(Last Updated on : 24/08/2015)
Pagati-veshalu is also called Bahurupalu i.e. 'many roles'. This is actually an ancient solo folk form of role-playing in Andhra Pradesh, of stereotyped professions or faiths. A few enactments are performed by husband-and-wife teams. The main actor is supported by one or two others as chorus and instrumentalists. Whether individually or in pairs, Pagati veshalus portray characters of less privileged communities positively and isolate Brahmans for ridicule and caricature. The term Bahurupalu has been synonymous with theatre in Telugu literature since the Basava Puranam and Sarveswara satakam in thirteenth century without any description of the form. Tradition says that kings encouraged their spies to wear disguises from every walk of life, mingling with the people in daily situations, obviously without revealing their identity. The sixteenth-century historian Ferishta corroborates this phenomenon in the Vijayanagar Empire. Comedy, satire, and social comment seem to be Pagati-veshalu's main purpose during the last two centuries. But in earlier times the form engaged in door-to-door campaigns disseminating the faiths, mythologies, and messages of competing reformist religions like Virasaivism and Viravaishnavism that attacked the caste system.
The standard repertoire till I960 comprised over sixty characters, each team choosing its favourites, among them Karanam or accountant, Somayaji and Somidevamma i.e. Brahman and wife, Reddy or Naidu or headmen, Komati Setti or merchant, Chitti Pantulu i.e. Brahman accountant who cheats people to visit brothels, Bhatraju i.e. bard earning his living by flattering the rich, Budabukkala i.e. migrant Marathi beggar, Jangam i.e. Saiva priest are important. Some others can be mentioned as Acharya or Vaishnava Brahman, Sathani or non-Brahman Vaishnava priest, Sode or soothsaying woman from the ancient Kuravanji archetype, Madiga or untouchable, Dommara i.e. gymnastic tribe, Koya i.e. forest tribe, Gollabhama i.e. milkmaid, Dasari or low-class Vaishnava performer, Haridasu or Harikatha performer, Avadhani i.e. literary improviser, Bairagi i.e. renouncer, Bhetala i.e. talking dead, Mondi or beggar who does not leave without taking something, the traveller to Kasi, snake charmer, magician, cloth seller, drunkard, widow, troublesome wife, troublesome mother-in-law, and divinities like Ammavaru i.e. Mother goddess and Ardhanariswara.
Because of their institutional nature, some characters developed authorial scripts. For example, Mudumba Narasimha Charyulu's Nambi-Nancharamma vesham or 'Portrayal of Nambi and Nancharamma', with systematic dance and music, was given for performance to Sathanis and Dasaris. The Sathanis also conducted Dasavataralu or 'Ten avatars'. This was a prototype of the later Harikatha, with songs composed in Raga Kedara. Guru Siddalingam's famous Jangam devara or 'Divine Jangams' was done by Jangams cover the entire Palnadu region at all Saiva festivals and fairs. Jangams and Gollas started enacting Somayaji and Somidevamma to censure orthodox Vedic Brahman couples, further heightened by Bhagavathula Yadavadasu's Golla-vesham, perfected over generations by Gollas of Palagudem village, West Godavari district, from where hailed the great actor Sunnapu Veeraiah in early nineteenth century. Golli-vesham of both male and female varieties developed a perfect logic and outstanding scholarship. Golla-kalapam, by Tarikonda Venkamamba, a Yogini of the Balija caste, also endorses the same theme. But it is not known whether Kalapam
or Golla-vesham came first.
In due course many underprivileged communities, oppressed by the false superiority of Brahmanism, received positive characterizations of their castes. Budabukkala, Erukala or Kuravanji, Madiga, and Koya, developed their own protagonists. It is not sure whether these roles, with exact slang and perfect costume, were created by their own castes or by the reform movements, since they were enacted not by one community but by many as a full-time profession. Pagati-veshalu invented a unique modern character in the British era called Pittala Dora or bird shooter, with khaki uniform, hat, and wooden gun, caricaturing the image of a British officer. He boasts about his wealth, properties, and expensive food habits but constantly reveals that in fact he represents the working class, fast becoming a begging class. Like Charlie Chaplin, Pittala Dora is loved by one and all.
Certain enactments were taken for granted and villagers fell into the performers' theatrical trap. Without any actual ritual, some characters were received with reverence and fear. Bhetala and Ammavaru, especially when acted by superb performers like Sunnapu Veeraiah, turned into more than icons. Veeraiah's terrific get-up as Ammavaru, brought in on a cart, preceded by drum-beating, singing, and dancing, apparently used to frighten men in broad daylight. Children were never allowed to see it, and very few women even peeped through the windows.
Usually a troupe of ten to fifteen members came to a village to spend a month. They announced the roles a day ahead and the village got into a festive mood. The performance moved from one locality to another, covering all castes and classes with each stop. The season generally ended with Devarapetti or 'magic box', actually a magic show coupled with great drama. Devarapetti never traveled street to street. As the grand finale, it was staged in the village centre to thousands of viewers. The performer turned neem leaves into live scorpions and kumkum powder into blood without adding any liquid. He poured sand into a jar of water and took it out dry. Corn was fried in wet cloth and coconuts walked on the ground. The best groups were invited by villages, though many toured on their own, avoiding already covered sites. Much competition and rivalry resulted. Till the 1970s, the coastal districts claimed to have the best troupes, led by Narappa, Ravuri Suraiah, Vemula Bapaiah, and Anellapalli Gangadharam.
Because of quarrels and breaks in Kuchipudi
companies, individual Kalapam artistes used to join up to do Pagati-veshalu for a livelihood. Gradually, famous personalities imitated namely Chinta Chalamaiah, Vedantam Lakshminarayana, Tadepalli Peraiah, Hemadri Ven-kateswarlu, Vedantam Narasimham, Eleswarapu Pun-naiah, Pasumarthi Seshaiah, Mahankali Satyanaraya-na, and Venkaiah. In Kuchipudi Pagati-veshalu three roles grew very common. The names can be mentioned as Ardhanariswara, Dadinamma or grandmother, and Balintha or pregnant woman. Balintha vesham names the pregnant lady as Yasoda, Krishna's mother, but the enactment deals with her labour pains specifically. It is complete in itself, but least interested in Yasodas character, and focused on a would-be mother's agonies indeed a unique piece of literature and performance, created by the Gollas. Logically it succeeds a unique portion of Golla-kalapam that deals with Pin-dotpati i.e. 'Foetus-growth'.
Finally, the Indian People's Theatre Association
in Andhra also adapted Pagati-veshalu with a purpose, reinterpreting and rewriting the portrayals of Pittala Dora, Bairagi, and others for the cause of a people's movement. However, very few individuals perform the art today. It has become a form of begging, with only one or two roles like Pittala Dora still surviving.