Four years ago, Dakkali Balamma sat on the ground outside her thatched hut in Mambapur village in Telangana, bent intently over her kinnera. As the 86-year-old strummed the instrument, it produced a melodious and sharp sound. Her voice was slightly hoarse with age, but her grasp on shruti, the measure of pitch, and laya, or beat, was firm. After a few minutes, she looked up at her audience and awaited their response. The rich applause didn’t disappoint her.

When Balamma was younger, the residents of her village said, she would ride around on a horse, much to the awe of her Dakkali tribe. Her voice, at the time, was more powerful, and her impressive performances with the kinnera in the district’s villages were rewarded with money, food and clothes by the Madigas, the patron class. Fortunes changed with time. By the time Balamma died in December 2018, she was penniless. The villagers had to pool in money for her last rites.

Balamma was among the dozen or so people in India still playing the instrument. The kinnera is a stringed instrument native to the nomadic tribes in the Deccan plateau, such as the Dakkali and the Chenchu. A kinnera performance involves vocals and music, and the ballads are sung primarily in rustic Telugu. But today, it is an all but forgotten practice.

Dakkali Balamma. Photo credit: Jayadhir Thirumala Rao.

Origin story

Scholar and poet Jayadhir Thirumala Rao says that the origins of the kinnera can be traced back to “around the 4th century AD, in and around the Deccan plateau”. “The Chenchu tribe [also known as Chenchus or Chenchulu], who were part of the Nallamalla forest, used to play the instrument while singing and narrating ballads or stories of heroes,” said Rao. “The Dakkali tribe of Mahbubnagar district in Telangana [in the area near the Nallamalla forest] was performing it at least from the 12th century. The Dakkalis are a sub-caste of the Madiga caste, once considered outcastes.”

The kinnera has several variations – it comes with seven, nine, 12 or 13 frets. The larger-sized ones have three resonators, while the smaller ones have only two. Much like the Saraswati veena, the instrument is made with organic materials. Its neck is crafted of bamboo, and the resonators from sun-dried and hollowed-out bottle gourds. Pangolin scales are used for the frets, and honey wax for binding. The strings were once fashioned out of women’s hair, horse-tail hair and even animal nerves, but have long been replaced with thin metallic strings.

The ballads accompanying the music are usually drawn from historical incidents, the lives of local heroes, and sometimes songs from the Jamba Puranam. The Jamba Puranam is one of around 40 Puranas in Telugu that differ from the Sanskrit Puranas, in that their content is specific to a local community. The ballads are often interspersed with simple and short, often dramatic, monologues. The tone of voice, facial expressions and body language change with the song’s mood.

A kinnera. Photo credit: Shilpaka Venkatadri.

Declining patronage

Researchers say that apart from the last surviving kinnera performers in Mahabubnagar and Vikarabad districts of Telangana, there are possibly a few more performers in Karnataka, the Adilabad district of Telangana and the Gond tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh.

Darshanam Mogilaiah, who is part of the Dakkali tribe, plays the 12-fret kinnera. He received the state’s highest honours, the Ugadi Puraskaram, in 2015. There is even a chapter on him in a social studies school textbook. Another member of the Dakkali tribe, Pochayya, who hails from the Mahabubnagar district, was honoured by the University of Hyderabad in 2015.

But such honours and awards have failed to make a difference in the lives of these artists. Their performances are few and far between – at the occasional academic meet or art festivals – and remuneration has been dwindling. Most of them are forced to live off the doles from the Madigas.

There are many reasons for this decline. According to Rao, a story popular among the tribals is that a woman was so engrossed in the music of the kinnera that she cut up her baby along with the vegetables she had in front of her. Naturally, the elders of the tribe warned everyone against playing the instrument.

Another, and the likelier reason, is the lack of raw materials. With forest areas shrinking, it has become difficult to obtain the right kind of gourds and pangolins. A third reason is the dwindling patronage for the art form, which in turn discourages the younger generation from playing the kinnera. The non-mainstream nature of the instrument is another factor. Unlike the drums, which are popular in rural areas even today, the kinnera requires special skills – both to make it and play it.

Revival attempts

KV Ramanachary, a cultural advisor to the government of Telangana, says the state has been organising performances and workshops in educational institutions and music colleges in a bid to preserve the art. But he is aware that these initiatives “provide only a temporary fillip and financial gain”. The government wants to appoint a few tribal artists as visiting faculty at a music college or university. “But for this, we need adequate number of students to enrol,” said Ramanachary. “Many people are happy to attend and appreciate these programmes, but no one is coming forward to learn the instrument. Without students, how can we appoint a teacher?”

According to Mamidi Harikrishna, director of Department of Language and Culture, “performances and lecture-demonstrations for artists like Mogilaiah and researcher Dasari Ranga” have been arranged in the recent past, both within and outside the state. A documentary was also made on Mogilaiah. “But this being a narrative art form, the language used – Telugu – limits the extent to which it can be understood and thus promoted outside the state,” he said.

Rao has been working actively to ensure that the art form doesn’t die out. His interest in the kinnera was piqued when he read of a Telangana folk hero named Panduga Sayanna “about whom songs were sung to the accompaniment of the kinnera”. “The mention of an unknown instrument intrigued me, and I set about finding what I could [do] about it,” he said. His efforts were supplemented by those of Guduru Manoja, a professor at Palamuru University in Mahabubnagar.

The two have been lobbying with the government to give the artists more opportunities to perform as well as a pension.
In 2015, a team from the Telangana Rachayithala Vedika (or Telangana Writers’ Forum) and the University of Hyderabad, including Rao and Manoja, decided to re-acquaint the Dakkalis with their lost heritage. After securing official permission to travel into remote tribal areas and the Project Tiger zone, they took Pochayya and his seven-fret kinnera to the Appapur village in the Nallamala forests on August 9, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.

It was a fruitful trip – not only did the tribals recognise the instrument but in a touching and poignant moment, a blind man ran his hands over the kinnera and said: “I would love to play this again. But, it seems to have seven frets only and I am accustomed to the 12-fret version.” A couple of the others held the instrument and played it from memory. We are so touched, they told the visitors – it has been nearly 50 years since we last played the kinnera.