Karpala Mela (karapAla mELa) (ಕರಪಾಲ ಮೇಳ) is a pantomime, theatrical performance that takes place in open places, particularly in the Chitradurga, Davanagere, Shivamogga, Hassan and Tumakur districts of central Karnataka. The performers communicate among themselves making use of an elaborate system consisting of gestures made by hand. This art form is found all over Karnataka and it is usually practiced by ‘Veerashaiva Jangama’s. Scholars have derived the word ‘karapAla’ from the Sanskrit ‘kara pallava’ meaning literally, ‘gestures made with hands.’ This is an ancient folk art consisting of narration of stories and the magic like activity of deciphering the communications made by another artist. The art of coding and the decoding of these messages is passed on hereditarily.
Details about the ‘Karapala’ mELa are delineated here in two stages. The first stage describes the art of communicating by using a code language. The art of dancing and narrating a story is dealt with in the next stage.
In the first variety, which is also called ‘karapalla’ the troupe consists of a lead artist and two or more assistants. The master and the disciples are separated by a distance of 200-300 feet. The leading artist will be playing on an instrument called ‘gummaTe‘and the disciples play on a pair of cymbals. They will be singing some songs focused on prophesying. (‘KAlajnAnada padagaLu’) The ‘karapalla’ takes place whenever a person among the spectator offers some monetary dole. The name of that person will be communicated by the master to one of his disciples by a series of gestures. The ‘guru’ (Master) uses his right hand only for this purpose. There are specified gestures for vowels, consonants and consonant clusters. Music and songs are used to divert the spectators from the actual mechanics of gesturing. There is not much to this art once the code is deciphered.
However, the second variety of ‘KarapAla mELa’ is more important. This is essentially a dramatic narration of stories connected with the Veerashaiva religion and its mythology. The propagation of the religion and dissemination of its teachings is the main intention here. This performance consists usually of five artists. The main performer, two singers and two more who play on the instruments constitute the troupe. The narrative is a curious combination of prose, poetry and dialogues. The narrator manages these three activities expertly. Most of the songs are created on the spur of the moment. Even the narration is impromptu and only the broad outline of the story is followed. ‘kADasiddamma’, ‘basava kumAra’, ‘nIlakanTa’, ‘rUpAvati’ and ‘kALingakumAra’ are some of the better known narratives presented by these artists.
The costumes worn by the artists for both these varieties are more or less the same. The main performer wears a multi coloured, cone shaped head gear, (ambesara kirITa) a saffron coloured gown, (jubba) and other decorative/ ritualistic items such as ‘rudrAkshi’, ‘viBUti’, ‘gejje’(Anklets) etc. These performances are occasionally given on a stage which is installed specifically for this purpose.
Thus ‘karapAla mELa’ is an art form which like many of its cognates is both religious and entertaining. The second variety of ‘karapala’ in particular is powerful and runs virtually like a drama.