In the backyards of Ankola in northern Karnataka, a group of women from the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe sing their stories out loud. Can you hear them?
“Sukri ajji? Everybody in Ankola knows her. Let me take you to her! If she likes you, she’ll even sing for you. She is a living book about the Halakkis.” Said our rickshawala.
The Halakki women sing about everything you can and cannot imagine. From fantasy to daily life chores. From marriage to protest. From the people they met yesterday to the ones they would like to meet tomorrow. Their poetic songs are just around the corner of your conversation with them.
It is how they keep company as they make long journeys into the forests and the hills to log firewood or plough through endless paddy fields.
We’re here in Ankola, Karnataka, to meet the last of the singing Halakkis. A troop of 4 tribal women who are fightingby singing songs to save their culture from disappearing. In the hope that someday, they are loud enough to be heard by the world or at the least by their own community.
Walking barefoot on a muddy pathway, wearing a unique attire that you wouldn’t miss, Sukkari Devu leads us to every corner of the community village quickly, proudly and elegantly.
We stop at Sukri Bomma Gowda’s (Sukri Ajji) porch, where four women have spent most of their lives singing songs, reciting poetry and building a friendship that has now become one of the last treasure troves of an unwritten culture.
They say wrinkles only go where the smile goes and when you meet Sukri ajji, you’ll know it’s true. Her ear to ear smile is wrinkled only by the life she has lived year to year.
As the leader of this singing group, Sukri ajji’s music has taken her across the country. Strong, independent and eccentric enough to be loved by everyone in and out of the Halakki community, Sukri ajji is no ordinary tribal woman.
History teaches us that great artists are inherently great activists too. They use their art and their way of life as a form of protest against evils that haunt the world they care deeply, and draw infinite inspiration from. Sukri ajji’s poetry and music have been her natural weapons to fight against oppressive laws and perceptions that limit her tribe from progress. Her voice breaks between her poems and songs only to correct the others’ tone.
Her childlike enthusiasm draws the children of the tribe to her. And through her fascinating stories of the past, she keeps them interested in their culture.
“I got these girls together for the first time when I was 14 years old. We sang during marriages, poojas and even when a girl was born. We were having the best time of our lives. We are old now but the music hasn’t left us.” – Sukri Ajji (Sukri Grandma)
Dubbed ‘The aboriginals of northern Karnataka,’ the Halakki Vokkaligas are a vanishing tribe. The new generation has completely abandoned their traditions and in search of the urban dream, they’ve drifted far enough to shy away from their own rich and poetic culture.
For about 400 years, Halakki Vokkaligas have kept their poetry to themselves. But today, these 4 women sing their secrets everyday.
There's a song in every action, every thing and in every personSukri Ajji (Sukri Grandma)
Making the paddy fields, the hills and forests their abode, the older Halakki women are a hardworking lot. Choosing a simple community life, they believe in the truth that if they take care of mother earth, she will in turn take care of them.
The word “Halakki” literally means milk (Haalu) and rice (Akki) in Kannada. Like many indigenous tribal communities that have no documented literature of their past, the Halakkis have stories and songs of how they were named –
Parvati trips and falls spilling rice and milk on the mud while carrying food for her husband Shiva, who is ploughing the field. Disappointed with this, she makes a male and female doll out of the wet mud and returns home. Shiva, searching for his wife finds these dolls that come to life upon his first touch.
He tells them that they could work in the field with him and since they were born out of rice and milk, they would be called the Halakki. This is the story the four women believe in.
The women drape their sarees in a uniquely beautiful way as layers of necklaces cover their naked necks and shoulders in a delicate entanglement. It defines their identity, keeps their necks straight and helps them go through their hard work comfortably.
“Isn’t ploughing the field a special occasion? That’s enough to wear these necklaces everyday.” – Kuchali
Despite being musical activists and having sung for 1000s of people over the years, nothing brings out the happiest songs in these incredibly vibrant women like the harvest season and bright sunshine on their backs.
If people can change the world, music can change people. These Halakki women enduringly pursue this thought. Singing as loud and as often as they can, they remind their people of their roots and ask the world not to forget them.
Me: If you could speak to a large group of people from the cities, what would you say?
Sukri Ajji: “Come to our village. Let’s sing together!”