Abstract: In this article a reading of early Manipravalam literature of Keralam as a performative practice is attempted. Tracing out from the texts two historical milieus where praise poems in the hybrid tongue were performed, there is a search to read Manipravalams’ objectification of women and the unique nation- ness they evoke for Keralam as two intimately linked and mutually formative constructions imbricated in aesthetic performance that works alongside other less spectacular performances in the medieval society and together enable the consolidation of intricately gendered subjects of caste.
Keywords: performance, nation-ness, gender, manipravalam,
caste, otherness. “Vesyaanganavruthireeyam visudhaa/viraajithey samprathi Keraleshu” – (Chandrotsavam)
This paper is about praise and its politics. As part of a larger critical exercise of comprehending the performed absenting of devadasis from the official histories of Keralam, my engagement with early Manipravalam literature is precisely about its ‘presencing’ of the female sexual object par excellence. Manipravalam literature in Keralam’s literary history is generally understood to imply a group of medieval works (comprising message poems, champus which intersperse poetic narrations with prose as well as shorter narrative poems) roughly dated from 13th to 15th centuries, composed as panegyrics to particular women’s physical beauty and/or erotic love narrated in a hybrid style formed of a blending of Malainadu bhasha spoken in the region and Sanskrit. I also consider here Malayalam translations of a couple of Sanskrit works from this period which are in different ways related to Manipravalams’ characteristic strategies. Adopting an eclectic approach, I draw from performance, feminist and cultural anthropology theories of Diana Taylor, Richard Schechner, Judith Butler and Michel de Certeau to re- think Manipravalams as an embodied performative practice to show how desire can be pivotal in ‘national’ imaginings. Considering the extant texts as a circulating pool of ‘scripts’ meant for aesthetic performance in the medieval period which work in tandem with other performances in the social field, I proceed to show how the extremely ocular nature of Manipravalams’ narrative strategies carve out a grid whereby anatomically polyvalent bodies with all their idiosyncrasies and everyday transgressions may be interpellated as stable subjects of caste with specific bodily markers made ‘real’ through each repetition. Tracing out from the texts two historical scenarios where the Manipravalams were performed, I explore how the iterative pedagogies of female sexual behavior function as an arbitrating hinge between ambition towards a unique nation-ness composed of acutely graded caste subjectivities attempted through specific acts of remembering and forgetting as well as legitimation within caste of a major divergence from connubial practices elsewhere in the peninsula.
Two standard responses I have met with in the early months of my research work as I dug around for source-texts of whatever kind I could land on regarding devadasis here were 1) ‘there were/are no devadasis in Keralam, 2) ‘you must read Manipravalam literature.’ One of the questions that confounded me then and used by P. Soman1 to establish his argument that there has been no devadasi custom practised in Keralam was if Manipravalam texts were about ‘devadasis’ and if it marks the first stirrings of what may loosely be called a cultural and literary expression from the ‘upper’ rungs of the medieval society, where and why did women so celebrated disappear suddenly in the centuries when the language and its literature flourished, why our Pattu oratures from the ‘lower’ rungs are silent about them. Here one sees the forced logic behind Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai’s thesis that the devadasi custom had ‘degenerated’ and ‘disappeared’ in the 15th century wherein he cites the blatant eros of Chandrotsavam as a prime example of such cultural decay. Curiously, such ‘degeneration’ of the devadasi custom is a staple thread in several of their representations; at the dawn of colonial modernity, we are told that, the devadasis had ‘degenerated’ on a pan-Indian basis inviting legal banning of the custom. If that is the case, then, Keralam’s temple women seem to have degenerated twice, depending on the sides one takes in the yes/no situation concerning devadasis within Keralam or are pre-cursors of ‘degeneration’ to their counterparts outside!
Tackling the texts with these baffling thoughts in mind, the initial response of a female reader of Manipravalam literature, generously socialised in terms of ‘proper’ female behaviour as part of her growing up in Keralam, yet has ‘learnt’ to question its sanctity and is all too often perturbed by its routine examples of body-censoring and moral politics in contemporary times is an amused surprise at its consistent and celebratory use of several words, cuss words included, which in current parlance are deemed as synonyms to prostitutes and hence afforded existence only in the closed semantic circle of scorn in public discourse, popular ‘super-star’ movies included. Interestingly, one of Soman’s repeated arguments is that the texts also use terms implying its converse like grihayuvathis and gruhanis, all meaning ‘homely’, ‘respectable’ women to prove that they are not devadasis. Similar is the binary echoed in Kavalam Narayana Panikkar’s position that the performers represented in Manipravalams are Nangiar women who according to him are “honourable family women living with their husbands” and not to be confused with the devadasis, because “institutionalised extramarital relationship between women artists in the temple with their superiors- which marked the devadasi system-was totally absent in Kerala” (Panikkar, 1990: 59, 61). And it is only as one moves from one text to another that the tautology imperative to an effective working of homogenisation of identities employed in these texts starts to make sense. An image that tirelessly repeats itself in this genre (and remarkably reminiscent of the physical structure of the Didarganj Yakshi sculpture) is that many of the women here are said to have breasts of such amplitude that their mid-riff which is ideally lean, struggles from holding up the torso and is hence slightly bent and sometimes about to break off from the exercise; Unnuneeli, Veenavaani, Vellur Nani, Rangalekshmi,
Ilayachi are some of the women who bear the weight of such idyllic proportions of male fantasies. It is not simply that when head to foot description of a particular heroine is done, her many physical assets have to correspond to any of the sense organs of the narrator-poet-lover/ listener of the opposite sex, the female body itself thus becoming a composite of personified male desire metonymically constituted, (a literal “panchendriya paanapaathram”, Namboothiri 105) a veritable tipple that shall titillate and satisfy all five sense organs. Beyond the saccharine sweetness of such fantasies, taken together these women also become cloying mirror images of each other. I would cite just two instances to explicate my point. The family of performing women in Poyilam which Unnichirutevi belongs to is described thus:
Lend me your ears to listen. For, there is a house which shines brighter in splendour than Alaka, Lanka and Amaraavathi, which though it is on earth really belongs to the heavens. With hefty breasts that are in competition with one another, with lean swaying midriffs on which fine hair-lines taper down, with hair like peacock feathers, with eyes like the karinkoovala flower or the lake-fish, long enough to reach their lovely ears, as if to fight with them, with faces like the lotus flower in full bloom under the sun and like the full-moon itself, with such sweet words that shall put the cuckoo-bird to shame are the expert actresses, the women of the adorned Poyilam house.2 (Nair, 1965: 41-42)
Yet another prose piece from Unniyadicharitam that describes a host of women at Unniyadi’s home can be seen as a remarkable synecdochic instance for the representation of women celebrated in general in Manipravalams:
The house was adorned by very many nubile beauties and talented poets regaling praises to them….And we saw there with unabated enthusiasm the rich plenitude of chedis: some carrying platters of betel leaves, some with camphor bowls, some holding aalavattams, some with venchamarams, some had beautiful mirrors in their hands, some held garlands made of fragrant flowers while some had white lotuses in their hands. Some of them held adornments for their hair, while some carried sandal paste, some had the essence of kaarakil, some held books of literature and some carried golden kindis and some golden sandals. Some held erotic love- letters while some others had lovely flutes to make music, a few others had veena and other musical instruments while some simply folded their hands in humble greeting. And the beautiful chedis thus carrying several things at that house we found were all elaborately decked, all perfectly beautiful from all angles, all honey- tongued, all artistically inclined and all invariably brimming with youth.3 (Nair, 1966: 155)
To put it simply, in the entire genre of Manipravalam texts, it is the same pair of breasts, the same desirable coquetry, the same refined physical charm and courteous smile that are deemed as deserving representation in all women. The names may be many, real names and figurative names conferred included; yet it is all one woman who entices with her exquisite physical charm, who is capable of ‘love’, who excites collective male fantasies and has many sexual partners to praise whom the same Manipravalams are written. This absence of individuation needs to be coupled to an interesting notion of urbanity attached to many of its heroines. The components of this urbanity, that generously peps up Manipravalams’ discourse are sexual expertise and expressed enjoyment of sex and/or skill in dance/singing in Manipravalam or the ability to understand the hybrid tongue. And these are celebrated as added qualifications for women who can be approached by many paramours, while its opposite specifically implies lack of sophistication (Pillai, 1949: 29). This notion of urbanity however, is not represented as pertaining only to performing women, since the ability to understand Manipravalam is also acknowledged as a desirable trait of sophistication in any of the matrilineal women similarly celebrated in the poems and touted as one that constitutes their very desirability apart from their physical attributes, even when they have no status as temple performers or as purveyors of some ‘art’.
Only four texts among the extant Manipravalams directly describe the women praised therein as having temple connection: all three Achicharitams (especially Unnichirutevicharitam), attest to the identity of their heroines as either a performer or as born into a performing family, also Rangalekshmi of the Sanskrit work Sukasandesam is depicted as a performer at the Mathilakam temple. Apart from these direct references we have stray mentions here and there: Kokasandesam poetically refers to the temple women as talivadhus, similarly the Sanskrit polemical work on poetic craft, Lilatilakam mentions a priest forgetting his ritual duties, lost as he is in the thoughts of an actress. Lilatilakam also quotes from a brief poem called Kaakasandesam; critical opinion considers this as a lampooning of the message poem tradition as it identifies the woman as a koothasthree and describes itself thus; “You are a koothasthree and me a chaathira poetaster. Considering your status and mine, a crow is the fitting messenger I have chosen” (Pillai, 1957: 39). On the other hand we have Unnuneeli, Medini Vennilavu, Manavi Menaka, Maralekha, the many women eulogised in Padyaratnam as well as references to a number of praise poems in Lilatilakam whose representations contain no connection to any temple or dancing as such; while Vaisikatantram equates Koothu and Koodiyattam to sex and pragmatic choosing of partners even as neither Anangasena nor her old mother is identified as performers or represented as having temple connections anywhere. Yet in all these works, apart from Vaisikatantram which simply puts together advices on pragmatic choosing of sexual partners, they are all represented in identical ways, using strikingly similar metaphors and images suggestive of peaking desirability and impeccable sexual attractiveness, to get a glimpse of whose exquisite physique, the delayed luscious fruit of perseverance and imagination, for the narrator as well as the listener, hazardous journeys are undertaken, and to praise whom the same poems are written. In other words it is their enticing sexuality and their approachability by more than one man at the same time that signifies their identity, their dancing skills if any, or their status as a performer are added accoutrements, qualifications that add to their sexual charisma and not ultimately constitutive of their identity. Very often, their dance also becomes a metaphor for their sexuality. The performing women as well as other matrilineal women eulogised for their impeccable beauty and desirability are performatively situated in the category of an ‘other.’ The poems convey praise, and that praise is directed towards the physical beauty of particular women who are representatives of a particular kind of sexuality which is also projected to signify their identity as such.
The topography of the Manipravalams, the Achicharitams in particular, precipitates a curious pattern. They proceed from spatial separation of the lover/narrator/listener and the lady in question, to actual sighting of the heroine that validates all hearsays which had excited the speaker earlier and hence calls for a celebration of her beauty for which the same poem is sung. A steady building up of anticipation like sexual foreplay itself, intensified via hearsays, finding culmination in vision, not necessarily always implying consummation, constitutes its basic form. And this journey is peppered with descriptions of markets which sprang up in medieval societies following the expansion of agriculture where we find mentions of Jews, Arabs and Chinese merchants and sellers from the Tamil and Telugu regions, some of the famed towns of the period, temples where the narrator stops often to pay obeisance culminating in an elaborately flowery praise of the lady’s home- town, the temple near her home or which she frequents and finally her home itself where her beauty is seen in all its splendour. While critical opinion has considered this as a distracting digression (Nayar 1971), I would read this panning of the land as a cartographic attempt imbued in ‘humour’ that re-configures the place as part of the unique identity Manipravalams project for the region which however is inextricably bound to calibrations of gender the same poems propose. It is in this panning of the land again that the texts afford three instances of women from the lower stratum, not celebrated, yet represented, couched in ‘humour’- the laboring Pulaya, Paraya and Cherumi women spotted in the markets and the Cherumi in the pounding room. Both Unniyachicharitam and Unnichirutevicharitam describe women from the lower rungs as cursing each other, the entire description liberally interspersed with images of disease, filth, sexual malaise and scatology. And the Cherumi portrayed in possibly the only surviving piece specifically addressed to a woman from the lower stratum, and found in the 13th century Mantrankam acting manual of Koodiyattam is depicted in a language that abstains from the exquisite images used for matrilineal women. She is compared to masculine, animal or inanimate images exuding suggestions of a rough, crude sexuality that excites the male narrator on account of its rawness, the Cherumi’s sexual appetite, the poet says is so immense that she is said to follow Muslim merchants to have sex. While some writers see this as a satire on society and the Manipravalam tradition itself (Nayar 1971), as the only work identified in the Manipravalam tradition that directly addresses a woman from the ‘lower’ rungs of society, a Cherumi, the work I contend, especially remarkable because of its presence in the Koodiyattam text, smacks of performative construction of sexual identities casted into particular hierarchies of order who in the public space must be spatially and ideologically distanced from each other to be constituted as comprehensible subjectivities before the law. The beautiful woman with pleasing manners and refined sexuality shall whet sexual appetites from within the ara of her home, while the Cherumi compared to inanimate or masculine images, all symptomatic of a coarser, rough, not really celebrated, yet desirable sexuality on account of its perceived rawness shall be accosted from behind a bush or the husking room, where her sexual and caste identities are located and can be accessed at will by the upper caste male. To juxtapose to these a tiny reference in Lilatilakam to (Brahman) wives at home, a group of women conspicuous only by their absence in the entire Manipravalam genre apart from some niggardly remark here and there affords us further insight into the construction of graded subjectivities: Verse 113 of Lilatilakam muses thus: “All those faults, which our dumb wives are unable to spot, get reflected in the mirror that the vesya woman is” (Pillai, 1957: 115).
It is important here not to read these as mere instances of stereotyping within discrete categories of textual representation; for as Kumkum Sangari argues “female-ess is constantly made, and redistributed; one has to be able to see the formation of female-ness in each and every form at a given moment or in later interpretations, and see what it is composed of, what its social correlates are, what its ideological potentials are, what its freedoms may be” (qtd in Sunder Rajan, 1993: 129). Diana Taylor’s privileging of scenarios instead of texts, as meaning making paradigms engaged in the ordering of subjectivities and social spaces in various examples of social expression propels my reading here. This shift brings under purview several of the features theorised in literary analysis of texts like narrative and emplotment, but also demands that attention be paid to milieux and embodied practices irreducible to verbal expression. Taken together, references to milieux that the Manipravalam texts afford seem to suggest (at least) two kinds of ‘scenarios’ from which we may cull out two trajectories of performance- the first, (a comparatively older practice, it seems) of praise poems sung following puberty or kettukalyanam initiation rites rewarded in material and/or ritual terms or simply as a festive prelude to contracting sexual relations performed at matrilineal homes, the second, the more flamboyant and humour-laced performed recitations at temples before an exclusive male, all-Brahman audience probably as part of Purusharthakoothu performances (Mannumood, 1995: 85; Nair, 1965: 64-66; Padmakumari,1998: 23-24; Pillai, 1949: 23; Pillai, 1957: 55, 169). A bifurcated charting of scenarios in this manner is full of potentials as one may remap how performances replicate, what codes and structures they spawn, what kinds of selection, internalisation and dissemination they actively accomplish, and most importantly what kind of an audience implicates its meanings.
The first of these scenarios has all marks of the restored or twice behaved behavior that Richard Schechner associates with the ritual process (Schechner, 1985:3-150). While it retains the framework of a propitiatory ritual purported to ensure the well-being of the family (“the songs were sung….soon they started living on account of their daughter”, “For the song sung to praise the daughter of Undakkannan’s beloved from Perungodu, that Narayani, Muringamana and I were rewarded with two-three scoops of white rice nivedyam”), evincing a repetitively patterned behavior (“tying around their heads, small towels used by women to dry their hair, tying over that yet another cloth and a silk piece while they sing…” Nair, 1965: 64-66), there is also a prominent stress on entertainment, talent and musicality with specific mention of the musical ensemble that accompanies singing (“song on Nangeli [which] flows like gushing water”, “Vellappen puts Cheriyathiri’s talent to shame”, Sankaran’s “drumming is all out of tune” as well as considerations of possible patronage (“ammanapattu for the Tampuran” Nair, 1965: 64-66). And it makes repeated use of a ‘script’ as we have seen of stock imagery in attempting head to foot description of the girl’s beauty, apparently expanding it beyond spatiotemporal limits to bring in mythical beings from the Puranas not only to validate the accomplishments of the girl but also the current performance of a particular Manipravalam sung on the girl as well as the desiring mechanism that under-writes the performance of the poet/suitor. Performance here reactivates ‘scripts’ that pre-date any particular enactment and is precisely made into a tradition by repetition. Extrapolating from familiar legends or myths, (apsaraswabhava, urvasikulajata, gandharvapriya) these scripts travel from enactment to enactment, solidifying as a norm imperative for ensuring the efficiency of the rite/performance (Schechner, 1988: 68). When sung after puberty or tali-tying ceremonies, performances of these kinds could situate themselves as a continuum of the initiation rite through which a young individual is instructed, and made fit to be integrated into the specific kinds of behavior deemed natural for that community. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that they also worked as less ceremonial entry posts to sexual relationships with particular women on whom eulogies could be written and performed. Irrespective of this dual nature regarding when they were performed, we have enough evidence that praise poems were meant for performance at the abodes of the women thus praised as a means of contracting sexual/connubial relationships by upper-caste men, at times also as proxy performance for local rulers (Nair, 1965: 64- 66; Pillai, 1957: 55, 169). Lilatilakam itself, with a farrago of quotes from several non-extant praise poems addressed to various women, is a major evidence regarding the wide circulation of such poems in the said historical period. Performance of Manipravalam praise poems, thus, is “not just a doing, but a showing of a doing”, the showing here is both actual (intended to lead to actual mating) as well as symbolic (remunerated/rewarded with oil or meal and/or ritual nivedyams) (Schechner, 1988: 114-115).
The second scenario takes us to the temple premises where according to Unniyadicharitam, before the high-born folk, the poet- performer recites from his own work Unniyadicharitam which ultimately guides the smitten gandarvas who have been searching all around for guidance to locate the abode of the beauteous Unniyadi. Existing acting manuals of Koodiyattam testify to the fact that the Chakyars liberally borrowed from earlier texts to put together a floating corpus that aided in their commentaries; note that Mantrankam, one of the earliest among Koodiyattam acting manuals, has a fair share of quotes from Vaisikatantram, it is from the same manual that we have a surviving source of the incomplete piece, Cherumicharitam. Rich Freeman’s categorisation of the champus as meant for improvisational commentaries provides us with further fodder to reflect on the organisational potentials of Manipravalams’ narrative strategies. The reflexive description of the very same poetic performance that Unniyadicharitam affords is a major pointer here; it clearly sets a milieu for us. The performer-poet’s respectful attitude to the honourable assembly of Brahmans before whom he practically stages himself, for the staging of the very poem Unniyadicharitam, I would contend, has implications that significantly influence performance. It is my position here that praise poems sung as a prelude to sexual relationships with matrilineal women get re-semanticised in the Chakyar’s commentaries on courting rituals before his Brahman audience in the temple premises. The three Achicharitams and the first and the latest among surviving Manipravalams, Vaisikatantram and Chandrotsavam interspersed with satiric/’humourous’ commentaries on courting rituals contain valid testimonies that they are doubly removed performed narrations on other narrations. Even the description of the nature of the performances at matrilineal homes we have just looked at comes to us only as part of a satiric portrayal the purpose of which is to show that the singers (referred to as Padakanmar in Chandrotsavam) are totally uncouth and ‘naturally’ deserving ridicule. The extant text of Vaisikatantram liberally sprinkled with references to Koothu and Koodiyattam, at times used as euphemisms for sex, is a narration of the old mother’s series of pragmatic advices on adult sex life in active enumeration to the young girl. Finally, Chandrotsavam with elaborate satiric sketches of women with their entourage on their way to attend the initiation ceremony of Medinivennilavu at her home is a narration of the same as sung by a gandharva to his lover, wherein a collective of women drawn from various principalities at the penkettu ceremony, where Padakam performers are represented as singing their praises becomes a doubly removed ‘humourous’ representation as a vesyasangamam, a congress of prostitutes.
The satirical portraits of the women from the lower rungs we have looked at need to be collated here with the mock-serious nature of the advices on pragmatic sexual practices aired in Vaisikatantram as well as the ‘humourous’ portrayals of ‘vesyas’ and the charitam of the young girl Medinivennilavu in Chandrotsavam, the various stages of whose life- history can only be depicted in sexual parlance. From aural enjoyment of love songs while in her mother’s womb sung to her by the mother, her subjectivity is presented as maturing through her feisty nature as a child throwing her limbs about already practising for purushayitha and surrogate oral enjoyment when she is being breast fed, intensely horripilating as she listens to Puranic tales of male bravado as a young lass, all leading up to the consummation of sexual desire first with the king and then with her various suitors, even the seasons emerge as mere pretexts to mark the variety of her vibrant lust; it is thus that, the text itself says, Medini became a favourite of poets who sung Manipravalams on her (Pillai, 1962: 57-110). There seems to be a felt need to construct comprehensible ‘knowledges’, regarding the private worlds of the women celebrated in Manipravalams, the mores that may be projected as defining their lives. As against Elamkulam’s argument, literally repeated by several scholars that Vaisikatantram circulated as an instructional manual among devadasis of medieval Keralam, I would posit an alternative position regarding the circulation of its pedagogies. The thrust of the old woman’s advice to the nubile girl is that while for others, the most important purushartha to be observed on earth is dharma, which is acknowledged here as necessarily dissipating with over-indulgence in kama or the greed for artha, for ‘us’, the woman is portrayed as advising the girl that kama which would bring artha is ‘our’ dharma. This inverted purushartha I contend, circulates not among women, as the text would seem to convey, rather this is a pedagogy created and constructed to circulate between the sahridayas, the high-born folk in the temple ambience and the male performers there, to whose enjoyment Lilatilakam reminds, Manipravalams should be composed.
Reading Manipravalams as praise texts alone would suggest that everything revolves around the women depicted in them; that all roads lead to their famed abodes eulogised in particular texts, that the markets, towns and temples are minor landmarks to be surmounted not just by the narrator but by other suitors as well so that she be sighted and courted. Everything seems to surround the famed object of such collective adulation. However, once we shift the scenario to the temple premise as the texts themselves suggest, we may see how the same texts may situate each of these graded subjectivities as well as spaces where they are located as concentric circles precisely surrounding particular temples from where recognizable places and familiar identity types may be conjured up and re-created in performance to validate its law. The two message-poems together carve out a re-mapping of the geo-political unit of modern Keralam, journeying from one end to the other; Unnuneelisandesam charts a journey across several smaller nadus of Southern Keralam, while Kokasandesam starts out from the North of Calicut, passes through Central Keralam towards the Northern regions of Thiruvitaamkoor. The infinite reproducibility of this format makes it possible to evoke similar descriptions of Tirumaruthur and Poyilam, Kollam and Trikkannamathilakam, Tirunelli and Thrissur. The enumeration of stereotypically evoked market places where ‘foreign’ merchants as well as local labourers throng, similarly evoked towns, fields everywhere that produce nectar-like varieties of paddy, all actively perambulate the temple-centre which governs the economy cutting across the control of various and very often mutually feuding rulers of particular principalities. This makes it possible to re-configure the geographical unit Malainadu as an ideologically coded space by the time of Chandrotsavam.
…of all the eight geographical segments
the heartiest is the Southern region of the land named Bharata. As the auspicious unguent mark for all the three worlds shines the land of the Cheras
a playground for goddess Lakshmi and Angajan.
Blessed with all prosperity for the people of Kerala and obeying the orders of the great Parasurama.4 (Pillai, 1962: 32-34)
Chandrotsavam further connects the two kinds of objectification thus: “Keralam, where prostitution now auspiciously reigns…” (99).
Critical opinion has explained the introduction of the vidooshaka in Koodiyattam to be prompted by a felt need for social cleansing and elaborate criticism of the various aspects of degeneration infesting the society and consciously accomplished through art which is now extended to the ‘common man’ (Raja 1958, Krishnachandran 1978). Rich Freeman on the other hand, insightfully traces the evolution of vidooshaka’s role as an expansion of the device of parody; from parody of the main character’s speech in Sanskrit in Koodiyattam to full-fledged commentary and lampooning of audience in independent solo performances (2003: 485). I would insert another historical interstice between the dyadic trajectories and also attempt a variation to the popularly understood aspect of social criticism timelessly ascribed to Chakyar’s vidooshaka performance practices with respect to Manipravalam literature in the medieval period. The transplanting of a ritual-performance facilitating exogamous sexual mating or as a remunerated ceremonial prelude announcing adult sexuality of young girls at matrilineal homes to the temple ambience accessible only to the ‘high-born folk’ that the Manipravalam texts themselves evidence, has ideological implications that deserve critical attention. The complex bind between ritual and theatre that Richard Schechner envisages explains how “any ritual can be lifted from its original setting and performed as theatre”, because “context and function, and fundamental structure or process” distinguish them from each other and the “differences among them arise from the agreement (conscious or unexpressed) between performers and spectators” (1988: 152). Attempting this back-glance and tracing out a possible ‘act’ in the evolution of an art form recently accorded recognition as ‘a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ naturally puts me in a rather strange position. The recognition has certainly brought visibility to a dying art form, providing greater opportunities for its practitioners as well as resurgence of its cultural value. Koodiyattam has secured its rightful place in that hallowed storehouse of cultural memory with which people everywhere compose their native identity. But then, terms like ‘culture’, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are abstract enough to be consistently cited in popular forums as much to project chosen aspects of nation-ness as they are also used as handy endorsements of various kinds of discrimination and to show the marginalised their position in society. ‘Heritage’, intimately related to ‘inheritance’ certainly does not pile up in a vacuum, in spite of the abstraction that legitimates search for ‘intangible heritage’, there are human agents caught in particular contextual pulls of time and space and everyday living inevitably entangled in the process, leaving a few imprints here and there. It is precisely here that Taylor’s writings on the ways in which gender impacts community/nation building become an extremely significant theoretical tool. She reads Benedict Anderson’s exegesis on nationalism, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism alongside Butler’s theory of performativity as well as Derrida’s concepts of ‘citationality’ and ‘haunting’ that characterise the performative, to theorise the desiring machine at work in nation-building as read through public spectacles which she deems as the locus for such imaginings. I quote her at some length:
Public spectacles, I have suggested, are the locus for the construction of communal identity. “Communities are to be distinguished,” as Benedict Anderson noted, “not by their falsity/ genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined”. Public
spectacles provide an arena for such imaginings and function as a site for the mutual construction of that which has traditionally been labeled “inner” (from phantoms to fantasy) and that which has usually been thought of as “outer” (political reality, historical facticity). The terms spectacle, drama, scenario and myth are not antithetical to historical or material “reality.” Rather, they are fundamental to political life….Using terms such as fantasy and desire (and so forth) in the strictly individualistic sense often associated with psychoanalysis hides the contiguousness of the psychosocial….Individual and state formation take place, in part, in the visual sphere through a complicated play of looks: looking, being looked at, identification, recognition, mimicry. This internal network of looks takes place within the overarching structure of the Lacanian gaze, what he calls “the field of the Other” (Four Fundamental Concepts 84), in which we are all objects, all part of the spectacle. But that external gaze cannot be understood as an ahistorical static “given”….The external register in which looking occurs undergoes modification because the ‘screens’ (e.g., of race, class and gender) change. The external image of the desirable is historicised and localised. Individual and national subjectivity, forged through mutual looking, reaffirm, produce, and reproduce each other in the scopic field (1997: 30).
There seems certainly more to the vidooshaka’s ‘looking’ than can be subsumed under the category of ‘social cleansing’ timelessly affixed to his forte. I would contend here that Manipravalam’s celebration of refined vesyas whose life-histories can only be composed in sexual parlance triangulates between upper caste male desire (sexual desire as well as that of constructing a unique nation-ness), its self image and the self-annihilating taboos prescribed in their Smrithis and Dharmasastras. It is in this sense that the performances of Manipravalam texts and their laughter-ridden construction of a re-defined purusharthas as revealed by the texts we have looked at may be understood. It is in this sense again that we may connect Chandrotsavam’s description of ‘Padakanmar’ singing praises at Medini’s home to a brief acknowledgement in Padyaratnam that Manipravalam performances are based on Padakam narrations which are themselves narrations on women (Padmakumari, 1998: 23-24; Pillai, 1949: 23).
The taboos instituted by the Smrithis on exogamous marital relations with Sudra women are intimately bound with the fatality of loosing caste status. Manusmrithi dictates, not without moral paranoia this: “No expiation is prescribed for a man who drinks the saliva from the lips of a Sudra woman, who is tainted by her breath and who begets himself in her” (Olivelle, 2005: 109). And again: “A Brahmana, who takes a Sudra wife to his bed, will sink into hell; if he begets a child by her, he will lose the rank of a Brahmana” (Olivelle, 2005: 109). Nevertheless, the Sanskrit prescriptive texts also cite stray verses providing means for circumventing this taboo. The Mitakshara commentator Vijnaneswara yokes Verse 290 from Yajnavalkyasmrithi as well as the genesis of apsaras, the celestial nymphs, narrated in Skandapurana to constitute ‘vesyas’ as a fifth ‘caste’ having descended from the celestial nymphs themselves (Bannerji, 1999: 201). This is precisely the substance of the logic instituted in Keralolpathi, the Brahman charter myth written somewhere in the 18th century to explain the genesis of Keralam’s geographical territory, its caste practices and cultural specificities, wherein it holds that native women, as descendants of apsaras or rakhsasas, are not meant to observe norms of chastity and are created for the enjoyment of the Brahmans. While the early historians of Keralam have discarded this work as legendary nonsense, in recent years however, this text which had wide circulation among old landholding families and houses of local chieftains has been studied to construct the sense of history it projects (Veluthat 2009). Veluthat considers how the three periods charted out in three divisions of the text, Age of Parasurama, Age of Perumals and Age of Tampurans, reflect the major developments in the history of Kerala, from the hegemonic Brahman perspective; where they found themselves to be centre-stage, as in the first of these periods, the picture of the Brahmans become larger-than-life, while in the latest period when political power tilted heavily into the hands of local rulers, representation also adopts a similar shift bringing in more and more non-Brahman chiefs within its ambit.
As I have been arguing all along, this awareness of being centre- stage, however, is also performatively instituted and cemented through multiple practices. Hence, the charter myth is not just representative of a particular historical consciousness; it is also a pointer towards how a particular self-image as well as those of others, suitably distanced and defined may be constituted through iterative narrative practices that mark subjectivities in their attempts at consolidating stories that validate their purposes on to particular geo-cultural spaces. It is hence that Sukasandesam, the 15th century Sanskrit message poem can institute Keralam as a uniquely specific geographical polity: the brahmakshetra which proves the might of Parasurama’s arms. And again, Chandrotsavam, the 15th century text invokes the land of the Cheras as one that obeys the orders of Parasurama, blessed by Goddess Lakshmi and Kama, at once attached to a larger geographical territory, the eight segments of which the Southern region is described as the most beautiful, as well as differentiated from it as the land where prostitution auspiciously reigns (Pillai, 1962: 99). This should alert us not just to the antique nature of the charter myth legitimating the Brahman hegemony of Keralam during the time the Manipravalams were in circulation but that Manipravalams also functioned as one of the pertinent means by which intricately gendered caste subjects may be mapped on to the unique identity it claimed for the land.
If we may accept that identities emerge under the impact of specific, historical situations and social processes, Manipravalam’s silence on the early historical period of Tamilakam, before the institution of Perumals by Brahmans as a more or less super-ordinating ruler connecting the various principalities of the land and the myth of Parasurama with which it fills up this absence to explain the origin of the land may be understood as a performative act. Its semblance to the strategies of the later charter myth is obvious here. Lilatilakam, Manipravalam’s so called grammar alone is a major pointer here. Lilatilakam while allowing a partaking of the Dravidian identity for Keralam in citing it as one among the triumvirate that ruled over the Southern regions along with Cholas and Pandyas, quickly explains that it is to the Tamil Vaishnava devotional literature, called ‘Tamil Veda’ that the Keralabhasha affords proximity. Thus it is no coincidence that when the writer of Lilatilakam attempts to designate the defining characters of Manipravalam, it must also evoke a sense of nation-ness distinguished from the foreignness it locates in the Tamil of Chola and Pandya regions, which it also finds reflected in the speech of the people from the lower rungs (who, however are defined as subjects of Kerala all the same) and which it prescribes as not to be allowed into the hybrid formation of Manipravalam, ideally accepting only the ‘refined’ speech of the Traivarnikars (Freeman, 1998: 19). What the Manipravalams attempt in this regard is a performed weaning away from the memories of a shared bardic past and social practices of Tamilakam and it experiments this by re-semanticising the land by yoking it to the puranic geography of its Sanskrit culture and swapping it in the place of the bardic past to project a story of genesis that suits its politics. Lilatilakam’s circumlocutory polemics I would contend, is ultimately bound in its necessity on the one hand to create various ‘others’, who are at once distanced from its self-image as in some tenuous way connected to a temporal Tamil past and a spatial Dravidian reality still surviving in their various social practices and on the other to yet claim them as its subjects in the new geo-political identity being gradually projected for the land in the medieval period.
Nation-ness, Taylor explains, is not just about politics and borders, it’s also about our way of imagining community, of creating and performing civil bonds; thus even as people may imagine a horizontal, fraternal community, identification is predicated on the internalisation of comprehensible hierarchies. Considering theatre as one of those stages where both gender and nation-ness are played out, Taylor explicates how the ‘real’ itself is shaped through performances in the public sphere: “A play is not true; actors don’t really die. Nonetheless, it is impossible to separate out theatre from the ‘real’ altogether” (1997: 226). Going back to the temple scenario where Manipravalams were performed, each repetition of the apsara/gandharva geneology used to erect pre-histories of matrilineal women, each citation of anatomically different bodies within the single mould of an impeccable, generous desiring object and their co- opting within the category of the refined ‘vesya’ and an assembly of such women from all corners of the land as a congregation of prostitutes becomes an ideologically loaded part of an array of social performance practices whereby exogamous sexual relations may be legitimated and the prescriptive taboos of the Dharmasastras portending lose of caste status for the Brahman men may be performatively absented. A presencing of fine-tuned femininities that accomplishes another kind of absenting! Manipravalams obfuscate individuation because individuation of the beautiful female bodies it sketches does not figure in, nor aids its conceptual grid. Difference can exist here only with regard to the behaviours narrated of ‘other’ female bodies it locates in the spaces deemed natural for them. The facticity of this body is enmeshed in the kind of nation building it attempts, they are, as it were called into being to suit those specific frameworks long residing in the Sanskrit prescriptive texts, (the courtesans characterised in both the Kamasutra and The Natyasastra or the apsaras of the Puranic legends) nor can they exist without reference to other typified gender norms expected of other bodies it duly affords space in other realms of purity and pollution. Its aesthetic attributes also connote its political potential within the specific socio-political medieval climate where the practice circulated, erecting a markedly different inflection of the chaturvarnic caste system of the peninsula via the creation of a markedly refined indigenous sexual subjectivity consisting in its own pet definition for the matrilineal women thus celebrated, at once differentiated from Brahman women, as also from those of the lower strata whose sexuality it interprets as tied to their labour in the fields/ markets/pounding room.
And yet, it is important not to assume here that bodies open up without resistance to the inscriptions of power. Even a discourse like Manipravalam that excludes everything that doesn’t suit its perspective affords some stray instances existing right within its ambit from where we may chart out possibilities of resistance, a few crannies as Michel de Certeau would characterise them, from where ‘making do’s are possible. Let us hence do not forget the lass, that “achipennu [who] didn’t take good care of me, so I made a song to lampoon her” (Nair, 1965: 64) or those koothathis of Poyilam who were disrespectful to Brahmans (Nair, 1965: 62-63) or a caution aired against the fickleness of matrilineal women in Lilatilakam whose love can never be taken for granted and hence sooner or later there is a chance of being spurned by them (Verse 39), while also declaring that the ultimate accessory that befits women is generosity (Verse 16). Subversions of the dominant order seem to reside right within the law, percolating various performances and plays in the social field, not always in a uniform manner for all communities or individuals, yet possible within the scheme of things themselves. It is hence, Butler cautions that performance is “ritualised production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production, but not, I will insist, determining it fully in advance” (1993: 95).
The ‘birth’ of Manipravalam both as a hybrid language and as a performance practice is redolent with and works in tandem with an array of social practices in a particular historical period. Its evolution is the result of multifaceted interactions between the Brahmans’ Sanskrit cultural ‘cosmopolis’, to borrow the terminology of Sheldon Pollock, and the vernacular cultures of Malainadu in general; its conscious and self- promoting carry over into the literary and performance realm is linked to these interactions in the social realm. And this performance is part of a larger network of practices whereby a unique identity is performatively projected for a geo-cultural specificity and its people gradually organised into particular rungs of social position always with respect to its self- image, who shall work towards strengthening the caste order. Manipravalams themselves refer to the male performers who sing at matrilineal homes, either at puberty rites or as a prelude to sexual relations with them as ‘Padakanmar’ and the performance itself is clarified as eulogies of women which also won laurels for the performers (Padmakumari, 1998: 23-24; Pillai, 1949: 23). The Malayalam Lexicon defines Padakam as “a temple art in the form of declamatory narrations from Puranic tales”, by a performer “attired in simple dress” who would use humour to pep up his narrations, but “is not permitted to criticise or satirise the audience as in Koothu” from which Padakam is presumed to have evolved imitating the Chakyar’s art (Venugopal, 2009: 604). The Lexicon also cites another meaning for the term, which is “to recite and explain poems, particularly Manipravalam poems” and Padakan is one who performs such an art in particular assemblies (Venugopal, 2009: 604). Sabdataravali would further extend this definition and tell us that Padakam means “story-telling; a typically Keralite performance specialty” and cites in brackets “Meant for women. They cannot listen to Koothu” (Pillai, 1972: 1105). Our reading of Manipravalams would tell us that there was a practice of singing eulogies at matrilineal homes by upper caste men, often identified as Padakanmar who sung it as a ritually rewarded performance practice, such performance sometimes facilitated sexual relations with the woman thus eulogised. As a ritual prelude or a festive performance facilitating sexual relations with matrilineal women performed at their homes, the repetition of Manipravalam’s narrative mechanisms, importing stock images of generous and sexually enticing femininity familiar to the upper caste Puranic and literary Sanskrit cosmopolis invokes a mould, at once aesthetically pleasing and utilitarian for the singers/courters. The creation of such a refined sexual subjectivity within the caste order via repetition functioned alongside ritual performances whereby women were initiated into the kind of sexualities deemed natural for their community. Performances of these kind spread out in multiple ways seeping also into people’s assumptions of themselves, my reading of early 20th century ethnographic evidences of puberty ritual celebrations (of Brahmans and Nayars) as well as women’s performances like Thiruvathirakkali suggests that cultic exultations at female fecundity and fertility instancing palpable expressions of their selves could in different ways float along with rites paradoxically meant to channel girls of a particular community to behaviours thought as befitting them. The nominal orbits prescribed in these rituals also bring up still deeper anamnestic and mythic forays to elided pasts left surviving in mellowed echoes, containing alternative trajectories of their selves; they co-exist in ways that lead to specific bodily behaviours and particular corporealities that needn’t always coincide with the needs of the dominant order. The extant texts talk about performances at matrilineal homes as eulogies, it does not seem like a specific activity performed by Ambalavasi sub-castes as Padakam is familiar to us from later records, except the fact that it respected anuloma relationships by classifying the matrilineal women as an indigenous other constituted through the performances themselves as against the self-image of the sacred-thread wearing men who compose and perform the songs. The Nambiar sub- caste of Ambalavasis today are a ‘non-thread-wearing’ community, their position is lower than that of the thread wearing Chakyars. It is telling that Lilatilakam’s polemics, when it intercedes from at least a century since hetero-glossic hybrid varieties of Manipravalams have already been in practice, classify the temple drummers’ narrative practices as Tamil and not proper Manipravalam. Lilatilakam’s exercise from the 14th century, to classify the social and linguistic cultures of its time is ultimately reliant on caste parameters of graded cultures whereby Sanskrit by default becomes the orginary centre. The larger argument here is that social attributes, whether of refinement, piety, social visibility or social purdah, are performatively instituted, not dispersed from a single source and mutely embraced by others, but negotiated and brokered in social play. The social position of various intermediate castes which cropped up between Brahmans on the one hand and matrilineal native cultures on the other, with the spread of temple centered polity, arbitrates between these two poles, adopting an amalgam of both in varied degrees and displayed through myriad ways of self-expression including customs of ritual pollution, kinship practices, modes of dressing and other everyday practices; our reading of Manipravalams would tell us that indicators of such social status are also performatively negotiated through practice.
In the second scenario we have traced out here, functioning from the temple ambience as doubly removed humourous commentaries in Purusharthakoothu performances Manipravalams perform a more severe role. The laughter-ridden commentaries on courting performances that spice up the eulogies extend the ideological potentials of objectification without individuation that mark the praise poems. Herein may be located a major interstice that lifts the vidooshaka’s parody of the main character’s speech in Koodiyattam to full-fledged satirical commentaries of audience; commenting ironically on exogamous courting practices, the Koothu performances (not meant to be heard by women if Sabdataravali is to be believed) locate the matrilineal women within the imaginary of vesyas to legitimate exogamous sexual/connubial relations of upper caste men and relieve them of the moral horror portended through their prescriptive texts. The pedagogies constructed within Manipravalam texts are not proofs of them being instructional manuals secretly circulating among matrilineal women, rather, they are ‘knowledges’ created, bartered between Brahman men and male performers at the temple performance so that they become digestible ‘realities’ that do not upset the caste order. Kathleen Gough’s observation regarding the dual nature of sambandham relations is extremely relevant in my reading: “There seems to me no reason why we should not regard these latter unions [of Brahmans with Nayar women] as concubinage from the point of view of the Brahmans and since they fulfilled the conditions of Nayar marriage, marriage from the view of the Nayar…” (1959: 72). Employing specific imageries familiar to both the performer and the audience, Vaisikatantram makes the old woman pun on aadal (acting) and koodal (coming together), the two components of the term Koodiyattam to imply sexual intercourse (“No koodiyattam with unworthy fellows; the penniless are of no use”, Nayar, 1969: 33). It is hence again that the poet of Kaakasandesam can self- reflexively proclaim “You are a koothasthree and me a chaathira poetaster. Considering your status and mine, a crow is the fitting messenger I have chosen” (Pillai, 1957: 39). Manipravalams as existing acting manuals themselves show, were part of a floating body of literature used by the vidooshaka in his commentaries. The current form of the texts as independent works published in the modern period does not seem to be how they circulated in the medieval period. Freeman rightly points out that they were scripts that aided in commentaries; however, I would qualify this ‘scripting’ further using the model suggested by Schechner as a perpetual reactivation that does not need a single or an original author, importing as they do mythical examples of refined vesyas percolating the Puranic legends as apsaras or courtesans (Schechner, 1988:68).
Entertainment is sumptuously possible here, even as it jibes. The multi-valences of the vidooshaka’s performance are such that he can make use of slurs in sarcasm which at once repeats the prescriptive codes of genders and hence of caste prescribed for non-brahminic women-both the kind meant for a wealthy matrilineal family or a Cherumi in the pounding room- yet it can couch it in ‘humour’ and defer it to the imaginary of the vesya, even as it also jibes on the courting habits of the Brahmans or the loud belligerence of the Nayar soldiers, but all the while also working towards protecting the caste order. Violence involved in framing subjectivities as concerted objects of ‘look’ can also work through laughter. Reflecting on Freud’s ruminations on joke-work, Schechner writes: “Laughter preserves the ambivalence of the conflicts that give rise to displacement activities” and as such “it is both aggressive and aggregating”, it pre-supposes, even creates, a ‘we’ that opposes a ‘them’” (1988: 280). It is possible to read vidooshaka’s use of Manipravalams in Purusharthakoothu “as a specially coded communication”, that “inverts and displaces images, actions and associations”; for “it successfully liberates, laughter’s double purpose of threat and bond”, it also “stunningly erases the gap between audience and performer”, which also makes the joke-work progress (Schechner, 1988: 281). It would be too much of self-blinding, with respect to Manipravalams, to timelessly characterise vidooshaka’s role as that of a social critic, evincing an instance of Brechtian estrangement effecting social criticism, rather, it seems the vidooshaka works precisely by way of making possible its opposite, that is collective humourous entertainment for those communities who are entitled to watch the performance, precisely by talking at length on taboo to make it part of the nominal order. Perhaps it is this social role that afforded his histrionics enough stage room to expand his repertoire to full-fledged lampooning of audience. Because ritual performance is also a mode of communication, its vocabulary and grammar are shaped in the aesthetic and kinesthetic dynamics between the spectator and the performer which are also imbued with social norms of the times. No social action against caste hierarchy feasible by alienation techniques is instigated by the Chakyar’s performance, made for the enjoyment of the male members of the upper crust; his eyes capable of sarcasm rarely ever reached the plight of labouring castes literally tied to the fields. The saying that defines the patrilineal Chakyar’s vocation- ‘othillenkil koothu’ meaning ‘if no holy recital, then it is koothu performance’ then has added significance.
The tautology thus employed in performance is also already imbricated in the specific nation-ness Manipravalams project and inseparable from a whole range of practices in the social space whereby the ‘real’ is produced. The performances themselves create the arena for their performance; the urbanity thus concocted for its participants is precisely dispersed through the Manipravalams that self-proclaim its aesthetic superiority and at once removed from the inferior subjectivity it allocates at once to the Nayar male who speaks a comical version of Prakrit to the Brahman (not Manipravalam, not bhasha), the naattunari, the unsophisticated woman who does not understand Manipravalam as well as the apakrista language it allots to the lower caste women. While the Manipravalams echo the apsara myths to legitimate exogamous relations with matrilineal women projected in Keralolpathi, the Brahman charter myth from a later period, myths of sexual or ritual degradation from the Brahman caste narrated in the charter myth (and the still later colonial bureaucratic records) to explain the specific social position of performing castes at temples are not pronounced in them. All three Achicharitams portray women from performing families, however, they are not yet differentiated in representation from non-performing matrilineal women similarly celebrated in other works, in both cases it is their sexuality as women who take more than one partner that denotes their identity, and capability of singing or understanding the hybrid language of Manipravalam and its literature become together with their sexual skills, components of urbanity to be celebrated in the same literature on them. In other words, while the performing women are hailed as belonging to some famed family of performers or nadikulam, their identity markers, unlike as in the later works, are still closer to other matrilineal women identically celebrated through constructions of genealogies to one or other refined femininities from the Puranic order. It is through mediating performances in the social arena that identity markers understood as always-already existing categories, get instituted as ‘facts’. It is important to recognise here that cultures and subjectivities are the result of multiple interactions in the social field; social spaces and caste subjects are the result of specific mutually formative, performative entanglements, and not trans-historical categories. As an embodied practice Manipravalams plot into the unique nation-ness it imagines for the geo-political specificity of Keralam, comprehensible corporealities who would at once display their identity markers as also the self-image from which it is distanced through inter-related practices in the social field. It is a taxonomic as well as a mnemonic exercise in its effort to institute specific operations of memory and forgetting; it attempts an erasure of those shards and fragments harking back to more antique notions of self still surviving in some vague sense in social practices of the people it thus seeks to re-formulate. There is undeniable violence of framing in this attempt, in its re-modelling of the land, its culture, its people; and yet this exercise too is only partially successful, because other modes of perceiving the self, other connections, to what is erased, survive in strange fashions precisely within the situated order. We may perhaps never know how the women thus objectified regarded themselves, what kind of jokes they would have aired, what songs they sung, what tales circulated among themselves as relics of their selves, Manipravalam’s exclusionary strategies only afford us one or two asides, but as I have already pointed out considering the nature of the texts, they are nooks from where transversal making dos set out (de Certeau, 1984; 29-42). As Freeman convincingly concludes, Lilatilakam’s objective of charting out the destiny of the hybrid tongue, of dominating the literary expression of Keralam was not highly successful. The steadily mounting power of local rulers and Nayar samanthars and the social and economic repercussions stemming from the same must have aided the resurgence of the Pattu genre, Lilatilakam had earlier relegated to an inferior position. In fact, this resurgence was so manifest that certain recessions of Keralolpathi actually mentions the Brahman charter myth to have been written by Tunchathu Ezhuthachan who popularised the Puranic lore among the non-brahman aristocracy of Keralam through his translations of Mahabharata and Ramayana in what came to be called kilipattu metres. However, Manipravalams’ performance working along with other interconnected practices did succeed in legitimating endogamous relations for the Brahmans, Gough’s ethnography shows how dual perceptions could simultaneously persist; gendered layering of caste subjectivities too endured, though they did not altogether remain as static categories as envisioned in Manipravalams, though myths proliferated to explain the fluctuating social positions of various castes, especially those of the middle order, though the contours of matriliny itself changed, presenting multiple pictures in the colonial period itself, yet the gendered gradient of caste persisted. As is often argued in current scholarship, gender as a mode of individuation did not manifest in the modern period. The purity principle of castes that B. Rajeevan locates in the blood certainly need not be separate from the body or its sex, for the complex processes of spatial and ideological othering of caste do not work by any singular method. Our reading of Manipravalams shows us how caste subjectivities themselves were instituted through ideological layering of gender norms naturalised for particular castes. Hegemony, much as it sounds like an oxymoron also functions by means of praise, a selective valorisation of certain aspects and erasure of others. The repetition of a fetishised figure, all the more powerful when meted out thus through adored celebration leads to gradual interiorisation of some of its values, altering perceptions and behaviours of bodies in the social space to some extent. The mediations between the dominating law and the various subjugated others however, do not constitute a one-way process; even the power wielding self must reformulate itself and in spite of practised exogamy, in spite of explaining it away as concubinage or relations with vesyas as the Manipravalams would have it, must paradoxically affect a ‘purer’ version of brahmanhood laboriously enacts on the social space to vindicate its superior position in comparison to Brahmans elsewhere. What I read here, is a more complex working of power that alerts me to how performances collide in the social sphere, always in the move and active. Perhaps binaries endure by way of “newly different differences” (Pred, 1995: 1076).
The women represented in Manipravalams are not an example of some pan-Indian devadasi custom as Elamkulam, Sreedhara Menon and others have coloured them; nor are they Nayar or Nangiar women with trans-historical identities as P. Soman, Suranad Kunjan Pillai, P. K. Balakrishnan and Kavalam Narayana Panikker would have it. They do not represent the obverse of some monolithic ‘urban devadasi’, nor can they be interpreted as signifying the much fetishised late colonial devadasi phenomenon simply because a host of terminologies and images pertaining to sex are used to designate them. They are instead the product of a particular historical period, a social climate from which they have been called into action with specific ideological trimmings, so to speak, and at once shaping its dynamics. It only tells us how deep the roots of stereotypes enshrined in our vocabularies are when the historians who have tried to define Manipravalam women from both sides of the devadasi debate themselves manifest strategies similar to the ones used by age-old poets who represented these women in their poetry and concoct boundaries to make possible their chosen version of an imagined community feasible. The repetitions come handy yet again when they are unable to make sense of the identities of these women without recourse to the binaries of kuladas and kulasthrees (“the women represented in Manipravalams are kuleenas and not kuladas or fallen women” Pillai, 1955: 68) and ultimately can allocate space for the devadasi only within the circular logic of prostitution or degeneration. Soman seems to be right when he says that the women of Manipravalam literature are matrilineal women, but the reasons he cites for spatially and ideologically distancing them from devadasis are only self-referential sign-posts that guide us nowhere on the road to a comprehensible past.
1 Devadasikalum Sahitya Charitravum. It is to be noted that Soman’s is the only book to have come out on devadasis that examines medieval references to them in both temple inscriptions and Manipravalam literature.
2 All translations from Malayalam originals cited in this article have been done by me.
3 Emphasis Mine.
4 Note that the earliest cited evidence regarding the circulation of the Parasurama originary myth to signify the character of Keralam comes from an 11th century Chola record, the Thiruvalangadu Copper Plates which defines the land as being created by Rama who takes pleasure in killing Kshatriyas (Veluthat, 2009: 299).
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PRIYA V. Is Assistant Professor, Jain University, Bangalore. She is pursuing Ph.D at the Institute of English, University of Kerala. Her research interests include gender, culture and performance studies.