Abstract : Academic discussions that have largely created space for a discourse of the subaltern have primarily focussed on questions and problems relating to a socio-cultural and political history of oppression. It has tried to locate the voice of the oppressed and the invisible in diverse theoretical formulations giving an orientation to subaltern studies within the framework of postcolonial studies. The subaltern has figured in public spaces like the educational system and the academic imaginary, then appropriately finding a specific niche in the discourse of the social sciences and humanities. This paper argues that the subaltern has staked a visible position in the education system that the State facilitates with this larger validation of the discourse in the institutionalised public space of decolonisation. This institutionalised space is the reworking of the old Macaulean Minutes of colonial enterprise to suit a postcolonial revival of a colonial agenda of creating a bigger market for hegemonic subaltern production.
Keywords: subaltern, public space, history of oppression, old macaulean minutes, colonial agenda, postcolonial studies, gender crossing, attukal pongala, gender system, koovagam transgenders, gender reversals, decolonisation
Academic discussions that have largely created space for a discourse of the subaltern have primarily focussed on questions and problems relating to a socio-cultural and political history of oppression. It has tried to locate the voice of the oppressed and the invisible in diverse theoretical formulations giving an orientation to subaltern studies within the framework of postcolonial studies. To cite just one instance, in the Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism published in 2005 there is a whole section devoted to ‘Reading the Subaltern.’ Contemporary histories of subaltern studies have consistently located it in the realm of postcolonial studies. This is how the subaltern has figured
in public spaces like the educational system and the academic imaginary, then appropriately finding a specific niche in the discourse of the social sciences and humanities.
Predictably, it is in this public space that we get to hear the voice of the subaltern in English Studies in India and elsewhere, which was once the domain of true blue Anglo-Saxon literary taste and sensibility. I wish to argue here that the subaltern has staked a visible position in the education system that the State facilitates with this larger validation of the discourse in the institutionalised public space of decolonisation. This institutionalised space is the reworking of the old Macaulean Minutes of colonial enterprise to suit a postcolonial revival of a colonial agenda of creating a bigger market for hegemonic subaltern production.
The argument that there is a postcolonial revival of a colonial agenda requires a brief explanation. The postcolonial classroom is the critical space that claims to have outgrown the masks of imperial conquest. The classroom asks with Gayathri Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, then quakes at the very rhetoric that splices together literatures in the hegemony of English Studies. It is hard to miss the shift from English Literature to English Studies, implicated as we are in it as we set out to explore the invisible and their articulation. This rhetorical shift creates visible spaces that are marked as spaces for the subaltern. The invisible made visible in this voicing of the suppressed and silenced is a triumph that locates the invisible as the object of postcolonial discourse. For the triumph to stay, the subaltern must always be there, waiting, talked about, wondered at, and spoken for as object of discourse.
Priyamvada Gopal in her ‘Reading Subaltern History’ notes the transformation of Subaltern Studies from an area studies programme into its ‘official incorporation…into the fast-growing corpus of writings that came under the rubric of postcolonial theory’ (146). This was with the 1988 publication of Selected Subaltern Studies edited by Ranajit Guha and Gayathri Chakravarthy Spivak with a foreword by Edward Said, published and ‘more crucially, distributed by Oxford University Press, New York, rather than its Indian branch’ (146 emphasis in original). Using the same yardstick used to comment on Macaulay’s Minutes, one might argue that the invisible has to become visibly invisible in the co-
opting of the subaltern in postcolonial academic space. The benevolence of postcolonial hegemony channels this legitimacy of articulation.
Can the subaltern speak? Priyamvada Gopal locates Spivak’s ‘leap of logic’(149) that asserted that the ‘subaltern cannot speak’ in her critique of the idea of a homogeneous subject. The essay goes on to detail, without saying so, the deeply entrenched Western intellectual tradition that underpins the intellectual debate in Spivak’s ‘dense and lexically convoluted essay’ (148) validated by the recognition accorded by the values of academic rigour and scholarship. In other words, what has happened to the subject position of the subaltern? Here postcolonial discourse facilitates the creation of academic space resulting in a decolonised history of oppression tailor-made to speak in an already moulded speech system inscribed after the process of a rhetorical writing back.
The question that Spivak asks has an ambivalent spin as it turns on the modal auxiliary ‘can’ that silences the subject in its ambivalence. Fernando Coronil rightly observes, ‘I believe that reducing the analysis of subalternity to charting muted subject positions continues a history of silencing’ (54). After Spivak’s location of this possibility of the speech of the public intellectual in the academic public space of the essay and the scholarship that has grown as subaltern studies, a taxonomical identification of subaltern cultures, characters, or situations represented in literary texts will only be superfluous and would play into the hands of postcolonial hegemonic practices. Notwithstanding the postcolonial space in which academic studies in India locates me, I wish to try and see if it could be possible to work around this strangulation by giving a twist to the formulation that brought subaltern studies into public space.
What happens when the subaltern speaks? Alternatively, what emerges when the subaltern speaks? These questions underscore the importance of working apart from the us/them binary to recognise that ‘Subalternity defines not the being of a subject, but a subjected state of being’ (Coronil 44). Where and how is the ‘subjected state of being’ located and what happens in that process to the space the subject occupies? The gridlines drawn in theorising the subaltern have to reckon with the spatiality of inhabiting.
Without giving a straight answer to the questions that I have raised, I propose to look in some detail at two very diverse cultural texts in public spaces where it is possible to locate narratives that challenge familiar modes of subaltern representation in academic discourse. In fact, the narrative representations obtained here radically undermine the hegemony of boundaries that define spaces for human interaction. Obviously, there is a far more complex relationship between the human subject and the place locating it. This calls for a recognition of how place becomes space and the way the body is implicated in this transformation into space. In other words, the relationship between the narrative of space and human bodies contextualising it requires critical recognition.
I have chosen a Malayalam film and a local festival in Thiruvananthapuram to try and recognise this relationship between the narrative of space and human bodies. Such a conceptual defamiliarisation of the available frame of the subaltern into living narrative moments, discussing two very different spatial experiences like a film and a festival, could reveal not just the voice of a social group. What seems to emerge is that in public spaces it is not class, race, or caste that speaks; the spaces speak as a body and when that happens it is open as an interpretive moment into which one reads, names and others social and ideological imaginaries.
How does space speak as a body in the Malayalam film Vietnam Colony (1993) directed by Siddiq Lal? The film opens with a shot of the rising sun with a background score. Three minutes, one second into the film there is a crane shot of a village (Kalpathy village) in Palakkad district in Kerala. The road (car street) is empty save for two women bent double drawing rangoli in front of their houses. One man walks away from the camera and as we follow him, we see another woman drawing rangoli. The film now exposes the architectural design of the village with two neat rows of houses. Priya Sudarshan’s description of a typical village/ agrahara is useful in this context: ‘The form of these agraharams could be understood as a derivative of a grid pattern, with the temple forming the main focus. The row of houses (tube houses) is either single or 2 storied with the traditional pitched roof striking a significant profile against the sky – the imageability context. The car street (therveedhi) facilitates the chariot festival (ratholsavam, ratha=chariot,
utsavam=festival) with the main streets being wide enough for the religious activity’ (<http://18.104.22.168:81/isvs/isvs-4-1/paper- dump/full-papers/23.pdf>).
The street stands out in the crane shot for the way it spatialises community life in the village together with the porch of the house, the semi-public space, that is always open to the street. The agrahara traditionally housed Brahmins who migrated from parts of Tamil Nadu. They are a minority in Kerala; after the land reforms of the 1956 Communist ministry, many Brahmin families lost their land holdings. Post reform economic invisibility factored into the film hint at the dependency that replaced the joint family. In the film, the hero is dependent on his uncle with his mother and sister. It is much later that there is a reference to a court case about land holdings in Tanjore the hero’s mother has won. Alongside this story of invisibility, the hero’s mother is located in the frame that discovers her washing vessels in a house where she comes to teach music. The mother is located in confined spaces, invisible; her response when the son informs her that he must leave to take up the new job in the city maintains this grammar of confinement drawing attention to the dharma of a Brahmin.
The identity of this people is in a way linked to the space where they settled long back. And so, when a taxi comes to a halt in front of a house and a man leans out and calls ‘Swami’ across the street, identity speaks and we hear it in this naming act in the film. ‘Swami’ is the signature term that defines the uncle who is playing a game of chess all by himself sitting on the porch and later the hero as well. In other words, the man who has come by car addresses the man who is sitting on the porch with this recognizable name by virtue of the semiotic inferences set up like the rangoli in the public space. It is important to note that this visitor sticks his head out searching for the house of the hero; he is at a loss unable to read the code that informs the spatial configuration of the Brahmin community.
In marked contrast to the shot of the village, the film provides a direct shot of the entrance into Vietnam Colony from inside the colony. We follow the camera as it takes us through a very quick tour of some of the interiors of the colony. From here, we look through the camera eye at
the gate that opens into the colony. Then as the local dada enters through the gate, we survey the entire colony through his eyes. The colony is in Cochin, the commercial capital of Kerala but the scenes in the film seem to present the city in its invisibility. It is in the immediate fight sequence that we get to see the colony with its ageing structures that house people. Though the film shot the village scene outdoor and the colony is a set made inside a warehouse in Alleppey, for the purpose of my argument the simulated space in the warehouse imagines a living space and communicates the stratification that informs the shaping of the visibility of this space. This space embodies an architectural chaos brought in with the operation of a system of extortion tied to a real-estate deal that could contribute to the urbanisation project that describes Cochin.
Though conceptually a colony is an urban incarnation of a village, these two spaces are very different from each other in the film; it is important to recognise these spaces as sites of human drama. Place is transformed into space with the presence of human material. But what is the transformation if this involves a dead person? To return to the film, an allegedly mentally imbalanced old Muslim woman who owns the colony dies and her body found next to the municipality tap. In this spatial climax, all distinctions of class and caste vanish and ‘Swami’ takes the initiative to give the dead woman a decent burial.
This point in the film moves away from tokenism as we witness the secularisation of public space when ‘Swami’ carries the coffin of the dead woman with her son and others. The colony becomes a space rewriting the old grammatical code of the village extended through the hero’s mother in the beginning of the film. Characteristically, the mother from the village who just arrives on the scene where the dead woman is carried cannot digest this spatial transformation of the code she had imparted to her son. The film projects a national imaginary beyond class, caste and race with the voice over of the muezzin’s call for prayers into a shot that takes in the whole colony mourning the dead woman.
The human investment that makes this dynamism of space is radical for the recognition of the kinesis that bodies stories. I locate another such kinesis in a different spatial configuration and examine the narrative of the woman and spatial transformation in the annual
Attukal Pongala festival in Thiruvananthapuram, which I wish to explore for its antiquity as well as contemporary makeover. The Attukal Pongala festival, of late has become a major event in Thiruvananthapuram celebrated every year in February/March. A discussion of the festival necessitates a narration of the history of the temple that has an interesting layer of a literary text woven into it. Added to that is its modern incarnation with even more complex modes of hyper-real spatiality that has configured the festival in the public consciousness.
The popular belief is that Kannagi immortalised in Ilangovadikal’s ancient Tamil poem Silappadikaram is the presiding deity in the Attukal temple. The story has it that after burning the city of Madurai she halted in Attukal on her way to Kodungallor. Built after a vision an old man of the Mulluveettil family had, this sacred grove (kaavu) is about two and a half kilometers from the presiding temple of Thiruvananthapuram. With the passage of time, social factors and economics of religion transformed the sacred grove into a temple. What used to be a thatched structure at least in the first few decades of the twentieth century is now a concrete structure with copper sheets making the roof and planned buildings surrounding it. In this brief sketch about the legend and history of what became a temple, we can read the transformation of not just shrubs and herbs that defined the space of what once perhaps belonged to a family, but a clearing and a secularisation of public space like that of the Sabarimala temple which is also a sacred grove.
Sabarimala does not receive women into the temple. This has led to discussions on gender inequality, debates on male dominance, and the positioning of women as the other, invisible. I want to draw attention to the fact that the temple at Attukal is globally visible today as a pilgrim centre that attracts women from all over. It is an interesting fact to note here that this is the first temple in the State to have a slogan that is registered. The temple registered the slogan ‘Sthrikalude Sabarimala’ (The Sabarimala of women) just before this year’s festival. The slogan announces the birth of a narrative that reorients the evolved historical space of the temple. This is an instance of not an inversion of a male paradigm, but rather creating space in the Sabarimala imaginary taking recourse to provisions in the Acts relating to governance. I do not wish to examine this further for it requires a fuller study. Here is a narrative that
imagines in the visibility that the slogan gives a market for faith. The temple registered the picture of the goddess as well with the slogan, which itself is an interesting case of the sanction accorded to faith in the public space. The market that god has is unmistakable. God in the marketplace of belief systems goes truly global.
Not surprisingly, global positioning that witness the coming together of women sharing space opens up the rituals attendant on the presiding deity. A very interesting ritual performed includes doctoral work in the West, which institutionalises the temple in the highly specialised space of the academy. The Kannagi story and the festival now sufficiently ethnic for the West reinvent the orient. The academic extension of the secular public space of temple rituals increases the global reach of the goddess. An online search on Attukal revealed that Dianne Elkins Jenett did her dissertation in September 1999 on ‘Red Rice for Bhagavati/Cooking for Kannaki: An Ethnographic/Organic Inquiry of the Pongala Ritual at Attukal Temple, Kerala, South India’ (<http:// www.ciis.edu/academics/wseviewbook/grahn.html>). The same site says that Judith Rae Grahn’s research again in September 1999 was on ‘Are Goddesses Metaformic Constructs? An Application of Metaformic Theory to Menarche Celebrations and Goddess Rituals of Kerala, South India’ (<http://www.ciis.edu/academics/wseviewbook/hunter.html>). This academic spatialisation perhaps is only a continuation of the way in which Ilango’s lines caught on, narrated Kannagi into God, in two different places in Kerala.
There are other interesting narratives of Ilango’s hero forced to come out in the public space even as the humiliation of the false accusation of stealing the queen’s anklet serves as the frame narrative. The modern narrative situates her in virtual space with an IP address with links offering information on history, services, festivals, names of administrators of the temple trust, and online offerings as in the websites of some other temples in Kerala and elsewhere. We type in
<www.attukal.org> and enter the portals of the virtual temple. On the homepage, the registered image of the goddess gives darshan. This is virtual sanctification of the deity in hyperspace that does not recognise ideological, class, race considerations in that moment of sharing narrative presence in hyper-real public space.
The way in which the temple and the deity have reinvented the space they occupy necessitates an understanding of the way in which stories travel across spaces. The precincts of the temple, which is public space, generate the story that imagines Kannagi as goddess in the songs retelling Ilango’s poem creating bodily hypertexts. This hypertext, with its rituals of preparing Pongala, opens up interior narratives that describe the creation of a virtual space for the deity without computer and satellite accessories. Women come together with offerings cutting across and breaking all imagined borders that structure social discourse. Last year approximately fifteen lakh women were in the city to offer Pongala and found a place in the Guinness book of World Records; some reports say that this year the number ranged between twenty to twenty five lakhs. The narration and sharing the story of the goddess in the nine-day long festival emphasise the power stories have to create levels of visibility and invisibility. Even more important is the way in which the female body itself becomes the site to link, upload and transmit the story of the deity transforming every byte of place they inhabit into intangible spatial experience of cooking stories in earthen pots over a fire in every conceivable and inconceivable place in the city.
The body as hypertext announces its presence in the heart of the city as well as street corners, lanes and by-lanes that on other occasions are ‘tainted’. Imagine a situation where women come together from far off places and set up a makeshift fire for cooking rice in the open in every possible place they discover. The makeshift fire in the open; road bridges, footpath, places where men regularly urinate (like the front of the Thiruvananthapuram Central Railway Station), the haven of sex workers under the bridge near the railway station, the premises of hospitals, government offices, secretariat complex, the list is endless.
Now that the women have all come together, we note that the temple is out of bounds to men on the day of the Pongala. Even two days before the Pongala, women would have reserved places where they would have the fire for cooking their offering/story for the deity. Voluntary organisations and members from other communities prepare and offer free food to these women. In places near the temple, there are Muslim households that throw open the doors of their houses to those who prepare the offerings out in the open.
The usual places of everyday commerce, the sidewalk, bridges, hospitals, even railway stations transform into something else that is outside the experience of both English and Malayalam language. Unlike this year, last year, people offered Pongala on the railway platform. This radical story is not of open kitchens. Women just cook rice and jaggery, mandappam, and therali on an open fire in a linearity that emerges from the Attukal temple. The priest first lights the fire for cooking in the temple and from there passed across to all the waiting women. With the opening up of more areas that women discover, the Resident’s Associations and other temples establish networks that transmit fire for every pot. Holy water sprinkled from the Attukal temple sanctifies the offering made to the deity. This year about 250 pottis or priests made it in auto rickshaws from the Attukal temple to different parts of the city with pails filled with holy water to sprinkle on all the offerings prepared in the public spaces. This sanctification done in clockwork precision offers a spatial version of a personal imaginary that underpin the narrative that every woman tells as the rice boils over.
In the making of this personal imaginary may be glimpsed an instant of storytelling that transforms existing spatial constructions and the body of space ever so briefly. The fascinating point is the creation of body as space in the hypertext of offering cooked rice in a signifying narrative moment. We see the body and the space it occupies and this is an important recognition. We listen to the body that speaks and hear the radical voice of stories.
Coronil, Fernando. ‘Listening to the Subaltern: Postcolonial Studies and the Poetics of Neocolonial States.’ Postcolonial Theory and Criticism. Ed. Laura Chrisman and Benita Parry, Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2000: 37 – 56.
Desai, Gaurav and Supriya Nair. Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism. Oxford: Berg, 2005: 399 – 468.
Gopal, Priyamvada. ‘Reading Subaltern Studies.’ The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies. Ed. Neil Lazarus. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004: 139 – 161.
Grahn, Judith Rae. ‘Are Goddesses Metaformic Constructs? An Application of Metaformic Theory to Menarche Celebrations and Goddess Rituals of Kerala, South India.’ <http://www.ciis.edu/academics/wseviewbook / hunter.html>.
Ilangovadikal. 1966. Chilappathikaram. Trans. R. Narayana Panicker.
Kozhikode: Mathrubhumi Books, 2007.
Jenett, Dianne Elkins. ‘Red Rice for Bhagavati/Cooking for Kannaki: An Ethnographic/Organic Inquiry of the Pongala Ritual at Attukal Temple, Kerala, South India.’ <http://www.ciis.edu/academics/wseviewbook / grahn.html>.
Sudarshan, Priya. ‘Vernacular Architecture – Changing Paradigms: A Case Study of Agraharams in Palakkad.’ <http://22.214.171.124:81/isvs/isvs- 4-1/paper-dump/full-papers/23.pdf>.
Vietnam Colony. Dir. Siddiq Lal. Swargachithra. 1993.
This article is a part of the ongoing UGC Major Research Project sanctioned vide order F. No. 5-46(3)/2008 (HRP) dt. 7 January 2009.
B. HARIHARAN. is Lecturer, Institute of English, University of Kerala.