Tuesday, Jul 05, 2022
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Tales From The Rivers And Forests: How BuDa Folklore Is Leading A Folk Revival In Rural Karnataka

Angadibail forest and its tribes are a treasure trove of folk tales and stories. BuDa Folklore is uncovering them, one at a time

People camping during a sea-route trail
People camping during a sea-route trail

Night has fallen over Angadibail forest in the foothills of the Western Ghats.

Somewhere in the cluster of dense trees, a group of young people are seated around a woman on a makeshift stage, listening wide-eyed as she narrates an age-old story from her tribe. Bathed in the glow of the lanterns, the woman looks striking in a wrap-around saree, hair neatly coiled into a bun, and with a neck full of beaded ornaments, shoulder bands, and multiple bangles on both hands. “She sat with her lantern, her face basking under its glow, under the starlit sky, on the stage which was to later become our bed, walking us through the stories of Vakkal Gowda and Devvada Kathe,” recounts Vaishnavi Prabhu, one of the people in the audience. “I have very little knowledge of Kannada, but Padmavati akka’s expressions and gestures had me transfixed. I have never seen anyone enjoy their own act so much – she couldn’t stop laughing, while narrating a funny fable about a son’s dance with the demons.”

Prabhu is at Angadibail as part of an annual kokum harvesting festival organised by BuDa Folklore, an organisation dedicated to conserving the rich biodiversity and folk tales of the indigenous people of Uttar Kannada. Padmavati belongs to one such group called the Halakki, a tribe living along the Konkan coast whose customs and traditions are slowly being lost to modernisation, including the rich tapestry of different versions of epic stories which have been passed down as songs through generations.

Padmavati akka teaches leaf craft
Padmavati akka teaches leaf craft

BuDa’s harvest festival constitutes a movable feast, which sees many people from different cities flock to their Angadibail Forest House, located in the evergreen woods about 30 kilometres away from Gokarna. Prabhu recounts climbing “those slender trees like pre-evolutionary monkeys,” gathering the red fruit – some sweet, some sour – transferring them from trees to baskets where they would separate the peel, juice the pulp, and collect the seeds. “All in all, nothing goes to waste.” The encounter at the festival taught her many things – from preserving an indigenous fruit to weaving baskets from scratch. “And under the sky did I sleep for most of the nights, sometimes confusing fireflies for shooting stars or, on other [nights], predator’s eyes,” she says with a touch of the whimsy.

The kokum harvest for the season
The kokum harvest for the season

The kokum harvest festival is just one of the several initiatives that BuDa has been hosting for more than two decades in order to create a learning community
that explores folklore knowledge and its application in the contemporary world. All resource persons at their events are from local and tribal communities. BuDa's programmes hope to enable an understanding of the rich folk culture of indigenous people in the region, including the Halakki, Gamokkalu, Gondas, Siddhis and the Kareokkalu. BuDa's founder, the folklorist Dr Savita Uday, remembers growing up listening to the songs and stories of these tribes. "In some of these cultures, the Ramayana is known as Seethekami, and the Mahabharatha is the Pandavarakami. The women are strong – they take care of family, work and agriculture. Therefore, you will see that Sita is given more importance in the epic which is also named after her – Seethekami." The origins of this venture go back more than four decades when Uday's parents began the process of documenting the folklore of the region, archiving the indigenous festivals, food, medicines, oral heritage, and even games and their literature – in over 80 books. Uday was immersed in this culture since she was a child, an experience that has enriched her life in many ways. She wants to pass on this ethos to the younger generation from cities.

Lighting the lamps for the evening in Angadibail
Lighting the lamps for the evening in Angadibail
Traditional Koudhi hand-quilting project
Traditional Koudhi hand-quilting project

People who attend BuDa events (which are always graced by the presence of Beera, the brave resident dog who once survived an encounter with a leopard) get to explore the food, art and craft, music, dance and architecture of the indigenous people. For centuries, the indigenous people here have carefully cultivated ecosystems like the one in Angadibail. They have tended a host of edible plants and jungle foods that have yielded food in abundance for centuries. With elements of the modern world erasing their food pathways, BuDa’s festivals are a way to reclaim their traditional food systems and folklore. “Did you know that these tribes have over 200 native drinks?” asks the BuDa website.

Getting ready for Siddhi dance with Beera
Getting ready for Siddhi dance with Beera

With the monsoon season coming up, the next programme will be Mungaru which celebrates the rains with paddy-transplanting activities, and highlights the importance of land and seed preservation through the cultivation of folk rice varieties like halaga, ratnachuda, kempuhalaga and hegge. Mungaru and other such programmes play an important part in cultural preservation. And each carries its own distinct, evocative trait. Numerous studies have found that local communities like the ones BuDa works with hold the key to protecting biodiversity. The indigenous communities across the world have been stewards of the environment for generations, taking care of animals, plants and their habitats. A lot of the ancient legends of the tribes who live here are about nature – handed down generations in compelling narratives and songs like the one by Padmavati akka. Uday hopes that through these interactions, their way of life will be passed on. “People will keep telling these stories, we hope.”

The paddy fields in Motigudda
The paddy fields in Motigudda

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A Study In Seasons

BuDa’s relatively new programme Rutu: Live and Learn has people studying seasonal rhythms in the forest, the ecology and life. Bengaluru-based Ashwin Lobo just wrapped up a session. Ever since the 26-year-old graduated from college, Lobo has been engaged in a wide range of environment-related work, volunteering with several grassroots organisations that focus on conservation, ecological restoration and regenerative agriculture. Here he talks about his month-long Rutu experience:

As the name suggests, this programme (and life at BuDa’s Anagdibail farmhouse in general) is deeply centred on the changing rhythms of the seasons. Every season, different flowers bloom, different crops are grown, and different festivals are celebrated. The seasonal changes don’t just affect human activities, but also have a bearing on the lives of other beings. In the monsoon, the leeches and snakes venture out. In winter, migratory birds come to visit from places as far afield as Mongolia and Siberia. And in summer, fireflies light up the night sky.

Lamp-lighting for Rutu in summer
Lamp-lighting for Rutu in summer

Walks and treks are a major component of a BuDa programme when everyone is encouraged to be actively present with all their senses – noticing, smelling, listening, feeling, and even tasting the raw beauty of nature around them. We went for two such treks to Vibhuthi Falls, hiking through the stream which eventually took us up to the waterfall. Swimming in the natural rock pool, formed over millions of years with the waterfall pummelling into the hillside, was ample reward for our climb.

Another memorable adventure was a night walk we took one evening after dinner. With our sense of sight rendered mostly ineffective owing to the lack of light, we were forced to open up more to our other senses as we set off to meet the creatures of the night. The children listened to the calls of crickets, cicadas and even the frogmouth, an elusive nocturnal bird. But, the highlight of it all was spotting a beautiful green vine snake, gracefully camouflaged on a small tree by the path.

Halakki women performing the tarlé
Halakki women performing the tarlé

Towards the end of the programme, we trekked up to Yana, a majestic prehistoric rock formation. It involved a five-hour hike through the forest, scrambling up steep rocks, avoiding thorny cane plants and warding off leeches. For the participants, longer treks such as this are also about pushing past boundaries of physical and mental discomfort and learning to support each other in times of adversity. Understanding and preserving the folk knowledge of the region is central to the ethos of BuDa Folklore – and so it was natural that learning folk craft from local teachers was also an integral part of the programme. Everyone learnt how to weave baskets made out of a forest vine from Eshwaranna, a versatile farmer and craftsman who hails from the nearby village of Kuntgani. Led by Eshwaranna, they walked into the nearby woods to search for and harvest these vines, locally called kurli balli, using nothing more than machetes and their bare hands. From Padmavati akka of the Halakki tribe, they learnt how to make the koté, a weave of jackfruit leaves which is used as a casing for steaming idlis. Padmavati akka was also kind enough to share many stories and songs of her tribe, even spontaneously bringing us into a circle to sing the rain invocation (tarlé) on a particularly humid summer day. Evenings were spent playing a variety of folk games such as ali gulli mané, pagga, aané nayi aata and appé doppé, to name only a few.

Products from the basket weaving sessions
Products from the basket weaving sessions

Two visiting artists from Bangalore, Antara and Jaai, worked with the participants to paint walls of the BuDa buildings. Rather than using chemical paints, the participants walked around looking for mud of different hues, which they then mixed with water to make a variety of colours. Jaai also worked along with the participants to make art installations using waste materials, making sculptures of a turtle and a chicken with disused baskets, coconut shells, scavenged feathers and waste wood.

Telling the legendary story of the Bobriya statue
Telling the legendary story of the Bobriya statue

While the month at BuDa was a period of intense learning for all of us, it was also a lot of fun. As Savita akka says, it is so important to have children regularly come and live at the Angadibail farmhouse for they bring so much joy and life to the place. For a while, things will be relatively quiet at the Angadibail farmhouse, until the next group of children comes and reinfuses it with their vibrancy.

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Walks and Trails

Being a part of BuDa events means getting the opportunity to appreciate the beautiful landscapes, islands, waterfalls, estuaries, hills, rivers, thick forests and the sea. They host several trails and walks exploring the geography of the region.

The Forest Route

Get up close with the Siddhi and Kareokkalu tribes and explore their connection to the forest through this trek that takes you through evergreen, deciduous forests of the Western Ghats. Camp in villages that are located en route, and trek to Yana Motigudda Hill, the highest peak in the region.

The River Route

Follow the Sharavathi river from its origin in an estuary to the Arabian Sea via a combination of treks, boat rides and walks on short stretches of road. The route showcases historical islands, the course of the river and the various landforms created by the river.

River-route trekking on the river Sharavathi
River-route trekking on the river Sharavathi

The Sea Route

This trek from Honnavar to Gokarna weaves through the Western coast and over the Sahyadri Hills. Highlights are the interactions with the Halakki tribe and fishermen community, and camping on beaches.

Along the sea route
Along the sea route

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The Information

BuDa Folklore, Angadibail, Achave Taluk, Uttara Kannada, Karnataka-581344

Getting There

  • Closest airport: Goa / Hubli
  • Closest railhead: Gokarna / Ankola / Hubli (from Hubli to Ankola Town, 120  km by bus)
  • Nearby towns: Gokarna (30 km), Ankola (30 km), Kumta (50 km)
  • Website: budafolklore.in
  • Email: budafolklore@gmail.com / rutu.budafolklore@gmail.com

All photographs courtesy BuDa Folklore

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