Eric Miller. 2001.
“The Culture Area, South India”
This essay is composed of two sections: I) A review of the
races, history, and cultural characteristics of South India; and II) A
review of the history and prominent themes of folklore and anthropology
scholarship concerning South India.
I. Geography, Races, History, and Cultural Characteristics of South India.
The Vindhya mountains of central India form the proverbial border between North and South India. However, in practical terms the South is not defined by a geographical border, but rather by linguistic and political ones. In 1956, the government of India created states largely based on the languages spoken: it was then that the four southern states came into being (previously, there had been a plethora of administrative areas which had been developed by local rulers and then by the British). Thus, the northern borders of the southern states, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, mark the practical border between South and North. This is hundreds of miles south of the Vindhya mountains.
There are four southern states: to the northwest, Karnataka (Kannada language); to the northeast, Andhra Pradesh (Telegu language); to the southwest, Kerala (Malayalam language); and to the southeast, Tamil Nadu (Tamil language). The four major modern southern languages derive from a single ancient Tamil language. There are seventeen Northern states: the languages of those states derive from Sanskrit.
South India has a wide variety of climate and vegetation zones. To give an outline, from east to west: Along the east coast, there is sandy beach, with the beach often extending hundreds of yards before vegetation begins. As one moves westward, the land is flat or rolling. Even today, small-scale agriculture is the primary activity in the countryside. The Western Ghats mountain range, thickly-forested with trees, runs north-south along, generally-speaking, the western third of South India: it can be very cool in these mountains, but there is no snow. (There is also a much smaller Eastern Ghats mountain range). On the far side of the Western Ghats is jungle: moisture coming over the sea from the west is trapped here. Finally, there is a narrow strip of flat land along the west coast.
Archeological evidence suggests that Neanderthals lived in South India from 500,000 to 40,000 years ago (Rao 1990). Homo sapiens, according to the most commonly-held academic theory, came into being 100,000 years ago in Africa, and reached South India 60,000 years ago (Cavalli-Sforza 1995). Complex and numerous migrations occurred by land and sea between Africa and Oceania prior to 10,000 years ago (Hall 1996; Pawley 1993; Toussaint 1966). South India is in the center of this region. Many of the details of these ancient migrations can never be reconstructed, but this much is certain: the earliest Homo sapiens inhabitants of South India were what anthropologists have labeled as Negritos and Austro-Asiatics (a.k.a, Asian-Australoids) (Gardner 1966; Nagaraju 1990; Thurston 1909.). Indeed, the racial and cultural bedrock of all South and Southeast Asia is provided by these aboriginal peoples, a number of whom (Kurumbas, Irulas, Paniyas, Paliyans, Kadirs, Kanikarans, Vedans, etc.) continue to live in the Western Ghats. Many scholars have commented on the physical similarities between some of these South Indian aborigines and certain Australian and Malaysian aborigines. To quote one such statement: “Paliyans’ various physical types fall within the range of South and Southeast Asian-Australoid types, formerly termed Negrito, Malid, Veddid, and proto-Australoid. They are physically most similar to the Semang of Malaya” (Gardner, 1969, p. 390).
There are also cultural similarities, including the practices of animism and shamanism, and the use of boomerangs. By all accounts, Austro-Asiatic languages are no longer spoken by these tribal peoples of South India, although traces of such languages may be present.
Beginning 8,000 years ago, aboriginal peoples were joined in South India by the ancient Tamils. According to the most commonly-held academic theory, the ancient Tamils were of the Eelamite people, who were based in the eastern Mediterranean area, especially in the territory of present-day Iraq (Cavalli-Sforza 1995). The Eelamites, mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, were related to the Sumerians and Mesopotamians of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and were among the world’s first agriculturalists and urbanists. Over the centuries, Eelamite civilization spread eastward. The Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa sites, in present-day Pakistan, were of this civilization. The ancient Tamils were taller and had thinner noses than the South Indian aboriginal peoples. (The anthropological terms for nose-types are: leptorhine, thin; platyrhine, broad.) Little is known about the interaction between the ancient Tamils and the aboriginal peoples of South India, other than that some of the latter retreated to the Western Ghats, where their descendants have remained to this day.
By 4,000 years ago, there existed on the sub-continent a culture with kings, courts, urban centers, and irrigation systems. It was at this juncture that a branch of the Aryan people, who originated in what is today known as the Caucasus area of Russia, arrived in India (again, according to the most commonly-held academic theory) (Cavalli-Sforza 1995). The Aryans spoke Sanskrit, and had light skin and thin noses. Their general term for the peoples they found in the sub-continent was, “Dravidians.” (I attempt to avoid using the term, “Dravidian,” for two reasons: 1) it is a Sanskrit word, and in that language it seems to have negative connotations; and 2) it groups the ancient Tamils and the aboriginal peoples in a vague manner. “Ancient Tamil” well-describes the people derived from the Eelamites, but it does not acknowledge the presence of the aboriginal peoples. South Indians have now divided into four major modern states and languages, and “Dravidian” does function to describe them as a whole. Incidentally, of the four major southern languages, modern Tamil is the least Sanskritized, and modern Tamils have led the various so-called Dravidian political and cultural movements: Tamil Nadu is the seat of so-called Dravidian culture.)
Aryan culture was nomadic and seems to have centered around the conquering of sedentary peoples: they used metal, horses, and chariots for this purpose. Aryans primarily worshiped father gods in the sky, largely through the ritual use of fire and the chanting (by men only) of sacred verses known as Vedas. The Aryans smashed the ancient Tamil urban centers and irrigation systems, and imposed a hierarchical form of racial segregation (later to be known as the caste system). This system featured themselves -- as Brahmins, i.e., priests and landowners -- at the top and stressed the impurity of others.
The earliest strata of South India’s Sangam poetry (please see below: Literature...in ancient times) portrays an optimistic secular view of life in a heroic (prefeudal) age of meat-eating and wine-drinking (Nayagam 1966). Religion centered around worship of the goddess in her myriad forms (Korravai, Palaiyol, Kanamar Selvi, Kadu Kihal, etc.) and of her son Murugan, in rituals involving dancing (Kuravai, Thudi, Vallikuthu) and the sacrifice of cock and goats. The Brahmins’ culture, in contrast, forbade meat-eating and animal sacrifice: theirs was a pessimistic worldview, dwelling upon the impurity of material existence. Interaction between the aboriginal, ancient Tamil, and Brahmanic cultures has continued to the present day, and has formed the syncretic religion known as Hinduism (with animism and local ancestor worship at the periphery).
In South India, ancient Tamil rulers and languages remained dominant. By 2,500 years ago, three dynasties had come into being: the Chola (east), Pandian (central), and Chera (west). Buddhism and Jainism, associated with trading and urban groups, were important factors in South India from 2,300 to 1,800 years ago. (Although these ideologies originated in the North 2,600 years ago, they denied the authority of the Brahminic Vedas and stressed compassion, and thus may have had pre-Aryan roots.) There was extensive trade on both coasts of South India: ancient Greeks and Romans visited, as did Arabs and Chinese. A Tamil word, yavana, described foreigners who were employed by South Indian kings. Christianity made an early appearance: Christ’s disciple, Thomas, is said to have died in South India. A settlement of Jews settled on the west coast. Islamic Moghal rulers made some headway in the South beginning 1,200 years ago, but never dominated as they did in many sections of the North.
Beginning approximately 1,600 years ago, Tamils began to colonize Southeast Asia, bringing Hinduism to Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia (Ghosh 1989). 1,300 years ago, Bhakti (devotional) practices originated in the South and swept across all of India: Bhaktiism stressed love for and mystical union with the divine and was typically expressed in song. With the Age of Discovery came Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British traders. All of this is to say that South India, surrounded on three sides by the sea, has had lengthy and varied traditions of cultural and material exchange with distant lands.
An essential part of the British project in South India involved sedentizing the population, so as to be able to administrate more easily, and to collect taxes regularly. They attempted -- with much assistance from middle- and upper-class Tamils -- to discredit, marginalize, and even criminalize those who resisted settled agricultural life. The British tended to support the cultural centrality of large temples (Appadurai 1981). In these ways, the British lowered a bureaucratic grid of systemization and codification (Irschick 1994).
For many South Indians, the fight to expel the British was accompanied by another fight: one against domination by North Indians and Brahmins. This was especially expressed by Tamils’ resistance to the imposition of the Hindi language in schools ands workplaces (Hardgrave 1969, 1979; Irschick 1969, 1994). However, the Dravidian movements were led by upper-caste (albeit non-Brahman) Tamils. Members of lower castes have only recently begun to speak for themselves in the public sphere, in part through what has come to be called Dalit culture, which is expressed in literary, performative, economic, and political activities. Dalits claim to avoid hero-worship: theoretically, at Dalit meetings all sit around a circle and each has a chance to speak.
In the 1920’s-50’s, there was a good deal of South Indian sentiment for making South India a separate country, possibly to be called, Dravidanadu. This project was diffused for the most part in 1956, when the states were created according to language (Hardgrave 1965; Irschick 1986; Barnett 1976).
The Tamil struggle on Sri Lanka can be seen as an extension of the Dravidian struggle in India. The British transported large numbers of Tamils to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to work on tea plantations. Many of the three million Sri Lankan Tamils, who are concentrated on the northeast section of the island, feel persecuted by the majority Sinhalese, whose language is Sanskrit-derived and whose ancestors migrated from North India in ancient times. Thus, the leadership of these Tamils is demanding an independent Tamil nation on Sri Lanka. The guerrilla war that has been waged on Sri Lanka since the mid-1980s has led to a clamp-down on general tourism and trade not only between Indians and Sri Lankans, but also between Indians and the peoples of Singapore and Malaysia, as the central government of India patrols the southeast coast of South India very closely and travel is restricted. However, the war has also led to the presence of middle- and upper-class Sri Lankan Tamil “refugees” around the world. These people tend to be extremely motivated and sophisticated regarding the use of interactive telecommunication.
The worldwide South Indian diaspora in general is very much a middle- and upper-class affair (Ghosh 1989). This diaspora presents an excellent opportunity for multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995). It can be seen not as a dislocation, but as a continuation of South Indians’ colonizing of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Here perhaps the concept of Lemuria comes into play: actually, Lemuria was a concept originally developed by Westerners, especially Theosophists based in Madras: according to them, Lemuria was an island, or great land mass, to the south of India, which enabled people and animals to walk most or all of the way from Madagascar to Australia (Ramaswamy 1999). The idea of Lemuria has been adopted by many South Indians, as it fits with the native legend that the far southern Tamil lands have been covered by a series of floods. Both of these ideas seem to grapple with the aforementioned Africa-to-Oceania presence of seemingly-related aboriginal peoples.
In summary, South India is a hybrid culture extraordinaire, having been composed of Austro-Asiatic and African aboriginal peoples, ancient Tamils from the Middle East (or West Asia, as it is called in India), and Aryans from the north. The original people and civilization of Ealamite culture are gone, as are the Aryan nomadic tribes: only the (descendants of) Austro-Asians and Negritos remain in their original homelands. South Indians can look in all of these directions today, as well as to the large Tamil populations in Singapore and Malaysia, as they develop international networks.
In the balance of this section, cultural characteristics of
are discussed in the following categories:
1) Literature, life, and kingship in ancient times
From 2,200 to 1,800 years ago, the third Tamil Sangam (“association of poets and scholars”) flourished, based in the city of Madurai. (The first two Sangams are ascribed to earlier times and are likely to have existed primarily in legend.) Most of the Sangam poems, engraved on hard palm leaves, were rediscovered 100-150 years ago. There are eight volumes of short poems and ten volumes of longer poems: in all, there are 2,381 poems written by 473 poets. Recent translations have brought some of this material to a wide English-reading audience (Hart 1975, 1979, 1999; Ramanujan 1984, 1994). Included in the corpus of Sangam literature is Tholkappiar’s Tholkappiam (“preservation of ancient wisdom”), the earliest known Tamil work of phonology, morphology, grammar, and literary analysis. There are also five literary epics, which were written in slightly later periods. The most important of these is the central epic of the Tamil people, the Silappatikaram (“anklet story”), the Epic of the Anklet (which, according to linguistic analysis, was written between 1,800 and 1,400 years ago).
Sangam literature paints a picture of a cosmopolitan, trade-oriented, and tolerant society: the three leading ideologies of the day -- Brahminism, Jainism, and Buddhism -- co-existing in harmony. (The Epic of the Anklet is ascribed to Ilango Adigal, a Jain monk: the story’s heroine and her husband are of a merchant caste.) Center stage are aristocratic young men and women, questing for heroic action and love. The human condition, albeit idealized, is the subject matter. Spirituality, religion, and mythology is peripheral. It must be remembered that this literature is of an urban, courtly milieu. One famous Sangam poem gently ridicules folk religion: a village maiden is brought to an exorcist, as her parents fear she is possessed by a malicious spirit: in fact, she is secretly pining for her human lover.
The Tholkappiam discusses the distinction between akam and puram poetry. Akam poetry pertains to love and romance. It is written in the form of conversations between participants, often voicing participants’ thoughts and feelings, with the heroine’s female friends and relatives playing supporting roles. No names, places, or dates are mentioned. Puram poetry, on the other hand, pertains to matters of state, primarily war; and here specific historical and geographical references are appropriate. Akam and puram are often mingled in a single poem, as in one in which a wounded but victorious young man rushing home from a distant battlefield imagines his love waiting for him.
The institution of kingship was central to ancient South Indian culture. The tradition of justice in ancient South India decreed that a king should inflict upon himself whatever injustices he had inadvertently inflicted upon others, and there are many stories of this occurring.
Praise-songs for kings were later applied to Aryan deities. Many of the Sangam poems are in the form of Aarruppatai, a literary device which portrays an oral bard who has received bountiful gifts from a local king and who now, upon meeting other bards in the course of travel, praises that king and his land and directs these others to him. Numerous scholars have speculated that Sangam poetry is derived from the oral tradition (Kailasapathy 1968; Stephen 1999). As mentioned, the poets, in the poems, often self-consciously pattern themselves after oral bards. Much of the Sangam poetry is formulaic, which lends further credence to the likelihood that the oral tradition was close at hand. It seems that during the Sangam age, there was lively interaction between the oral and literary traditions.
An ancient South Indian king periodically spent time in the forest wilderness, so as to renew his mystical connection with nature (Falk 1973). The king’s valor was reflected in the land: the physical-spiritual health of the realm depended on his behavior. The greatness of a king was assessed in terms of the fertility and the diversity of the regions found within his territory, and therefore descriptions of the kingdom’s landscapes often form an integral part of laudatory and heroic verse.
The Tholkappiam also explains the Sangam poetic convention that there are five landscapes in South India, each one corresponding to a flower, time of day, and stage of love-relationship (Nayagam 1966):
barren-land (vegetation is sparse, earth is dried
It seems that the stages of war also corresponded to certain
In South Indian culture, women are considered very powerful. A married woman is auspicious: her sakti (divine cosmic energy) protects and animates her husband and their children (Wadley 1980). A girl’s sakti benefits her parents and siblings. A single woman, especially a beautiful woman, is potentially dangerous: the dominant culture states that her power should be bounded and channeled by marriage to a man. An example of things going awry is presented by Kannagi, the heroine of the Epic of the Anklet: upon learning that her husband was (unjustly) put to death by the local king, Kannagi ripped off her left breast and threw it against Madurai’s city walls, whereupon the city burst into flames. Here the female breast, usually the most life-giving of elements, is inverted into the most destructive.
In South India, a girl’s first menstruation is cause for celebration and ceremony. In olden days -- and even today, especially among lower classes and in the countryside -- the girl would remain in a specially built hut for some days, where female relatives would bring her food and visit with her. In the South, the menstruating girl’s fertility is emphasized and her pollution is de-emphasized: the opposite is the case in the North (Kapadia 1995).
A traditional South Indian ideal is that a girl should marry her mother’s brother or his sons. The principle is that a woman’s marriage home should be as close to her natal home as possible, both in terms of kin and geography. This practice gives social power to women. The brother-sister bond is very strong in India in general, and this is especially the case in the South (Beck 1974, 1989; Peterson 1988).
Various South Indian kinship systems have been identified as
matrilineal, and/or matricentric (S. Daniel 1980; Gough 1952, 1955,
1960, 1961, 1965, 1973, 1974, 1978; Schneider 1974). None, as far
as I know, have been called matriarchal. What is clear is that
cultures tend to give social and mythological prominence to females,
that the overwhelmingly patriarchal cultures that arrived from the
(Brahminism and Islam) have not taken hold in the South nearly to the
that they have in the North.
3) Village Religion
A cornerstone of South Indian culture, contributed by aboriginal peoples and ancient Tamils, is the sense that the divine is immanent: it is in anything and everything, and can spring up at any moment (Harper 1957). This South Indian animism developed from the association of special trees, plants, animals, stones, and other objects with local divinities (Elmore 1913; Whitehead 1921). Moreover, South Indian village religion revolves around ancestor-, nature-, and local goddess-worship. Village deities are typically represented by stones, carved or uncarved.
South India is famous for her village goddesses. Many of these figures were once, according to legend, local women (please see below: epic heroines). Some village goddesses are “married” to Sanskritic gods, but many are not. The single, or virgin, goddesses are considered capricious, hot-tempered, and mercurial: sometimes the line between central deities and peripheral spirits is not clear (Brubaker 1978; Craddock 1994; Trawick 1983). Sanskritic culture presents its divinities as timeless, transcendent, distant, calm, and benevolent: as Sansritic goddesses are portrayed on the South Indian village level, these deities become aggressive and dangerous (Shulman 1986). Scholars such as Christopher Fuller have argued that South Indian village religion, and popular Hinduism in general, needs to looked at on its own terms, not as a degenerated or distorted version of Sanskritic culture (Fuller 1992).
In its practices of animal sacrifice and its stories of goddesses who often kill males in fury, South Indian village religion points to a cyclical sense of time and matter: children of the goddess grow, become her consorts, and die. In South Indian versions of the pan-Indian myth of the goddess killing a buffalo-demon, the buffalo-demon is actually the thinly-disguised figure of the goddess’ own divine son-consort-husband (Shulman 1980). This is rationalized away in Sanskrit culture, which claims that its gods created the goddess in the first place, in order to have her to defeat a buffalo-demon who had temporarily gotten the best of them. Moreover, local goddesses are related to in the context of a crisis-oriented worldview: i.e., when personal or community disasters occur, people call on the goddess. Local goddesses are also celebrated during annual festivals, which are coordinated with agricultural and seasonal cycles. Sanskritic mythology is not generally intimately related to places in South India; Dravidian legends and myths, on the other hand, are extremely place-centric.
Puja is the characteristic Dravidian form of worship. It consists of a fluid complex of activities, including: the drawing of kolams (designs with powdered chalk); the pouring of liquids over, and the placing flowers on, the deity stone; the offering of gifts; and the singing of praise to the deity (and other forms of storytelling). Deities are believed to demand attention, and puja attempts to please the deity by summoning her into the idol and into the worshippers’ body (please see below: possession).
People of low-castes perform services for people of
Barbers, washerpeople, and other removers of human waste, act as
with death in South Indian villages. The lowly are in touch with
dangerous local spirits, and can deal with them through ritual.
example, Paraiyers (“pariahs”) play drums (made of cattlehide) in
ritual performances. The lowly are also often employed as
As the low castes are to the high, so the South is to the North: the
is the subaltern space of India.
4) Dravidian political-cultural movements
From the early 1900’s onward, Dravidian political-cultural movements have been composed of a thorough mix of the religious, the theatrical, and the civic-political. Dravidian politicians developed a grand and sweeping style of political oratory: highly alliterative and rhythmic, with extensive parallelism (repetition with variation, of phrases, sentences, etc.), and classical literary touches.
In the 1930’s, N. S. Krishnan, a star comedian, created and toured widely with a modernized-Villupaattu (“bow song,” please see below) about Mahatma Gandhi’s “salt march.” Numerous recent governors of Tamil Nadu have been cinema actors, writers, and producers. South India has seen a mix of drama, music, dance, cinema, and politics, to a degree unequaled by any other state of India (Baskaran 1981).
The ancient Tamil tradition of humanism was invoked by E.V.
leader of the early Dravidian movement, in his promotion of Rationalism
(atheism). E.V.R. and many other urbane South Indians, past and
identify mythology as an Aryan element, introduced so as to confuse and
subjugate Dravidians. For the most part, however, recent leaders
of Dravidian political parties have retreated from E.V.R.’s championing
5) A contrast between Kerala and Tamil Nadu (a personal view)
There are two Keralas. Along the flat coastal land, which is always less than one hundred miles, many people have light, yellowish skin, the result of mixing with traders from Arab lands and Portugal. Many Christian churches can be seen. Male authorities tend to be very strict: Brahmins actively prevent non-Hindus from entering temples; police tend to be overbearing; and hotel managers tend to insist on foreigners filling out forms very properly. In the interior, on the other hand, dark-skinned people (ancient-Tamil-derived and aboriginal) predominate, and women tend to be very strong on social levels. Kerala for many years had an elected Communist state government (which refrained from criticizing citizens’ religious beliefs and practices), and today Kerala has one of the highest literacy rates in India. Kerala feels to me to be a tense place in that the coastal governmental and Sanskritic people seem to be determined to control “their” treasure: the lands and peoples of the interior waterways, jungles, and mountains.
Tamil Nadu, in contrast, is a much more relaxed and jolly
People in authority positions tend to be proud of their Dravidian
and tend to be much friendlier to foreigners. The Tamil language
is perceived as a goddess, bestowing beneficence on the entire world
II. The History and Prominent Themes of Folklore and
Scholarship concerning South India.
The initial period of Western scholarship in South India began during the Age of Discovery, and was conducted primarily by missionaries trained in philology. Their work was in part motivated by a desire to discredit the caste system and undercut Brahmin control (Ravindiran 1996). The Scotsman Robert Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages (1856) laid a foundation for the claim of ancient Dravidian heritage, including a classical literary golden age. The first Western folklore collectors in the area were for the most part colonial administrators and their wives. Texts of songs and stories were often highly edited and “retold” in the course of translation from the native language to English, and from the oral to the written (Gover 1871).
W. H. R. Rivers was one of the first self-identified anthropologists to conduct fieldwork in South India. He studied the Toda people of the Nilgiri Hills, part of the Western Ghats (Rivers 1906). M. B. Emeneau studied the Nilgiri’s Kota people (Emeneau 1944-6): he caused a stir by positing that folklore should be approached on its own terms, and not as derivations or deviations from classical modes. The Nilgiris have become one of the most examined regions in Asia, partly because the British built their largest hill station, Ooty, in the area (Hockings 1978, 1980a, 1980b, 1988, 1989, 1996, 1997, 1999; Mandelbaum 1941, 1955, 1989; Walker 1986; Wolf 1997a, 1997b, 2000a; Zvelebil 1988). The primary focus of this scholarship has been on the Todas, the most European-looking (light-skinned and thin-nosed) of the region’s tribal peoples: there has been speculation that the Todas are one of the lost tribes of Israel. Attention has also been paid to the complex cultural ecology that had developed among the various tribal peoples of the Nilgiris, including the Badaga, Irula, and Kurumba. Kurumbas are the most aboriginal group in the region: they are associated with sorcery, which they have alternately been hired for, and persecuted for, by members of the other groups. Based on his fieldwork with the Kota, Richard Wolf has asked if there might be common cultural characteristics shared by tribal people throughout India, and throughout Southeast Asia (Wolf 1997a, 200b)
George Hart remains the dean of American scholars of the ancient Sangam literature (Hart 1975, 1979, 1999); he has also written about the interpaly between ancient and contemporary literature, and between the literary and the oral (Hart 1986). David Shulman has done superb work in analyzing Puranic and other literary versions of South Indian stories (1980, 1985).
Of course, many South Indian scholars have also been at work. To name just two: S. Sakthivel, chair, Folklore Dept., Tamil University, Thanjavur, has especially studied Toda linguistics (Sakthivel 1976, 1977); and Saraswati Venugopal, chair, Folklore Dept., Madurai Kamaraj U., has studied women’s folksongs, including types of lullabies and lament (Venugopal 1996). In Pathways: Approaches to the Study of Society in India (1994), T. N. Madan provides an excellent survey of both Indian and foreign scholars of Indian culture.
Until approximately 20 years ago, the standard practice by virtually all scholars in publishing folklore collected from the field was to give little specific performance-event context, or description of para-verbal aspects of the event, and to keep the performers anonymous: direct transcriptions of actual performances were rarely given. This was partly due to the early scarcity of portable audio and video recording equipment. South India was given a large boost in this area when the Ford Foundation sponsored a series of workshops in ethnographic video in the 1980’s, with Stuart Blackburn and others. (The Ford Foundation continues to fund South Indian folklore-related projects).
Brenda Beck published an excellent and very thorough
a performance-ritual system in northern Tamil Nadu in 1982, but it was
Stuart Blackburn who really first applied to South India the
approach to folklore, with his study of villupaattu (“bow song,” so
because a long bow with a single string is played during singing
villupaattu, which involves alternation between speaking, chanting, and
singing, and traditionally culminates in possession by people present,
has been called epic-chanting and ballad-singing, although neither
performance genre seems to fully fit the phenomenon) (Blackburn
At the same time, Blackburn criticized some performance-centric
for not paying enough attention to storylines or to performers’ uses of
fixed oral and written texts in the course of performance: he pointed
how written texts are read or sung aloud in the course of some
events. As Arjun Appadurai, Frank Korom, and Margaret Mills wrote
in the introduction to Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian
A generation of scholars has brought together folkloristics, anthropology, history of religions, and Indology in dramatic new ways... Women have moved to the center of this work, Dravidian India has moved out of the shadow of the ... classicizing North, nonverbal genres have begun to edge into the privileged territory of verbal material, and oral materials have begun to compete for attention with written ones. These inversions of our conventional thinking ... did not of course, descend on the scholarly world exnihilio. They built on earlier debates about great and little traditions, about Sanskritization and its variants, about the role of classical models and meanings in a ploygot, vernacular world, about bhakti as a counter- system to orthodox Hinduism, and about the hidden alternative discourses of Untouchables, poet-saints, and women. (1991, p. 5)
One major way that Western scholarship has perceived and
India is in terms of the caste system. Scholars such as Louis
(1957, 1967) and Michael Moffatt (1979) have claimed that the caste
is a rigid hierarchy, with everyone involved knowing and accepting
place. Others have claimed that in reality this system is not so
systematic, pointing out that there are innumerable sub-castes and that
the question of who is superior to whom is often contested or ignored;
and moreover, that some people in lower castes reject the idea that
are somehow inherently impure (Appadurai 1986, 1988; Kapadia
It has become clear that the British, in the course of trying to
and administrate their realm, encouraged, codified, and fetishized the
idea of the caste system (Irschick 1994).
2) The bounded village
After World War II, leadership of Western anthropological and
scholarship in India shifted from British to USA scholars. One
USA theme of investigation centered around the concept of the village
a self-contained unit, a living laboratory. This was part of what
was known as the Chicago school (Marriot 1955; Redfield 1956; Singer
It was eventually concluded that in fact there always had been much
beyond the village, and the bounded village concept was modified.
3) Great tradition, little tradition
The Chicago school formulated that villages in India
affected by Brahminic culture, which they called the Great tradition of
India, meaning, among other things, that it had spread throughout the
and involved writing (Redfield 1956; Singer 1972; Srinivas 1952).
The use of the terms, Great and Little, has been questioned in recent
especially by certain South Indian scholars, who feel that value
are inherent to these terms, and have pointed out that Dravidian
is also pan-South-Indian and also has used writing since ancient
Possible substitutes for the Great-Little dialectic that have been
are the less abstract dialectics, Sanskritic-local, and
The Great-Little model acknowledges that there is movement
outward from the local to larger regions, as well as from the Great to
the local. For example, when a story of a dead hero or heroine
beyond its local base, attracting new patronage outside the small group
that originally worshipped the figure, the stress on the figure’s
and tragic death often wanes. Added is emphasis on the figure’s
birth, and identification of the local figure with a pan-Indian
deity. As this happens, the possession aspect of the performance
loses strength because the intimacy and sense of community that this
requires weakens (Blackburn, Claus, Flueckiger, and Wadley 1989).
Sankritization and Westernization are the two types of
discussed by Milton Singer (Singer 1968, 1972). Sankritization
vegetarianism, teetotalism, wearing of a sacred thread, performance of
life-cycle rites by Brahmin priests with the use of Vedic mantras and
offerings, prohibition of widow remarriage, belief in the doctrines of
karma, dharma (cosmically-ordained duty), rebirth, and release, and
of the Sanskritic pantheon of benevolent and transcendent
Westernization is associated with technical improvements in
and transportation, urbanization, industrialization and the new
opportunities that come with them, Western-style education, civil
of parliamentary democracy -- and, I would add, the unraveling of kin
immorality, commodity and consumption, and unfettered conversation in
6) Classical, orthodox, folk, and popular cultures
In India, these various levels of culture have borrowed from
since ancient times: they share a common base (Blackburn and Ramanujan
1986; Shulman 1986). For example, the frontal glance of deities
representations of deities), enabling eye-to-eye contact between the
and the worshiper, is important in all these levels of culture (Babb
7) Interaction between the oral, written, and other media
Interaction between the oral and the written has also occurred since ancient times (Varadarajan 1970). Much originally orally-transmitted material has found its way into South Indian cinema, and now television also (Baskaran 1996; Dickey 1993; Lutgendorf 1990; Pandian 1992). In addition, there is widespread use of written texts within oral performances (Blackburn 1980, 1988). Temples house written works which describe local deities, and explain and sustain the shrine’s claim to sanctity. Paul Greene has argued that the playing of audio cassettes in a South Indian village can be seen as a performative and a devotional ritual activity (Greene 1997, 1999). He has also written about the folk music commercialization process in South India (Greene 2001); audio-cassette culture in the region (Greene 1998); and a conflict that arose over the singing of cinema songs at a funeral (Greene 1999).
8) The performance-centered approach to folklore
This approach emphasizes context: both micro (including
and para-verbal behavior during the actual event) and macro (social,
and historical background). It is associated with the
of performance, communication, and speaking. In the past twenty
there has been a large number of dissertations by USA students working
in South India which utilize these approaches. Some of these
In Tamil Nadu: women’s rituals (Reynolds 1978); villuppaattu
1980); terukkuttu, a form of street theatre (Frasca 1990), and
follow-up by a Dutch woman (de Bruin 1999); karagattam, a form
folk street dance, with speech and song (Diamond 1999); folk healing
divination rituals (Nabakov 1995); special drama, a
form of street theatre (Seizer 1995). In Kerala: mudiyettu,
an orthodox ritual dance-drama (Caldwell 1995); a folk ritual by the
people, involving the drawing of kolams, and song (Neff 1995).
of these forms culminate in possession. There have also been
of cultural behavior and beliefs (V. Daniel 1984; Prasad 1998; Trawick
1978, 1990a). Margaret Trawick has written a series of very fine
articles about women’s performance of ayirapaattu (“crying
a form of lament (Trawick 1986, 1990b, 1991). Alf Hiltebeitel has
researched the cult of Draupadi (Hiltebeitel 1988, 1999). There
also been numerous sociological studies, especially concerning on the
of women (Kapadia 1995; Ram 1992).
9) Performance of epic, with possession cult
Lauri Honko has written of his realization that the
performance of epic
continues to exist, from Africa to Oceania (Honko 1998). He has
to record and transcribe, and has published, the Tulu people’s Siri
(The Tulu are a Dravidian people living in southern Karnataka).
points out that many of these performance traditions, including the
epic, involve a possession cult. There are “strong contexts”: the
story is sung by women while they work in paddy fields; and by a male
during ceremonies tat culminate in possession. Because of these
the priest found he had no opportunity to sing his full mental text, so
he summoned Honko and other scholars, who enabled him to perform and
the whole. The singer, who also leads the ritual events in which
he is possessed by the son of the epic’s heroine, claims that he is the
sole owner of the epic, at least as it is performed by him (Honko
One wonders how the local women who sing and tell the story amongst
and who also participate in the ritual possession events, feel about
claim of ownership. In any event, this research, following
has greatly expanded the academic model of performance of epic.
10) Central and peripheral possession, especially among women
Possession has emerged in recent years as a central theme in the discourse around the subaltern. Possession can be seen as a means of psychic integration, and of protest against authority (Boddy 1994; Lewis 1971, 1988; Moreno 1984; Nabakov 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000; Waghorne 1984). As with the study of lament (in which possession may occur), the mature ethnographic study of possession has been enabled by the development of the ethnography of speaking, the performance-centered approach to folklore, the feminist revolution, and the anthropology of emotions (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990; Lutz and White 1986).
The standard sequence of possession events is: the deity is summoned by the recitation of her story (and associated activities); the deity enters dancing people; and, finally, these people stop dancing and speak in the voice of the deity. When considering possession events, questions that need to be asked are: Who presides? Who summons the divinity? Whom does the divinity enter? Does the possessed person have the opportunity to extensively speak in the voice of the divinity? If so, who listens?
In her dissertation about mudiyettu, a ritual-performance form practiced in Kerala, Sarah Caldwell bemoans the fact that men have appropriated roles of ritual-leader and possession in relation to the goddess in Kerala (Caldwell 1995). The problem was that she was studying a Sanskritized, orthodox, temple-sponsored ritual dance-drama form, which dealt with a pan-Indian goddess. In fact, women do experience possession by goddesses in South India, but much of this activity occurs “under the radar”: often even local people, especially local men, are unaware of it. Where goddess possession of females does tend to occur is among entrepreneurial women of lower classes: folk healers, especially those involved with mid-wife and lament activity (Nabakov 1995). These events are conducted in the context of healer-client relationships, and among women themselves as variations of puja, often around life-transition ceremonies. Much of this activity must remain secret or semi-secret, as it may involve illegal procedures and substances, or expression of anger against various authorities; public exposure may bring repercussions from governmental and religious authorities, or from males in general (husbands beating wives). It is unusual and problematic for outsiders to be allowed to witness such events: ever-present is the danger of throwing off the local social ecology, the balance of power between local men and women, for example. Moreover, this activity is integrated with everyday ongoing family and kinship life, and is not framed as formal public ritual or artistic performance. Comprehension of the local vernacular language and extended participant-observation ethnographic fieldwork is essential in order to begin to be able to tap into this level of culture (Ram 1992). Even should one witness it, much will be unintelligible, as speech during possession is coded in various ways, often so as to be partly unintelligible to some of those present.
In South Indian villages, possession by local deities is a part of regular periodic worship: this is central possession. Some scholars claim that women are most often possessed by malicious spirits, who then must be exorcised: this is peripheral possession (Lewis 1971, 1998). However, as mentioned, South Indian women continue to also experience central possession.
In South India there is an ancient tradition of females
central possession. The phenomenon is portrayed in the Epic
the Anklet: On the way to Madurai, Kannagi and her husband
upon a group of forest tribal people. The group’s
prepares to be possessed by the group’s goddess. As a means of
the goddess into the shamaness, gifts are presented at her feet: “women
offered her dolls, parrots, wild fowl with small beautiful feathers,
peacocks, balls and dried black beans used for divination, roots...,
colored powders, cool, fragrant pastes, pulses, sesame candy, boiled
laced with suet, flowers, incense, and perfume” (Canto 12, lines 46-54;
Parthasarathy trans.). The gifts -- combined with kolams, music,
words of praise, and gestures and dance -- constitute a synaesthetic
the senses”) experience. Once possessed, the shamaness
declares that Kannagi will one day be queen of the Tamil lands.
11) Folk male and female epic heroes/heroines
The South, especially the mountains, is known by some as a dangerous place: even in South Indian folktales, characters are often warned, “Don’t go south!” According to one of India’s “national” epics, Ramayana, south India is a place of hazardous forests, inhabited by monkeys and lustful demons.
A good deal of ink has been spilled in the effort to establish that ancient Tamil Nadu had an aristocratic epic tradition on a par with ancient Greece (Kailasapathy 1968). It was left to N. Vanamamalai and Stuart Blackburn to bring to light Tamil Nadu’s most prominent living folk epic tradition, villupaattu (Blackburn 1978, 1980, 1988; Vanamamalai 1969, 1981, 1990). Many of the stories told within this tradition emphasize human agency, as opposed to karma, reincarnation, and divine figures. Heroes and heroines rebel against oppression from upper classes and unjust laws. The central locale is the village, not the king’s court. The South Indian male epic hero is at times accused of being a bandit, and is often engaged by the local king to fight against bandits. Blackburn draws parallels between these figures and the Mexican folk heroes identified by Américo Paredes.
Honko calls the Tulu Siri epic a feminist epic: the heroine must travel about in the course of struggling to keep her land; in the process she divorces her husband (Honko 1998). Kannagi -- heroine of the Epic of the Anklet -- has received much scholarly attention (Beck 1972; Choondal 1978; Fines 1993; Induchudan 1969; Macphail 1993; Noble 1990; Obeyesekere 1980, 1984; Pandian 1982). Although folk theatre and storytelling performances have developed around Kannagi, she is primarily known in Tamil Nadu as a figure from classical literature. In some places, Kannagi is considered a form of Sakti, Siva’s consort; in the far southwest of Tamil Nadu, however, it seems she is associated with Bhadrakali (Kali in her deadliest form), who has no male partner, and who is worshipped through puja, traditional villupaattu, etc.
However, Kannagi is just one variant of the archetype, the
Indian goddess. As mentioned above, most every South Indian
has such a figure, who is thought to overlook the local territory,
people for good behavior and punishing them for bad behavior, which can
include ignoring her worship (Brubaker 1978). Typical types of
are extreme heat and drought (in the environment), and infertility and
skin diseases (in the body). The stories of these goddesses are
on legends about woman who supposedly once lived in the area, and who,
as a result of themselves or their family being violated, exploded in
and in that state committed suicide and/or murder. Variants of
figure include: 1) Esikki (Nili): killed by her
a Brahmin temple priest, Esikki returned to rip his heart out of his
2) Anantaci: a widow expelled from her village, Anantaci
a mountain and jumped in a pool, which overflowed and flooded her
washing it away entirely. 3) Pulankontal: carried off and
thrown in a well by suitors, Pulankontal returned to exact
4) Nallathangal: returning penniless to her brother’s home,
was turned away by her brother’s wife, whereupon she threw her seven
in a well and followed them...disaster ensued. 5) Singamma,
goddess of the Kuruvan people: Singamma was raped, murdered, and buried
by her brothers, but arose to demand that a building be built in her
(Blackburn 1988; Trawick 1986, 1990, 1991). 6) Antaragattamma:
a lower-class man disguised himself as a Brahmin in order to marry a
woman; when she discovered the deception she flew into a very
rage. Each of these heroines is sung to and possesses worshipers,
in a variety of contexts. Small temples may be built for these
often shrines in their honor are created around trees or anthills at
boundaries of human habitation. I am unsure if such goddesses are
represented in home shrines. Snakes tend to be associated with
local goddesses (Aravaanan 1977, 1988; Binod 1979; Mundkur 1983).
In conclusion: As it has been for at least the last 20
South India remains a very popular locale for study. This is in
because so many aspects of her traditional culture continue to
South India features one of the largest pockets of goddess worship in
world, which makes the area extremely attractive and interesting to
and to anyone interested in gender issues, on both the social and
levels. Because so many of her traditional verbal and other
arts traditions are so vibrant, South India is an excellent area in
to observe what happens when these traditions are transposed into
media, including interactive telecommunication. (The South leads
India in the creation of public and commercial community Internet
By virtue of the ongoing presence of descendents of its original human
inhabitants, South India is linked to Africa to the west and Indonesia
to the east; much work is to be done in investigating ancient
as well as possible kinship ties between the present-day inhabitants of
these regions. There is a great deal of friendly interaction
native (South Indian) and foreign scholars. The cosmopolitan and
tolerant nature of South Indian culture makes it a delightful place for
foreigners to work.