Oggu Ravi’s father wanted him to become an engineer.
Today, he paints his face with bright streaks of yellow, dabbing on a large, twirly moustache in black paint for effect. He wears a faux tiger-skin dhoti, and smears turmeric on his forehead, before applying it to his 39 team mates. One, with long, smooth hair, electric eyes and a pot of leaves on her head, looks like a goddess – but is actually a man.
One by one, they strap the Oggu (drums) to their waists, and Ravi grabs his mic. They walk on in silent procession through a crowd of bookworms and artists – who wonder which tribe they came out of. The Master of Ceremonies doles out an introduction and advises the crowd to step back. Ravi’s squad is set to finish a literary festival as its closing act.
With military precision, the performers form two lines and pound their drums. Ravi walks in between them, narrating a story on the mic. The beat is hypnotic, and sets a mood – one feels as if part of an ancient ceremony designed to lift you up into a trance.
The artists, moved into a sense of divinity, perform acrobatic stunts to Ravi’s command. Two men wrap their legs around their leader, who lifts them off the ground and spins – like a makeshift human helicopter. In the end, Ravi and the ‘goddess’ circle each other; she chews up the leaves and he thrusts a dash of turmeric into the air.
When he’s not Oggu Ravi, he’s Chowdarpalli Ravikumar, with a Masters of Arts, a Masters of Philosophy and a PhD in progress. Ravi asserts his career choice. “I want to improve this art. I don’t want a nine to five job.” Though not an engineer, he’s managed to make his passion pay.
Oggu Katha, is a myth or story told through theatre. It’s a mix of dance, performance and live commentary, with some healthy rhythmic beats as a soundtrack.
Performers were historically members of a pastoral, nomadic community, with their names prefixed with ‘Oggu’. Dolu, the drum of Shiva, gives its name to the performance – Oggudolu. The stories are about deities, usually Mallikarjuna Swamy – an incarnation of Shiva.
“It’s been passed down generation by generation. My grandfather’s people performed this for Mallikarjuna Swamy pujas.” says Ravi.
At first glance, Oggudolu might seem like a tribal art form, but it’s really more to do with caste.
“I come from the Golla caste…historically we people have had no permanent place to stay. They take their goats and travel the state, staying in tents where they can.”
But the times have changed and for 20 years, Ravi has had a home, in Manikyapuram on Telangana’s Eastern coast. It was his grandfather who showed him that the family skillset could pay off.
“He also had a PhD in Oggudolu. He took us with him to the city of Hyderabad, and we saw the university…the facilities he had. When an art education is possible, why should I leave it?” says Ravi.
His father didn’t agree. He remembered the abject poverty he lived under in his childhood, and blamed it on Oggudolu. He made sure he had nothing to do with the practice once he had to find a job.
But Ravi feels he has it in his blood, and couldn’t be kept away from his grandfather – whose shoes he is still honoured to walk in. “80 percent of those who practice Oggodolu in this state were trained by him. He is a Sangeet Nataka Akademi winner.”
In an era where indigenous art forms are either dying out or struggling to find an identity, Oggudollu has stayed contemporary. Oggudollu performers are in high demand at weddings, where they perform ceremonies in their alternate role as priests.
For an age-old practice, there’s a surprisingly modern twist to the performance.
Midway through, all the dancers gather and form a human pyramid. It teeters to and fro, until one climbs up to the very top. From out of nowhere, the Indian tricolour is passed to him – and he waves it from the apex. It’s a crowd pleaser – and gets a huge roar of approval from the audience every time.
“We started doing that bit last Republic Day, after the district collector at Warangal had asked us to perform… It’s since become our signature performance,” says Ravi.
Cultural practices are never meant to be static; they evolve with the times. In today’s era, even a ritual for Shiva can be imbibed with a dash of patriotism. For Oggu Ravi, all that matters is that he does what he loves and can teach others to do it as well.
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