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On the way to Goa, Bengaluru-based independent filmmaker Sarah Thomas came across a group of older women in the countryside.
“It was 5 AM, and these women were dressed in a unique manner—their upper torso was covered in an elaborate layer of beads, and the lower body was in a saree draped like a towel that reached a little beyond the knee. They were working and seemed to be crooning a folk tune,” shares Sarah.
At the time, she was compiling a film on the Dom community in India, but this chance encounter intrigued her deeply. Upon a little research, Sarah discovered that they belonged to the Halakki Vokkaliga tribe of Karnataka—one of the most overlooked and socially ostracised communities in the state.
Those women Sarah saw were a few of the remaining practitioners of their traditional way of life. After facing decades of ostracisation from the ‘civilised’ society for their unique culture, the younger generation of the Halakkis is opting not to reveal their ancestry and blend in with the others.
Sarah decided to document the life and culture of the Halakkis, but the harsh realities that she found out during the research and filming process of her film ‘The Unsung,’ made their way into the film and it has ended up being a heartwrenching chronicle of a tribe that has been stripped of its identity and is slowly fading into oblivion.
The Padma Shri awardees among the Halakkis
Interestingly, this small tribe boasts of of two Padma Shri awardees. In 2017, Sukri Bommagowda earned the honour for her folk singing and social activism to save their fading tunes. In 2020, Tulasi Gowda from the Halakki tribe won the Padma Shri for her encyclopedic knowledge of plants and large scale tree plantation.
The individual stories of these two women have been highlighted in the media time and again, but their tribe hardly ever found cognisance.
Sarah adds that almost all Halakki women possess one or the other of such incredible skills. In fact, their culture mandates them to sing while working. They also seem to have brilliant know-how about medicinal plants, and they strive hard to preserve the environmental biodiversity.
Hiding Their Identity to Blend in
“Presently, the tribe has around 2 lakh remaining members, but barely 1% of them, who are a group of senior women, respect and uphold their culture till date. The tribe believes that they originated from rice and milk that split while Goddess Parvati was trying to feed Lord Shiva,” reveals Sarah.
She faced a series of challenges when she started her journey to meet the members of the tribe. This is primarily because rampant deforestation has uprooted them from their original forested areas, and also because, as mentioned earlier, the present generation prefers to keep their identity hidden.
“People would tell me it was nearly impossible to reach the Halakkis. I was searching for them near Gokarna at that time. I was almost on the verge of giving up when I casually inquired the hotel receptionist lady one day. With a great deal of embarrassment, she expressed that she also belonged to the Halakki tribe but chose not to disclose her identity.”
She guided Sarah in the right direction, who finally managed to find them in Ankola. Accustomed to living amid the forest’s bounty, they were now struggling to settle in makeshift tents and camps in the coastal town. Around two decades ago, corporate greed drove them out of their forested homes, forcing them to settle near the sea—an unfamiliar habitat. The legal ban on game hunting had also caused the tribe to rethink their dietary choices.
Nearly 40% of the youth in the community are graduates, but they still work as seasonal farmers, fruit vendors, grocers and even labourers. The society looks down upon their community with such prejudice that they can’t blend in with the mainstream unless of course, they hide their identity.
The traditional beaded attire
Traditionally, the men in the tribe have worn lungis, but the present youth find the Western outfits far more comfortable. While the elderly women still stick to their traditional attire, the younger generation of women finds it immodest while the men consider it to be “indecent,” or “perverted.”
“When I asked the women about the reason behind wearing the beads, nobody could answer. They all said that perhaps their mothers and grandmothers would have been aware, but now they continue wearing it to uphold their esteem,” mentions Sarah.
In fact, no Halakki woman has strewn a beaded necklace in the past few decades. The ones wearing them now have inherited the same from their mothers as a family heirloom. Even the original and all-natural composition of the beads now remains a mystery.
These Halakki grandmothers continue the practice of singing while working. These songs are tribal ballads which have no documented existence and have been passed down orally over generations. Their celebrations comprise ‘Janapada’ dances and songs which depicts their unconventional rituals and customs. “They even narrate a version of Ramayana much different to the Valmiki Ramayana we grew up with,” shares Sarah.
Patriarchy and Alcoholism
Communicating with the older generation was another hurdle for Sarah because they speak a strange mix of old school Kannada and Telugu. It took her months of translation and interpretation to understand them. Even then, there are a lot of untold stories which she regrets not knowing or understanding yet.
“The tribe used to be inherently matriarchal, with a woman leader chosen as head of the community. Other than that, they had a very egalitarian outlook that believed in equality of genders. However, in the recent past, the ills of Indian society have penetrated their lives. Despite having a female leader, patriarchy now dominates; with rising incidents of domestic violence on women,” informs Sarah, lamenting how the roots of rot have seeped in on them from the outside.
Another problem now plaguing the Halakkis is severe alcoholism. With their exposure to the mainstream, the young men, and even teenage boys at times, are dangerously becoming addicted to liquor. Many of them are succumbing to liver damage at a tender age.
In an attempt to bring the Halakkis into the mainstream, the state government has branded them as a Scheduled Caste, making them eligible for certain reservations in education and career. To attain this tag, the tribe had to prove their ‘backward’ identity through criteria like primitive facial features, shyness of contact with the modern world and geographical isolation.
But Sarah’s film captures the repercussions of the same.
“We urban people consider them to be backward. If we are not marginalising them, then our saviour complex and privileged upbringing prompt us to think they need our saving. This attitude is proving detrimental to the Halakkis, and many other Indian tribes for that matter. In our attempt to modernise them, we are obliterating their rich culture,” she asserts.
A Film That Has Won Several Awards
Released last year, the film by Sarah’s STOM Productions have gone on to earn accolades from around the world, including 15 nominations in seven countries. ‘The Unsung’ also won the award for best editing at the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival.
You can now rent the film and watch it, here.
‘The Unsung’ captures the untold story of the Halakkis and their struggle of cultural sustenance amid a global wave of appropriation. It is high time we take note and do our best to preserve the culture and heritage of such communities in nooks and corners of the world.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)