NAGARAJ K WAS 15 YEARS OLD when he first heard a tamate, under the lone peepul tree in his village Kaggadasapura. The scene as he recounts it is quite surreal—beneath the large tree his neighbour lay dead, surrounded by mourners and cattle. The young Nagaraj, however, was preoccupied with the tamate, a small frame drum with a cowhide skin, being wielded by a burly gent who’d made the long journey from Mandya district in southern Karnataka to play at the funeral. “I’d never heard anything like that before,” Nagaraj says. Fascinated by the instrument’s punchy sound, Nagaraj persuaded the man, whose name he does not recollect, to give him a few quick lessons. Thirty-nine years later, Nagaraj is the mentor to a band of 15 tamate vadayars (drummers), all from Kaggadasapura. The peepul tree has survived, but his village itself has been enveloped by Bangalore’s suburban sprawl. And the tamate that was once exclusively played at funerals in parts of the region, is now frequently heard at weddings, temple festivals, political rallies and protest marches; it is even used by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), the city’s civic body, to shame tax defaulters.
Once every month, Nagaraj and his motley crew of drummers head out to a nearby lake to learn new beats and rehearse old favourites. His troupe now includes his 15-year-old son Narasimha N, as well as his 55-year-old uncle, Sagappa K, who works as a custodian at a burial ground nearby. All of them were trained in the tamate by Nagaraj, who himself honed his skills over the years by keeping an eye out for passing funeral processions. “I’d join the procession and ask the tamate players to let me beat the drum for a while,” he recalls. In a good month, Nagaraj’s troupe is hired twice or, if they’re lucky, thrice. “Before, we used to play only when somebody died,” Nagaraj says. Sagappa adds, “These days, people come to us and say, ‘A minister is coming, so come and beat your tamate.’ We’ve played for Congress, we’ve played for BJP and for Janata Dal also. Whoever is willing to pay us, we will go with them.”
Nagaraj’s troupe was also once enlisted by the BBMP to play the tamate outside a large commercial complex in a posh Bangalore locality, whose owner had defaulted on his taxes. Although gigs with the BBMP usually make the newspapers, they are difficult to come by, according to Nagaraj. “We hardly make R200 a day, and if we want to play for the BBMP, we need to fill an application form, run around a lot, and in the end we need to bribe some officials, which leaves very little money for us,” he says. “It’s just not worth all the trouble.” For the most part, Nagaraj and his troupe are content to play at funerals. “We beat the tamate to inform everybody in the neighbourhood that somebody has passed away. And it also ensures a safe passage to the afterlife for the departed soul,” he says.