One of the aspects of my work at Prajwala Sangham is to join the team in weekly playback theatre practice sessions and performances. As a novice in the world of playback, I have learnt much over the past few months, but what caught my attention from the very first Zoom practice session, was the role of the musician. While the actors would listen to the teller’s story and play it back for them to witness, the musician would guide the retelling – from the beginning to the climax and the closure, all the while remaining unseen by the audience. With the help of multiple instruments and his own voice, the musician finds and relays the essence of the story. Amidst the many instruments wielded by the musician, I have found the drum to be the most strikingly powerful.
The drum used by our musician Suresh Lelle, a Dalit artist working at my host organization, drew my attention at first because of its large size and resounding sound. Whether the stories shared and performed were sad, frightening, happy or ecstatic, the drum always seemed to be the most apt accompaniment. I soon realised that it was no ordinary instrument, but it was the ‘dappu’ – a drum carrying immense socio-cultural significance for the Dalit community in India. As my curiosity about this instrument grew, I turned to Suresh for an enlightening, hour long conversation on his personal journey with the dappu.
“In the beginning, the conflict was to touch or not touch the drum, because if you touch it, you become associated with your culture and therefore you are seen as untouchable. The middle-class approach is to hide and protect yourself”, Suresh begins his story, going on to say that it was only through childhood visits to his village or ‘native place’, that he began to “reconnect with the drum”. “Everybody outside my family was strongly linked with it…I did not pick it up as a cultural thing initially, I just wanted to dance, play and listen to it”.
In India, historically Dalits were, and often still are, relegated to certain ‘traditional’ professions such as leather tanning, garbage collection, cattle carcass removal and skinning (Uppuleti 2020). The last of these is especially stigmatised and believed to be ‘impure’, and since it is the leather obtained from carcasses that is used to make dappus – stigma around the instrument also prevails. “The community itself creates the instrument and it’s not just a creation, it has a life, it has a pain and it has a joy. The pain is you are forced to clean the dead animal, take it from the village and use the leather for the drum”. Suresh believes that the long process of making the drum is a labour of love – in the process of cutting the leather, drying it, tuning the drum and carving it, it becomes one’s own creation, “a part of your body, of your heart”. While the dappu is traditionally made of leather, ironically animal hide is now monopolised by expensive upper caste instruments and synthetic covers are used for the dappu (Uppuleti 2020). Additionally, Suresh sadly points out that “these days everyone opts for plastic drums” for the sake of convenience and to avoid the stigma surrounding cattle leather.
In cities the advent of synthetic drums is symbolic of a deeper and more troubling change – the rift between the dappu and its cultural lineage. “The art of playing the drum is with me and that rhythm is also mine. I’m playing it, producing it, but the purpose and the value has disappeared”, Suresh points out that while earlier drummers would play and sing for themselves or for social functions (weddings, funerals etc.) and any kind of monetary recompense if forthcoming was simply a token of appreciation, with the advent of commercialization, Dalit drummers are reduced to playing for various festivals, political rallies and arbitrary public events – performances wherein “you will not find the soul of the community”.
“You can see the music, you can listen to the music, you can see the same people, but I think the soul has changed. I think this is also very important. The people who are still playing the drums, it is our responsibility to make them conscious about the disappearance of the soul. So then maybe there is a chance that the community can reassert their identity”. It is this infusion of the Dalit identity with meanings of pride and dignity that Suresh and the team at Prajwala Sangham work on.
Informing me about a grassroots initiative undertaken by them a few years ago, he says, “We took this as a challenge and we prepared about 50 drums in a village, and it was almost a one-month project”, from readying the animal skin and wood frames, to carefully assembling and tuning the dappu. “It was like a preparation for a great festival or jatra”, Suresh remembers fondly, “When we saw all the drums drying in the sun, I think that was really for me like looking at my child grown up.”
Prajwala Sangham had also organized drumming concerts in Hyderabad wherein drummers were given a platform with stage lighting, musical direction and the works. While Suresh admits that these were expensive to arrange, the money was well-spent because the revival of the dappu requires professionalism to command respect. “I cannot just pick my drum and come and play on the dais. I need to practice. I need to rehearse it, I need to do the visuals, work out the concept and theme”.
Reimagining the dappu through a new lens of pride and heritage goes hand-in-hand with passing on the art form to younger generations. Although Suresh’s son has grown up in the city and has not had to face untouchability or discrimination the way his grandparents had to, Suresh proudly recollects an incident when his son picked up the dappu. “We were performing in Hyderabad and my son was only six-seven years old but he took the drum and started playing in such a big event, and his photograph was published in the front page of a newspaper as well!” To cultivate this sensibility in younger generations, Suresh suggests a path of moderation, “I never hide these kind of practices, this kind of culture, my relatives and my hamlet. I tried to bridge my children to this but not very intensely. Younger people are willing to take it up, maybe for a different reason, with a different meaning”, and Suresh believes in giving them the space and freedom to take up the art form and make it their own.
While in India, the dappu is imbued with its caste connotations, I was curious to know more about Suresh’s experiences performing abroad, in South Africa, Germany and the UK. Apart from the excitement of playing with Western musicians and instruments, Suresh found the audience to be empathetic to the Dalit cause. “Here (in India), people will not try to connect with you. They will not touch it, touch you. And so even your competence or creativity cannot be recognized”. Reflecting on the alienation of Dalits, he tells me, “I’m more comfortable with the unknown rather than the known. At home, everyone knows you as somebody’s son, they never acknowledge your competence or creativity. But in the unknown, when I play, they see me and they call me an artist”.
Citing a particularly memorable incident in Germany, he shares that at a public procession his host had taken him to, a protest against certain neo-Nazi groups, he found himself playing the dappu next to a black drummer. “So he also has a drum and he’s playing, we are playing, it’s like a jugalbandi, giving, taking, exchanging. The rhythm of oppression and that rhythm of some commonality, maybe an un-conscious common goal”. The exchange was significant, the dappu found its brethren beating a familiar tune of revolt, albeit in a distant land.
As our conversation drew to a close, I was struck by something Suresh said. “You cannot hide the drumming. You can hide anything else, even the meat you eat, but you cannot beat the drum in silence and in secret. And since you cannot hide it, you are really encouraged to reconnect to your own culture and with the beauty of your music, of your art.” If, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “The ultimate tragedy… [is] not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people” (Carson 2001), then in an increasingly majoritarian Indian nation state, the beat of the dappu can be heard resoundingly, breaking the silence.
 A jatra is a procession-like fair.
 Here, by ‘hamlet’ Suresh is referring to the small settlements, usually on the outskirts of villages, segregated and demarcated for lower caste communities to reside in.
 A jugalbandi is a kind of performance within Indian classical music, comprising of a duet between two solo musicians.
Carson, Clayborne, Ed. 2001. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King. New York: Warner Books. Accessed at: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/chapter-18-birmingham-campaign.
Uppuleti, Jahnavi. 2020. “The Undying Beat of the Dappu: How a Traditional Drum Signifies Dignity, Revolution for the Madiga Community”. Firstpost, 12 April. Accessed at: https://www.firstpost.com/living/the-undying-beat-of-the-dappu-how-a-traditional-drum-signifies-dignity-revolution-for-the-madiga-community-8251031.html