Kinnera is a two-stringed instrument made using indigenous materials like bamboo, dried outer shell of round bottle gourd, honeycomb, bull horn, beads, mirrors and peacock feathers.

Scholar and poet Jayadhir Thirumala Rao says that the origins of the kinnera can be traced back to “around the 4th century AD, in and around the Deccan plateau”. “The Chenchu tribe [also known as Chenchus or Chenchulu], who were part of the Nallamalla forest, used to play the instrument while singing and narrating ballads or stories of heroes,” said Rao. “The Dakkali tribe of Mahbubnagar district in Telangana [in the area near the Nallamalla forest] was performing it at least from the 12th century. The Dakkalis are a sub-caste of the Madiga caste, once considered outcastes.”

The kinnera has several variations – it comes with seven, nine, 12 or 13 frets. The larger-sized ones have three resonators, while the smaller ones have only two. Much like the Saraswati veena, the instrument is made with organic materials. Its neck is crafted of bamboo, and the resonators from sun-dried and hollowed-out bottle gourds. Pangolin scales are used for the frets, and honey wax for binding. The strings were once fashioned out of women’s hair, horse-tail hair and even animal nerves, but have long been replaced with thin metallic strings.

The ballads accompanying the music are usually drawn from historical incidents, the lives of local heroes, and sometimes songs from the Jamba Puranam. The Jamba Puranam is one of around 40 Puranas in Telugu that differ from the Sanskrit Puranas, in that their content is specific to a local community. The ballads are often interspersed with simple and short, often dramatic, monologues. The tone of voice, facial expressions and body language change with the song’s mood.

Padma Shri Darshanam Mogilaiah (born in 1951) also known as Kinnera Mogulaiah, is an artist from Ausalikunta, Lingal mandal, Nagarkurnool district, Telangana State, India is one among a few surviving performers of a tribal musical instrument known by the name Kinnera. Mogulaiah learned the art of playing kinnera from his father Yellaiah.

He has had not much formal education and has had no steady job with an assured income. He has seen much hardships and his life had been very difficult eking out a living doing odd jobs like a daily wager in construction sites. He had worked as a laborer for 14 years in Adilabad, Karimnagar and Warangal. He had also worked at a construction site in Mumbai.

Mogilaiah's forefathers were pioneers in making and playing kinneras having different numbers of stairs. His father had made a nine-stair kinnera. Mogilaiah was the first person to create a 12-stair kinnera and he is the only artist who makes and plays the 12-step kinnera. In the year 2022, Govt of India honoured him with the Padma Shri award for his contributions as a kinnera musician.

He received the state’s highest honours, the Ugadi Puraskaram, in 2015. There is even a chapter on him in a social studies school textbook. Another member of the Dakkali tribe, Pochayya, who hails from the Mahabubnagar district, was honoured by the University of Hyderabad in 2015.

But such honours and awards have failed to make a difference in the lives of these artists. Their performances are few and far between – at the occasional academic meet or art festivals – and remuneration has been dwindling. Most of them are forced to live off the doles from the Madigas.

Dakkali Balamma, the only woman perfomer of the kinnera, is 95 years old. The only proof of the umbilical connection between the Chenchu tribal. When Balamma was younger, the residents of her village said, she would ride around on a horse, much to the awe of her Dakkali tribe. Her voice, at the time, was more powerful, and her impressive performances with the kinnera in the district’s villages were rewarded with money, food and clothes by the Madigas, the patron class. Fortunes changed with time. By the time Balamma died in December 2018, she was penniless. The villagers had to pool in money for her last rites.

Balamma was among the dozen or so people in India still playing the instrument. The kinnera is a stringed instrument native to the nomadic tribes in the Deccan plateau, such as the Dakkali and the Chenchu. A kinnera performance involves vocals and music, and the ballads are sung primarily in rustic Telugu. But today, it is an all but forgotten practice.

Panduga Sayanna-The Robinhood of Telangana
Even after 125 years, when Dakkali Folk artists narrate the heroic tale of Pandugolla Sayanna still reverberates and echoes in the villages in Wanaparthy and one can visualize Sayanna before them when the Dakkali folk artist narrates the story using a Kinnara instrument.

Panduga Sayanna was a hero of the poor who fought against the feudal society and atrocious rule of the Deshmukhs, Patels and Zamindars, who fleeced the poor and tortured the Dalits and downtrodden classes during the period of Nizam rule between 1980 and 1900.

A few Scholars called Pandugolla Sayanna a Social Bandit. Others called him as Robinhood of Telangana. Few others went to the extent of calling him a Revolutionary Hero.

Common people opined that Pandugolla Sayanna was neither a thief nor a bandit. He was the “Hero” of the poor people. He was a brave and heroic man who saved and reinstated poor people’s health, wealth, and lives. They considered him as their own “blood relative”.

Pandugolla Sayanna was born in a Meruginipalle village in Palamoor (Mahaboobnagar). He was born into a “Tenuga” family. (Tenuga meaning person engaging in maintaining gardens, gardening work, and related works) on Muharram day. His parents could not afford to send him to school due to acute poverty. He was thus engaged in the family occupation.

As per the Dakhali folk artists' narration, it is believed that Sayanna was 6” feet and had a strong build physique. He had a long and sharp nose and a dark bushy mustache that he used to curl and extend to both ears. In due course, Sayanna built up relationships with Telugu Narasamma, a beautiful woman who became his companion too. She fell for his “Pedikadu nadumu” meaning, his waist measured one fist- to say, he had a slender waist and broad built-up shoulders measuring three fists. To say, Pandugolla Sayanna was well-built and handsome.

Just the mention of his name sent cold shivers to Nizam rulers and district officials. In order to capture Pandugolla Sayanna red handed “qufiya police” became shadow followers. Jamindar Venkata Reddy built up enmity with Pandugolla Sayanna and also intended to take revenge for his actions.

However, one fine day Pandugolla Sayanna was captured by Qufiya police with great difficulty with the support of landlords, and other wealthy people who intended Sayana’s captivity and remanded him in an Iron cage. Even after capturing and deploying him in an iron cage, police feared touching or going near Pandugolla Sayanna.

Rani Shankarama (1840-1912) of Vanaparthi Samasthana with soft corner was ready to pay a sum of Rs 10, 000/- (amount equivalent to the looted amount by Sayanna) to the police.