The Beda Budaga Jangam community, which has a population of close to 1 crore, is spread across Telangana, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Goa, where these ritualised forms of storytelling in a song format have a long history, However, the tradition of professional mourners is slowly dying because the younger generation is not drawn to a profession that carries a stigma associated with death." said Chithari Ananthaiah, Beda Budaga Jangam community member and an advocate. (Photo: DC)
Hyderabad: They are hired to do it every day, at the funerals of people they barely know, even though it's difficult to cry on command. They rose to prominence after performing ‘Thoduga Ma Thodundi’ in the climax scenes of the blockbuster 'Balagam,' pouring their hearts into the song and leaving a lasting impact on the audience as the family members in the movie display their disagreements, while the crows decline to take a bite.
The story of Pastham Mogilaiah and his wife Komuramma draws attention to the fate of the marginalised Beda Budaga Jangam, a nomadic group of Telangana's Burra Katha storytellers who mourn the deceased at funerals of people they have hardly or never met.
Although 'Balagam' catapulted them to fame, they have been known as professional mourners for as long as they can remember, performing songs in the Burra Katha style — a time-honoured Telangana tradition that may be dying out.
Some may consider crying for living objectionable, but Mogilaih and Komuramma say their line of work has a long history in Telangana, a tradition that the deceased must receive a loud and grand send-off. "When a loved one passes away, you mourn so intensely that, by the time the funeral rolls around, you have dried up," says Komuramma.
When Komuramma visited Hyderabad for her ailing husband Mogilaiah, a diabetic who lost his vision and was on dialysis, the couple re-enacted the ‘Thoduga Ma Thodundi’ moments, which was a popular pick from her community members. The Beda Budaga Jangam community hall in Moosapet echoed with a moving sense of pathos, bringing tears to some people's eyes as they alternated between singing and crying while playing the folkloric Telangana instruments ‘Tambura’ and ‘Dimki’.
The couple, from Warangal's Duggondi mandal, learned their craft from their parents and grandparents when they were 12 years old and have been performing it ever since. Over the years, the couple has helped many families by singing a soul to the stars, paying appropriate tribute to the deceased, and giving voice to the sorrow they cannot articulate, all while playing an important role in preserving a cherished tradition.
But one wonders how Komuramma manages to cry every time she sings the song of lament, even as she insists that all of her tears are genuine. "You must immerse yourself in the situation, act as if this is your family, and experience their emotions at every funeral. Seeing so many people in pain makes me sad. The vocal cords occasionally become raspy from the loud, intermittent wails, and excessive crying also irritates the eyes," she says.
Songs of lament, according to Mogilaiah or Mogili, may begin with a symbolic proclamation that sends a powerful message about relationships and family values, or it may reflect on the life and times of the individual being grieved, his relationship with those present at the funeral, or it may praise the deceased or bid life farewell from the deceased's point of view.
"Even though everyone understands the song of lament is a performance, the family and relatives expect honesty from this manufactured grief while communicating emotions effectively. This art calls for emotional singing ability as well as the tolerance for the social stigma connected with death," says Mogilaiah.
As one converses with the professional mourning couple, one is struck by the distressing gap between what it means to be individuals engaged in the art of public mourning and the appalling conditions in which they live. The two are incompatible, and accepting their truth is even harder.
Diabetes caused Mogilaiah to lose his vision, and he is presently battling for his life due to kidney damage, which requires dialysis three times per week and costs Rs 30,000 in medications. Life also seems hopeless because he has lost all of his income due to his illness.
Meanwhile, the community members basking in the glory of the poor ‘star couple’ asked for another grief song, and when the act of lament was completed, the audience left, leaving an uncomfortable silence. With Mogili's illness plunging them into the depths of poverty and uncertainty, life for the couple, who have dedicated their lives to comforting others in their grief, seems bleak.