The devaragudas travel from one street to another singing the praise of Mallai Mahadeeshwara. As they sing, a distinctive loud clang accompanies the lyrics. The sound is produced by a special instrument called kamsale. Made of brass (kanchu), these instruments are unique to Karnataka’s folk tradition. Kamsale finds mention in several folk plays, epics and poems. It is also known by other names such as kai talla, biradu, battalu and kamsa talla.
The story goes that Sakkamma had two children, Karayya and Bellaya. Both were staunch devotees of Lord Mahadeeshwara. Mahadeeshwara tested these devotees in a sword fight. Mahadeeshwara was so pleased by both of them that he performed this dance in joy. In the hills even to this day, Karayya and Bellaya stand on either side of the Lord and serve him. Thus kamsale is believed to have been given by Lord Mahadeeshwara himself.
Before being given the status of a folk dance, it was more of a folk storytelling tradition – a simple way used to propagate their religion, to popularize the stories of their gods and goddesses and also as a means of conservation. This form can be performed by devarugudas, harijanas, vokaligas, kurubas or madivalaru. Once they are proficient in all the stories, having memorized the songs, they are initiated into the clan through a special ceremony and called devaragudas or gudammas (women).
The songs open with a salutation to Lord Ganesha and Saraswathi. Then the main singer elaborates the entire epic of a chosen deity. Some compose poems on the spot to suit the occasion. The chorus just keeps repeating the lines after the main singer. This can go on from one to nine nights. On festival days they collect alms from houses. They also perform certain rituals themselves.
The kamsale battalu or tala in made of brass. Unlike the western cymbal or natuvanga both the cymbals are distinct. One piece is hollow like a small bowl while another is flat like a plate. The bowl is clasped in an inverted position in the left hand and the plate is attached to a thick thread in the form of a loop. The thread is 0.45 or 0.61m in length. The loop is circled tightly around the right hand. The length of the loose end determines the flexibility of the kamsale. The longer the thread the more easily it will swing; thus the harder it becomes to manage the brass plate and vice versa.
There are two types of kamsale – kollitu haduva kamsale, where they just sit and sing songs using kamsale as a rhythm base and bisu kamsale, where 3 or 4 singers sing the song and 8 to 12 dancers perform using kamsale as a property. Bisu kamsale today as a pure dance sequence has created a new dimension for itself. Some performers blindfold themselves, others include swords. The whole performance begins at a slower pace with one or two dancers. It gains momentum with clever formations, pyramids and acrobatics that are more circus-like. A competent solo dancer is very agile and flexible; he twirls the kamsale in all direction and still never misses a beat. The kamsale is very heavy; if it hits a dancer it can cause serious injury. The trick therefore is to never touch the kamsale to the body. The lightning speed of the performance can only be achieved by years of dedicated practice and concentration.
The rhythms in kamsale are usually in sets of four. As they perform, the dancers bang the cymbals or kamsale of their partners. The rhythm should not be broken. Dancers join or break from the group without upsetting the rhythm.
Traditionally there was no special attire for these performers. A simple lungi/panche, a kavi (shirt)/angi, towel on their shoulder, jolge or a long hanging bag and rudrakshi were the requirements. They adorn themselves with vibhuthi (sacred ash). They also carry naga bettha (a slender bamboo with a snake-shaped tip) and kamsale (brass cymbals). Today performers wear stitched dhothis, pyjamas or even pants, but the colour is restricted to white, cream or saffron. A headband and colourful tops are in vogue.
There are just three main ingredients: kanjere, batallu and vocals. Sometimes tamte and ekanath are also used. The voice has to be strong and powerful. There should be a minimum of four artists. For the mela to sound good, there should be one lead singer and others should be the chorus. The tala keeps varying in rhythm and pattern. The basic counts are always in sets of four. The song is written in champu style. More importance is given to prose. The stories are stopped when required to elaborate. The last line of the prose is knit into a song.
Bisu kamsale is a unique style of folk dance. There is literature, vocals, percussion, music and pure dance elements. Very few troupes exist today. Lack of government assistance and patronage by religious institutions have dwindled their number. Few take it as a profession today. In spite of all this, the form has survived and makes its presence felt among some of the grand folk traditions of this state.
Sneha Nandagopal interviews Hibbani Mahadevaiyya, the kamsale legend
The crowded lanes and tiny houses are in a maze. You are sure to lose your way in this poor locality in the heart of Chamarajpet. The winding path leads to the doorstep of Hibbanni Mahadevaiyya. A simple and pious man, Mahadevaiyya has dedicated his entire life to art of kamsale. Born in 1924 in Mavlli talluk, Hibbani village, Mahadevaiyya has made a name for himself as the expert in the art of Bisu kamsale. His presence, agility and deep-set voice make it hard to believe that he is 83 years old. Like a colossal tree of wisdom, with his ripe age and vast experience, he has a rustic appeal that makes him a true folk maestro.
When did you settle in Bangalore?
In 1959 I came here. Later I brought my family along in 1960 and settled here. Initially there was a group of about four boys. We started going around singing the praise of the Lord and collecting alms. Slowly the group grew, the old passed on replaced by younger and agile ones.
When did you start learning this art form?
I started when I was 12 years old. In T. Narsipura taluk there was one Kenchayya who was very famous for singing Mahadeeshwara stories and Bisu kamsale. he was teaching pupils at Manchannahalli. I saw that and spoke to my mother about it. My mother asked him to teach me; he agreed. We were to pay him Rs 20 and a sheep. He came to stay in our village. I started traveling with him and learning the stories as he taught them.
How was the learning process then?
There was no recording and photography then. I used to hear the story once and repeat it perfectly by the next day. We traveled a lot and he taught me about the nuances and different styles of kamsale. We performed on the streets, at fairs and on Malai Mahadeeshwara hills on the occasion of Mahashivaratri.
How did kamsale start?
Devotees of Mallai Mahadeshwara had to travel through thick forests to pay homage to their lord. The forest was infested with wild beasts that hindered their pilgrimage. So they made small groups and sang songs loudly, making heavy noise with the battalu they had. This grew as the form now called kamsale.
What are the customs you follow?
We go from house to house singing in praise of the miracles performed by Lord Mahadeeshwara. The women in these houses donate rice, salt, groceries, etc. If they can afford to give, we receive from them or else we move along. We bless them and give them vibhuthi. This is compulsory and we follow it to this day, especially on festivals of Lord Shiva. During the pooja we wash ourselves, all the items and the place of worship. We perform the pooja. We spread the rice and place the linga, vibhuthi and basava on it. Then we place eade (naivedya) and do all the rituals like in a temple. After the pooja, theertha and prasada are distributed to everyone. Women are not supposed to touch the linga. Only if they are sanyasis or after menopause are they allowed to handle the rituals.
What are the types of kasmsale?
We open the bisu battalu (where the battalu is given a long string thus making it more dangerous to handle); it is even done blindfolded. When two play it is called verse battalu. Verse means war; so they have to lock each other in combat. The same with four players is kamchi. They make diverse combinations and lock themselves at the waist or the neck. Six or more form the tara battalu. There is also something called the karadi kamsale where one person plays the swami and others dressed as karadi or bears seek his permission and then perform. But we do not practice it anymore.
What about the next generation of artists?
Generally we are a team of 32 men – 24 young men and 8 smaller boys. Two seniors who told the complete story have died. None of the present generation know the complete verses. They can manage ten to twenty minutes of it for a small programme or small puja. But no one in the present generation knows the stories completely like we do. It is not just one story, we sing on Balliga Rama, Nanjundeshwara, Banje Hona Devi, Chenniga Rama, Mylar Rama, etc. We sing about their birth, growth, miracles and salvation. Some stories are short; they can be completed in one hour. But some are spread over six days.
What do you feel about college students learning this form?
A lot of them are interested now and are coming forward to learn the dance, more than before – especially after it was popularized by actor Shivraj Kumar in his film Janumada jodi. More and more people should learn about it but they learn it as a dance item for 6 or 10 mins and not as a tradition. We do puja to even the battalu we use it before and after using them.
What is the present status of the art form?
We grew up eating ragi mudde. My voice can be heard across roads; today’s generation lack that strength and vigor. When I performed with my teacher, whatever we earned (one anna and half anna) was collected by my teacher. Today’s youth are money-minded; they openly ask or even demand for their share. Times were different then.
Anything else you would like to say?
The Lord Mahadeeshwara gives for everyone’s needs. the jolge is always full but you have to share its contents. The more you share the more it will be full. This is how my wife and I have led our lives. If people understand this simple law, it will make their lives better.