drum, Sinabodenna!’ I said impulsively. I picked up one of the drums and started playing on it. Sinabodenna and Pedabodenna laughed hysterically at my efforts at drumming. Once I had put down the drum, Pedabodenna spoke in a resigned tone of voice. ‘Who among the youth of these times will learn this art? They feel it’s beneath their dignity. They feel there’s nothing to learn from the elders of the family. They learn karate and martial arts. Do the boys of these days care to learn the drum? They go to the cinema and take up the latest fashions.
‘The youth refuse to learn from the artists. If they did, they would learn fast. They too can master it; why can’t they? It’s a pity the traditional arts are disappearing like this’.
‘Who’s your teacher, then?’ I asked him.
Pedabodenna replied, ‘I didn’t learn it from any teacher; it’s a skill we imbibe from our elders, by living on the fringes. My grandfather, Ukkiyya Thatha woke us every day before cockcrow, whether it was winter or monsoon or any season. He woke us with his drumbeats! He would warm the drum up above the flames and then start playing it. What a resounding rhythm! The sound would shake us free from sleep. Then Sinabodenna and I would sit up on the string cot. We would listen to the resonance of Thatha’s drum. You cannot begin to imagine how superbly he played. In fact, fuck it all, even the rains would stop at the sound of his drum. The breeze would stop blowing; darkness would melt into light; the sun would rise crimson red – like the tail feathers of the rooster. We would then brush our teeth with neem twigs and gulp down stale sankati. After playing games for a while, we would practice playing the drum. Be it drumming or making sandals, we did not have to go to any teacher to learn these skills. We learnt them from our elders. They were our teachers.