Clad in saffron dhoti, turban on head, vermilion mark on forehead and rudraksha mala on his neck the attire of folklore gives a distinctive look to 20-year-old Shankar as he stages a street play chanting folk verses along with his father Komaranna on the fringes of Mancherial headquarters.
Katipapalu or Katikaparlu, a nomadic tribe which earns a living by staging plays, performing magical tricks and jugglery, often practise the life of a hermit and beg for alms.
With the erosion of rural industries and diminishing interest in cultural and folk art among the current generation due to the advent of modern entertainment mediums, the traditional art form is losing its importance and the descendents of Katipapalu are gradually shrinking in Telangana.
“The people of this caste are looking for alternative employment opportunities. Although there is no official data on the families, one can hardly find three to four families in a district,” says Thandra Sudheer Kumar, a history enthusiast.
Magicians of the past
Traditional magicians, Katipapalu usually carry a bag containing dolls, idols, a piece of bone (used as magic wand) silver coins, pebbles besides carrying wild animals — scorpions, snakes, and mongoose to perform magic. Some play conch (a percussion instrument) along with a bell made of brass.
According to the popular notion, the tribe believed to have possessed supernatural powers as they mostly spend time with corpses and mourning burials. Thus, the name derived from kati meaning pyre, kaparlu meaning protectors (in Telugu). And some call them Katipapalu (babies of funeral pyre).
“Legend has it that Katikaparlu used to obstruct the corpse before it was being moved to the graveyard for funeral. They wail, grieve over the body with loud shrills as if suggesting that the departed soul was very close to them. Although the act of desperation was to gain monetary benefit from the grieving relatives initially, later, it has become a custom to give money to Katikaparlu before lighting the pyre of the dead ones,” says Sudheer.
Once in a year, Katipapalu make a visit to every household in the mandal, which was assigned to them by their ancestors, seeking alms and performing stage shows. “In olden days, they used to used to carry kunchara (a metal pot) to take paddy from households. A kunchara full of paddy weighs about eight kilos of grains. But now, times have changed; they demand money instead of paddy and food grains, and we, too, don’t hesitate to give them liberally as this has become a custom for many years,” says 25-year-old Burra Ranjit Kumar, a resident of Karimnagar town.
Art form under threat of extinction
“They are nomadic and categorised as subaltern group. Their social structure and cultural identity remain unaffected even today. But, due to modernity, many families have been fragmented, and their traditional folk art is not much remunerative now. They often lead a precarious lifestyle,” said Mamidi Harikrishna, director of Department of Language and Culture.
From time immemorial, some tribal communities have developed newer techniques to enthral audiences. Saadhana Surulu are another sect and belong to Padmashali community, involved in traditional magic. They are more refined in attire and lifestyle compared to Kati Kaparlu. “They produce different enthralling activities like creating fire on head, releasing water through nose; often they perform Jala Sthambana and Vayu Sthambana (a trick to freeze water and air molecules). Besides these, they know 19 different magical tricks. While Saadhana Surulu are involved in practising mild tricks, Kati Kaparlu believe in performing wild magical tricks which are often scary,” says Harikrishna.
“Recognising the art form as a rare one, the Telangana Government is planning to revive it by encouraging the folk artistes and assisting them financially through shows in Hyderabad. It’s a rare magic cult. And their existence should be known to the world. Several stage shows are regularly being held in Ravindra Bharathi. Katipapalu have performed during the Osmania University centenary celebrations recently,” says Harikrishna.