Tasha is a musical instrument played to propitiate Veerabhadra. Understanding its journey will help understand Cultural Change and Continuity.
Veerabhadra and Daksha Yagnya
If you live in India, chances are, you heard about Veerabhadra, know his story. I will recount it briefly here:
“Sati- the wife of Lord Shiva gets insulted by her father Daksha. A series of events occur during Daksha’s yagnya and she self immolates herself in fire.
Knowing that his beloved wife is no more, Shiva creates Veerabhadra. Created to kill, Veerabhadra sets out for destruction with an army of soldiers.
He forages towards the Yagnya, destroys the sacrificial ritual and beheads Daksha.”
The story goes on. Shiva is called in, to stop Veerabhadra and his entourage. Shiva arrives, revives Daksha back to life, and reinstates the yagnya. This is the story that, is commonly known in India.
This article in no way pretends to be an exhaustive account of Veerabhadra’s stories. It is based on my ethnographic research of the South Asian deity and his Culture in Godavari Districts of Andhra Pradesh, India.
In one of my interviews with a Tasha (a musical instrument played in the ritual processions of Veerabhadra) player, I got to know the following Oral narrative. It is in continuation with the above story.
After Daksha’s beheading, Asakini- the wife of Daksha with her inherent power stops all three worlds. All the gods headed by Brahma and Vishnu then went to Siva and pleaded with him to restore Daksha’s life.
Siva restores the life of Daksha by attaching a goat’s head to his body. While everything including the sacrifice got restored, Veerabhadra couldn’t be pacified.
This resulted in destructions across the world. Unable to pacify him, the masses prayed and asked him what he wants.
He replied: Omkaranatham; he needed the sound of Om. Then, Narada and Tumbura, the two celestial sages well-versed in music, created a human called Veerangeya to create the sound.
Veerangeya used his creative energies and took the remaining still body of the goat whose head was fixed to Daksha. He created an instrument called Veeranam with the skin of the animal.
He removed the skin and created the membrane on which one plays the drum beat. He used the animal’s intestines as the rope to tie the instrument and started playing it.
After listening to its music, Veerabhadra got pacified. The gods were relieved and gave boons to Veerangeya.
Brahma gave him the power to be a creator, Vishnu gave a Chakram (Wheel) and, Siva gave a Soolam (Trident). Veerangeya received all these boons and became a Kummari- Potter.
Veerabhadra granted a boon to Veerangeya. Every time a ritual procession is held to propitiate him, Veerangeya and his descendants are given the right to play the instrument.
The above story is an oral narrative about Veerabhadra. It discusses the origin stories of a musical instrument called Veeranam, the story behind celebrating jataras, and the origin story of Kummaris (Potters) in the region. During my field work in 2015, Komarapati Verriyya – a 77 year old Tasha player shared the above Oral narrative with me.
Tasha and the Old man
Veeranam and this community, among others, are said to have indispensable roles in the ritual procession or the Jatara of Veerabhadra. I went to meet Verriyya at a remote village near Ravulapalem.
I saw his house’s cupboards filled with his mementos, awards and pictures with prominent people. I was told that he played Tasha throughout the country and across in Arts and Cultural programs.
His story was intriguing and moving.
Verriyya got interested in Tasha right from his childhood. He loved the sound of it so much that he wanted to play it no matter what. He went to a famous Tasha player and asked him to teach. The teacher was hesitant to teach him.
You must be wondering why. It’s because Verriyya didn’t belong to the caste that plays the instrument and passes it on from one generation to another. At the time, him wanting to play the instrument meant that he was challenging the socio-cultural caste system at place.
Tasha is to be played with a group- alongside a minimum of 2 or 3 other Tasha players and other instruments like Veeranam, Ramu Dolu and Sannayi.
His teacher agreed to train him after initial reluctance. But verriyya’s main challenge was not just learning to play it; he must also find a group that would accept him to play Tasha alongside them.
His teacher told Verriyya that he had no choice but to be an exceptional player if he had to make it as a Tasha player. Looking at all the awards, it is clear that he succeeded at it.
This is his story of Tasha…l
“Tasha is dead!”
The surface of any current day Tasha bought from a shop is made of plastic. Back then, we all used to make our own Tasha.
We went to the butcher shop, ask for the left-over skin of a goat, clean it, soak it in soap nut water, rinse it thoroughly and let it sun dry.
We repeated this process until the membrane was ready. This membrane was fitted onto the frame using natural gum and rope. The frame is made out of clay, wood or iron.
A Tasha made in this way is a second life for the goat’s skin. Just as in the story of Veerangeya. It has a characteristic sound; lively and louder than the plastic ones.
But the plastic covering is readily available for thirty rupees and is durable. So, everyone started using it. But it’s sound feels lifeless and is not as rich as the membraned Tasha.
The story and the philosophical meaning that comes along with using repurposed skin to make Tasha is being overlooked. The art of preparing it, which was passed on from generation to generation is nearly extinct.
I spoke to authorities in Ministries of Culture to not enable plastic ones in their performances, so that the knowledge can be preserved. I told my fellow players to not use the plastic ones.
No one payed heed.
As Tasha is played in a group, the sound of all tashas need to be in sync. We can’t use different kinds of Tashas at a time.
So, I unwillingly gave up and play the plastic tashas alongside others.
Tasha sachipoyindhi! (Tasha is dead!)
This is Verriyya’s story of Tasha. A story of Continuity and Change.
Tasha and Cultural change
Continued existences form the central theme in the tradition of Veerabhadra. It is believed that some dead children can continue their existence in the human realm as a Veerabhadra.
Using the skin of a dead animal to please these Veerabhadras during rituals has a significance to it. The story of Veeranam mentions the significance briefly, but not directly.
Becoming a Veerabhadra is a second life for the dead child; and becoming Tasha is a second life for the dead animal’s skin. It represents life after death and continued existences.
As Tasha continues to be played in ritual processions and performances, the way in which it is made got commercialised. Along with this change, the Cultural meaning attached to Tasha has also changed.
Its meaning shifted from a Cultural symbolism rooted in the stories of Veerabhadra to a plastic musical instrument.
Verriyya’s story of standing against caste differences to play Tasha is a good case to understand social change.
Any social tides didn’t turn just because one person was allowed to break the convention. His story became an exception- not a rule. He loved the instrument, convinced his master to teach him, mastered it and years later became a renown Tasha player.
By playing Tasha at a time when certain communities were only allowed to play it, he represented a possibility. A possibility that didn’t exist until then.
Bands and, music-cum- dance groups are slowly replacing the strict caste-based guidelines and communities.
One can study the life cycle of Tasha as a microcosm to understand certain Cultural and Socio-Economic processes.
A while back, I wrote another story about the multiple identities of Veerabhadra and, the story of a Gate Keeper in Pattiseema temple. Read it here.