FOLK THEATRE

The Padma Shri for Manjamma Jogathi does her, her community and Karnataka proud

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Manjamma Jogathi. She is the first transwoman chairperson of the Karnataka Janapada Academy. Photo: ARUN JOLADKUDLIGI

Apart from singing and acting, Manjamma’s expertise lies in dancing by balancing a pot on her head. The pot dance with Yellamma idol is an intrinsic part of the Jagathi nritya repertoire. Manjamma performing at Hampi. Photo: SHIVASHANKAR BANAGAR

Manjamma plays the role of Yellamma in Yellamma ‘nataka’. Photo: COURTESY: MANJAMMA JOGATHI/ARUN JOLADKUDLIGI

Manjamma’s life began on the margins of society as a Jogathi. It has now taken centre stage with the government honouring her with the Padma Shri in recognition of her efforts in bringing respectability to Jogathi nritya and her transgender community in Karnataka.

IN 1985, Manjamma Jogathi attempted to end her life by consuming poison. This was soon after she became a Jogathi, abandoning her male identity and becoming a transwoman on being initiated into the service of the deity at the Huligemma temple at Hospet in Ballari district in Karnataka. Her parents had grudgingly accepted this transformation of their male child, but their demeanour towards Manjamma changed thereafter, and this troubled her deeply. That is when she decided to end her life.

Manjamma says in her recently released autobiography, Naduve Suliva Hennu: “My father did not accept me. When he saw me wearing a saree, he could not tolerate me. I suppose he could not see his son like a daughter and his whole attitude towards me changed…. I decided that it was better to die than to live with this sort of tension.” Naduve Suliva Hennu (loosely translated as “Flashes of the Feminine”) has been narrated by Arun Joladkudligi, assistant professor, Kannada Folklore University.

More than 35 years after the compulsive choice she made and the depressing event that followed, the genial, larger-than-life and confident Manjamma is the chairperson of the Karnataka Janapada Academy. Manjamma has a legion of admirers today, among whom are leading politicians of the State. She is one of the five Padma awardees from Karnataka for 2021. “I feel happy that I was chosen for the Padma Shri but I’m just so tired of the attention. Talking to reporters is such an ordeal. My throat is dry, and my jaw hurts,” she told Frontline.

Manjamma’s life journey from a small village in Ballari district has been a long and tedious one, but along the way, she has been honoured with several prestigious awards, including the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award (the second highest civilian honour in the State) in 2010, for transforming Jogathi nritya, the song and dance routine of the Jogathi community, from a marginal folk tradition to a higher art form. Her appointment as the chairpersonship of the Karnataka Janapada Academy in 2019 was significant as it was the first time a transgender person was chosen for the post.

The transgender identity of Jogathis is rooted in their devotion to Yellamma and Huligemma, the popular deities in north Karnataka. The identity of the Jogathis transcends normative gender roles and finds validation in the mythological structure built around these goddesses. The linkage of their transgender identity with a religious tradition provides Jogathis leeway for non-conforming gender behaviour. Aspects of how Manjamma negotiated this identity become apparent when one reads her autobiography.

Manjamma was born on May 20, 1957, into an Arya Vaishya family, which is a trading community. For most of her childhood, Manjamma was unaware of gender differences but it was in seventh standard, as she recalls, that “womanly aspects began to appear”. “I wore girls’ dresses and acted in plays two or three times in the village,” Manjamma states. This was accompanied by a natural shyness of boys and in that confused state, she began to spend time on her own. “It was during this time that I began to get fits [seizures] every three months and began to pray a lot,” she says.

After she failed in her tenth standard, Manjamma moved to a different town and stayed with her elder brother where she increasingly began to display feminine behaviour. “I would feel that Huligemma was swamping my body. When someone behaved like this, people would state that she should be taken to Huligemma or Yellamma,” she states, “…but my brother would shout at me and hit me saying that all this was not possible in our caste.” When people would call her a girl, she would pretend to be annoyed but was secretly thrilled, Manjamma confesses.

Even her uncle who had become a Jogathi, discouraged her from following her natural tendencies. “Later, in my life I realised that he did not want me to go through the kind of experiences he had, so he was very critical of the changes in my body,” Manjamma states.

When she went back to stay with her parents, she often entered a state of trance “when the Devi’s [Huligemma] love would overwhelm me”, and state things she had no awareness of on waking up. The predictions she made in this stuporous state, came true and her parents finally agreed to her incessant demand to become a Jogathi.

Manjamma lived in different villages in Ballari district after this and learnt how to dance and sing in the Jogathi tradition. Her description of life with Jogathis during this time is interesting as it shows how a young transwoman was discovering herself and her identity. Manjamma says she learned a lot during the annual jatre (fair associated with a festival) of Huligemma. It provided the space for Jogathis to gather. “Now, things have changed at Huligemma [temple]. Jogathis cannot sing and dance…. Brahmins have become priests. They now call Huligemma Huligemma Devi or Huligeshwari.”

Shining on the stage

Her meeting with a senior Jogathi, Kalamma Jogathi, was a turning point in Manjamma’s life. Kalamma trained her in music and theatre of the Jogathi tradition. Manjamma writes that Kalamma was like a mother to her. “When Kalamma came to meet me for the first time, it was like how a boy’s family evaluates a prospective bride,” Manjamma states. Manjamma joined Kalamma’s troupe and acted in plays on Yellamma for the first time as a Jogathi.

“Nowadays, the lure of Yellamma theatre has come down but these were grand events in the villages,” Manjamma recalls. As she gained respectability as a Jogathi artiste, often playing the role of Parasurama in the play, Manjamma’s family also reconciled with her.

Kalamma’s troupe was often invited to perform at various villages and fairs. It was also invited for a performance on Akashvani (All India Radio). A Jogathi troupe consists of singers and dancers and is accompanied by musicians. The troupe uses three musical instruments: the choudki, a rhythmic stringed instrument with an open wooden drum; the sutti, which is akin to the ektara used for maintaining pitch; and the taal, which are tiny cymbals. Apart from singing and acting, Manjamma’s expertise lies in dancing by balancing a pot on her head. The pot is decorated with an idol of Yellamma, and this dance is an intrinsic part of the Jogathi dance format.

Manjamma carried forward the tradition after her mentor’s passing. But she is not done yet. She has ambitious plans, both for advancing folk arts in Karnataka and for furthering the tradition of Jogathi nritya as the head of the Janapada Academy.

The recognition Manjamma got from the State Folklore Department increased her stature as an artiste and a teacher who has been training initiates in Jogathi nritya. The Padma Shri is the crowning glory in the difficult road she has travelled.

Manjamma is overwhelmed: “This is the first time that someone from Ballari district has been awarded a Padma Award. I am heading home in the next few days. Someone said that I will be taken in a chariot and a procession. I have so many training sessions to conduct. How will I finish everything?”

Shilpa Mudbi Kothakota of the Urban Folk Project, who is a student of Manjamma, said Manjamma “had elevated Jogathi nritya and Yellamma naata [theatre] from a folk art form popular in villages to the proscenium stage”.

The Padma Shri has come as “a big boost for the community of Jogappas”, said Shubha Chacko, executive director of Solidarity Foundation, a Bengaluru-based non-governmental organisation that works with gender minorities. Shuba Chacko said: “These communities are invisible in policy making but hyper visible for the public. Therefore, I think it is significant that her art has been recognised. Jogathis are less known outside the trans communities and their culture is in a state of flux. The peripheral space that the community occupied is disappearing, and modernity has no space for them and their culture.”

Transgender activist Akkai Padmashali said: “It is highly appreciated that Manjamma Jogathi’s dedication and commitment to the field of art has been recognised but there is still a lot of social stigma [against the transgender community] and social exclusion of the community.”

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