When Bengaluru-based photographer Aparna Nori (@aparna_nori) approached Sri Choodamani Ramachandra for a photographic story, Ramachandra showed her all the awards that she has won for pioneering Mahila Dollu Kunitha, the female version of a male-dominated folk dance performed before every temple ritual in northern Karnataka, India. Ramachandra had assumed that, like others who had expressed an interest in her work, Nori was only interested in photographing her with her awards. Nori, however, was not interested in Ramachandra the person, and in her legacy. In the photograph below, we see Nori's take on Ramachandra and her awards - the awards are central, but not as central as the individual who won them. For Nori, it was not Ramachandra's achievements that mattered but the journey that brought her to these achievements.
Choodamani Ramachandra was born in a small town near Sagara, in the Shivamogga district in Karnataka, India. She grew up watching Dollu Kunitha and was deeply drawn to it. But as a woman, she could not learn or perform it. She was keen to play the dollu (a double-headed drum native to Karnataka) as she had always been a strong believer in women's abilities to do, learn, and achieve anything. However, at the time, senior teachers were reluctant to train her, arguing that it was against tradition to do so and that women cannot handle the physical rigour entailed. Despite this, Ramachandra persisted and finally met Ramappa, a dollu performer with a local group who performed at temples during festivals. Embracing the opportunity to attempt something different, Ramappa agreed to teach Ramachandra and her group of mostly middle-aged women (Nori, 2021).
After surpassing the difficulties of finding a teacher, Ramachandra faced resistance from her community and neighbours. Many were shocked at the idea of an upper caste Brahmin woman touching and playing the dollu, which is made from the skin of a dead animal. However, she was warmly encouraged and supported by her husband, who, on some days, would walk miles with her to Ramappa's village for practice (ibid).
Due to limitations of space and familial commitments, it took Ramachandra and her troupe almost two years of practice to master the dance. After two years, they established themselves as the Snehasagara Mahila Mandila (Ocean of Love Women's Circle). Ramachandra personally designed the make-up, accessories, musical instruments, and costumes for the troupe, incorporating elements from costumes of the Kurubas, the Deccan shepherd community that originally started performing the dance (ibid).
The troupe started performing during local festivals and were soon invited to perform across India and internationally. And today, due to Ramachandra's relentless efforts, several all-women Dollu Kunitha troupes exist and perform widely, successfully redefining the male-dominated dance form.
Nori learnt about Ramachandra and her efforts in a news article. Curious to know more, she contacted the journalist who wrote the article and who knew Ramachandra personally. She then contacted Ramachandra to ask whether she would be comfortable with an outsider intending on creating a photographic story on her and her work. Much like an anthropologist would, Nori then spent time with Ramachandra and her family. The people with whom she spoke narrated stories of how Ramachandra has worked tirelessly to create more opportunities for women, from providing driving lessons and teaching dance lessons, to arranging free education. Keen to approach this project as a collaboration between her and Ramachandra, Nori insisted the latter instruct her on how she would like to be represented in the story. Eventually, Ramachandra contributed and expressed that she would like for her students to be featured since 'they are the future'.
As the project evolved, so did Nori's relationship with Ramachandra, flourishing into a beautiful friendship. Nori had hoped to travel with Ramachandra to the Adira male Habba, an annual festival at the eight-hundred-year-old Kumara Raman Temple in Thalaguppa village in Karnataka, which attracts dollu artists from across the state. This performing space remains closed to women, and Nori had hoped to visually and metaphorically incorporate Ramachandra into the event. Her efforts, however, were stalled due to the pandemic.
The pandemic also prevented her from witnessing Ramachandra in public performance. However, 'to see Choodamani at her home added a different perspective to [her] understanding of the dynamics and challenges women face in the interiors of India where caste, social attitudes and gender are significant barriers for women to overcome' (ibid).
It was the resilience with which Ramachandra overcame these barriers that drew Nori to her story. She hopes that by foregrounding it she will enable others to learn from Ramachandra and consider how to make changes within a deeply rooted patriarchal society.
Aparna Nori is a lens-based artist living between Singapore and Bangalore, India. Her work is rooted in the personal memory, identity and experiences, her explorations taking form and shape through photographic interventions and narratives. She practices diverse forms of expression with digital and analogue image making, alternative photographic processes, moving images and bookmaking. With a master's degree in documentary filmmaking, her experience straddles artistic practice and commissioned work with publications and independent agencies. Aparna is a member of Women Photograph, an international forum of women and non-binary photographers.
Read more: Nori, A. (2021). Sri Choodamani Ramachandra: Pioneer of Mahila Dollu Kunitha. [online] Sahapedia. Available at: [Accessed 19 September 2022].