The research for Shilpa Kothakota’s project took over a year, but its inspirations will last a lifetime. At the ‘Gender Bender 2017’, she will present a contemporary take on the ‘Yellammanaata’, a traditional performance style that originates primarily from North Karnataka. The original form is ritualistic and long, running the length of 10 or more hours of darkness some times, but this version will be much shorter and much more modern in its references.
In this interview with RJ Shruti Sharada, Shilpa lists the inspirations that came together to form the project. The myth at the centre of this narrative is of Goddess Yellamma, the powerful deity who is revered in many parts of south India with almost cultish fervour. This Goddess is gender-fluid, militantly against established social norms of behaviour, and inspiringly irreverent. Shilpa is excited about presenting a portrait of a relatable deity, one who is capable of yelling and who has to attend to calls of nature at times, just like us all. This version of Yellamma inhabits traits of motherhood, of victimhood, of an entity unafraid of demanding what they want in full awareness of the consequences.
The central myth originates from the town of Saundatti/ Savadatti in Belgaum district of Karnataka. The Renuka Yellamma Devi Temple here is well-known, but the root story behind the Goddess has been lost in the whirlpool of ritualic and symbolic bhakti.
The Yellamanaata is traditionally performed by jogtis from communities of transgender persons. These performers have preserved the myth through an oral tradition of passage, which has in effect spawned many local versions. Discovering these varying narratives was one of the most heartening aspects of Shilpa’s journey, as was finding touching motherly love at the homes of the traditional performers.
This Yellamanaata project will bring to life the core values of Goddess Yellamma’s story by delineating gender and caste connotations from the art form. This is an experiment at making folk more contemporary and expanding its reach to the urban realm.
Written by Shruti Sharada.