It only took a few seconds to spot the three transwomen (transgender people who are male at birth but whose gender identity is that of women) who languidly walked up to the Nipani bus stand. They stuck close to each other. Two of them, delicately built, were dressed in jeans and tight T-shirts, while the third was tall and lean and dressed in a parrot green sari. It was hard to miss them in the sparse early morning crowd. The response of onlookers to the transwomen was mixed—while some gave them a wide berth, others respectfully sought their blessing, for they were Jogappas, the blessed devotees of Yellamma Devi, a favoured deity in the region.
A few days before this encounter, on February 21, the trio had performed in Bengaluru, along with the “enfant terrible” of Carnatic music, T.M. Krishna, in a path-breaking concert. Now, almost 600 kilometres away, in their small hometown of Nipani in Belagavi district, the Jogappas, who are a traditional community of transwomen, looked very different from the resplendent avatars that they had transformed into while performing in Bengaluru.
The audience in Bengaluru, consisting mostly of Carnatic music aficionados, had been novel for them. They usually perform at the Yellamma Devi temple in Saundatti, which is the main temple of the deity. Here, villagers from the rural hinterland of Belagavi listen to them. At other times during the year, they go from house to house in designated villages seeking alms and singing bhajans in praise of Yellamma. Performing in front of an invited audience in an auditorium in a large city was a new experience for the Jogappas. “It was an overwhelming experience for us and obviously we were very nervous, but we invoked the name of Yellamma and everything turned out well,” said Satish Keraba Pasare, 30, who prefers to be called Rakhi.
Five Jogappas from north Karnataka had performed, along with Krishna, at the Unnati Centre in Bengaluru at a concert titled “Aikya”, which translates as “coming together”. The concert, which was attended by more than 500 people, envisaged the coming together of two disparate streams of music: of the elite Carnatic music and the folk songs of the Jogappas. For the Jogappas, the concert was a landmark. Sagar Bhaskar Walke, also 30, said: “When the audience was on their feet and clapping for us at the end, our eyes welled up with tears.”
When Shubha Chacko, director of the Bengaluru-based Solidarity Foundation (an organisation that supports the rights of transgender people), reached out to Krishna a few months ago, the plan was that the Jogappas would briefly headline a performance of Krishna. Krishna, who through his writings and public positions has demonstrated an awareness of unequal social structures, and who has pushed the boundaries of Carnatic music by questioning the elitism of that form, was discomfited by the suggestion.
“I didn’t want them to be pre-star performers. I felt uncomfortable as the idea was to remove a certain stigmatisation and marginalisation. Immediately, the classical would be perceived as elite, hardcore, pure, an idea which I have some problems with, so I suggested to Shubha that we do a concert together,” he told Frontline.
Recordings of the Jogappas’ songs were subsequently sent to Krishna, who found that a joint concert was possible. “What they sing is very similar to the bhajan/namasankirtana tradition. They have one melodic line, and there is repetition of that melodic line and that’s the chorus. If you take any music, such as qawwali or gospel music, there is this idea that a similar tune must be repeated, mainly because they want the congregation to follow it. When I heard the Jogappas, I realised it was very much doable. Certain melodies of the Jogappas’ music are also similar to the Carnatic tradition. Each has its own aesthetic form and intent but there were melodic and rhythmic possibilities,” explained Krishna.
This was followed by the selection of the five best singers from among the Jogappas who would accompany Krishna. Two of the selected singers were Rakhi and Sagar Bhaskar Walke. Accompanying them was their teacher, Laxman Nivrutti Bhosale, also known as Laxman Guru. All three are Marathi speakers from Nipani. The other two were Kannada speakers who are from the hinterland of Vijayapura: Siddappa G. Algonda, whom Krishna described as the “prima donna” of the group, and Davalsaab.
The Jogapppas had two things in common when the concert was planned: first, they were unaware of Krishna and his reputation as a Carnatic singer, and second, they had never performed before an urban audience. Their music, along with the cachet of Krishna, gave them the possibility of being taken seriously by an audience that would mostly have dismissed them as hijras (eunuchs) who sing songs at village fairs.
The Jogappas often reiterate that they are not hijras as their transgender identity is strongly rooted in their devotion to Yellamma Devi. Their identity transcends normative gender roles and finds validation in the mythological structure built around Yellamma Devi. The case of Rakhi, for instance, provides an insight into how a transgender identity is negotiated in a particular space, a locality and a rural culture. The case shows how the linkage of their transgender identity with a religious tradition provides them some leeway for non-conforming gender behaviour.
Rakhi was born to a Maratha family in Nipani, a town of around 100,000 residents. Speaking at her home in Ashrayanagar, on the outskirts of Nipani, she said: “From my childhood, I felt like a girl. I would hang out only with the girl students in school and wear lipstick and nail polish. My gait was different from the boys’, and I was constantly ridiculed, but what could I do, I was destined for Yellamma. Even my mother disapproved when I walked down this path a few years ago but now she understands.” A small shrine dedicated to Yellamma finds a prime spot in her one-room house, which she shares with her mother.
Sagar Bhaskar Walke is a Mahar (the same caste that Dr B.R. Ambedkar belonged to, as she proudly proclaims). She lives in an urban slum in the heart of Nipani, surrounded by houses of other Mahars. Her small house is partitioned into two rooms and a kitchen, which she shares with her parents, siblings and their families. “My family members never understood why I behaved like a girl, but when the Devi [Yellamma] possesses you, there is nothing anyone can do.”
Married to the goddess
Both Rakhi and Sagar were initiated as Jogappas by their mentor Laxman Guru, a Mahar herself, who lives in Lakhanapur, around 5 km from Nipani. Laxman Guru has been a Jogappa for a few decades now. The initiation ceremony takes place at the main temple of Yellamma in Saundatti, where a feast is held and a “marriage” between the goddess and the devotee takes place. Once married, they wear something akin to a nuptial thread, with a few crimson and cream beads which mark them out as Jogappas.
While this gives them some respectability, they are still discriminated against in many ways. Sagar, who says that she has a B.A. degree, cited instances of how she was refused a job because of her identity. Many Jogapppas are also sex workers as they see this as a means to supplement their meagre incomes.
Along with their initiation into the Jogappa tradition, they also learn the music and the songs of Jogappas. Rakhi and Sagar were trained by Laxman Guru for a couple of years and are now accomplished singers themselves. Jogappas use three instruments to accompany their music: the choudki, which is a rhythmic stringed instrument with an open wooden drum; the sutti, which is akin to an ektara used to maintain pitch; and the taal, which are tiny cymbals.
While Jogappas sing bhajans in praise of Yellamma, they are also entertainers who have a versatile corpus of music. Some of the songs of the Jogappas of Nipani, both in Marathi and in Hindi, are about love, while others border on the risque. A pinch of turmeric powder between songs keeps them going when they perform for hours at the temple of Yellamma in Saundatti. Rakhi and Sagar are also accomplished dancers and wear heavy ghungroos on their feet while dancing.
Coming from such a non-elite tradition, the Jogappas were happy that their musical talent was recognised, and they looked forward to the concert. On the day of the performance, they dressed simply in white saris with gold borders. Every aspect of the performance was discussed with Krishna, for this was a pioneering effort. Rules had to be established. Should the performers sit or stand? (In the end, they decided to sit because of the percussion instruments.) How should they dress? Should Krishna dress as he dresses when he performs at a kucheri or should he dress casually? How should the songs be curated? How should there be parity between the musical traditions so that one tradition does not overwhelm the other? Decisions had to be made on all such aspects.
Around 15 songs were performed that night. These included original compositions by the Jogappas of Nipani and Vijayapura in praise of Yellamma, interspersed with some Carnatic tracks, including a song of Muthuswamy Dikshitar. The languages were mixed—there was Tamil, Kannada, Marathi and Hindi. It was the first time that the frenetic percussion of the mridangam and the ghatam from the Carnatic tradition mingled with the furious twangs from the choudki and the sutti. The ganjira and the taal and the ghungroo in the hands of the choudki player jangled in a new, unheard confluence that was transforming the language of music. The sounds of the sharp and high-pitched Jogappas sounded new to the audience, but they went along, and somehow the heavy and mellow voice of Krishna did not sound out of place there. There was no integration of the forms, but that evening a musical “conversation” took place that most people would have thought impossible.
What did this concert achieve? Jogappas are the least known among the transgender communities as they are mainly rural. Unofficial estimates put their number at 3,000 in Karnataka. Shubha Chacko said that “the event was especially timely given the increased focus on sexual minorities. This includes the recent Supreme Court decision to refer the matter of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to a five-member Constitution Bench. Other developments include the historic Private Member Bill that was passed in the Rajya Sabha [The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill, 2014] that aims to guarantee rights and entitlements, reservation in education and jobs, legal aid, pensions, unemployment allowances and skill development for transgender people.”
In the days leading up to the concert, the marginalised community of Jogappas gained some visibility. Their musical reputation has now been established. Google searches for the Jogappas now immediately throw up articles about the concert with Krishna, bringing them a veneer of respectability as folk artists. The Jogappas who participated have returned to their villages with enhanced confidence and are basking in this attention, although they do feel that this visibility should translate into something more tangible. Rakhi hopes that the government, recognising the talent of the Jogappas, will provide housing.
For Krishna, the concert adds to his reputation as someone who is a “radical” in the conservative world of Carnatic music, but it is an appellation that he chooses to dismiss. There are murmurs in some quarters that Krishna is “posturing”, but he does not seem to be bothered by any of this. He said: “Over the last five or six years, I have realised that the more I put myself in situations that I presume are uncomfortable, the more I learn about myself; a self-questioning happens.”
Apart from adding to his reputation, will this concert benefit the Jogappas? Krishna had the candidness to admit that “the concert will bring the Jogappas visibility, but for some real change to happen, this event is not going to be enough, so let’s not kid ourselves. A certain respect in terms of perception has happened but that’s very little. A conversation has to be built from here.” Back in Nipani, Rakhi, Sagar and Laxman also hope to perform with Krishna again. “Krishna Sir has invited us to Chennai and we want to go,” said Laxman Guru.
First published on Frontline