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Colonial Performance on Performative Action

Teyyam is a ritual among the lower caste Hindus of the Northern part of Kerala which attracted and incited the interests a number of anthropologists[2]. Various readings and meaning making have been done upon it depending on the dominant frame works that were available in different periods of time. From the Marxist ideology it has been seen as the symbol of class struggle and the Dalit ideology projected it as a lower caste resistance to the upper caste notions. This project is an attempt to problematize the existing readings on Teyyam, ranging from anti- Brahminical struggle to a performative art. The passing thought that follows could be why one wants to problematize the existing reading on Teyyam, or more specifically, why does it need a re-examination. These thoughts could then demand a reflection on the (theoretical) positions and the institutions that brought out (suggested) these readings. If we look at those readings on Teyyam in the light of Said’s Orientalism, we can find that our readings on and the ideology or the institutions that went into the making of those readings are not “free subject of thought or action” (1997: 23). Said in his crucial text Orientalism that has become the path breaking text for postcolonial theory explores both the range of Orientalism and the ways in which it authorized and thereby controlled the orient. Said further argues that Orientalism controlled the nature and shaped knowledge as well as how it was produced and disseminated.
Following the insights of Said, it is easily understood, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, that a critical historian have no choice but to negotiate with the Eurocentric knowledge that has reinforced by the nation state. In his words,
Since these themes will take us back to the universalistic propositions of modern- European practical philosophy- even “practical” science of economics that now seems to “natural” to our constructions of the world systems (theoretically) rooted in the idea of ethics in the eighteenth century. (1997:240)
He further argues that thus a Third world historian is condemned to knowing Europe as the original home of the modern and will always take us back to the universalistic proposition of the modern. Thus there is a need form our part to look beyond the frameworks of modernity to understand a ‘performative action’[3] like Teyyam. Chakrabarty emphasizes the seriousness of the issue of colonial modernity, expresses his worry that the phenomena of orientalism does not disappear simply because some of us have now attained a critical awareness of it. And similarly a certain version of Europe reified and celebrated in the phenomenal world of everyday relationship of power, as the scene of the birth of the modern, continues to dominate the discourse of history. This realization demands a need from our part to revisit and analyses the problems that exist in the given framework to understand any phenomena. Postcoloniality thus represents a genuine need; the need to overcome a crisis of understanding produced by the inabilities of old categories to account for the world. Partha Chatterjee extends this argument stating that our modernity is a western construct. And the same historical process that has taught us the value of modernity has also made us the victims of modernity (20).
Setting this as a background if we go back to Teyyam, we will confront a need from our part to revisit and reinvestigate the given data, as it comes from the perspective of a colonial modernity. Once we cease to think of the project of “secular modernity as the absolute horizon” (1998: 143) we are to abandon the factual description of a phenomenon put forward from a modern colonial perspective and have to reinvestigate those facts again from a new light.
If I pick my problem statement from this point, I would like to suggest that it is from the values of Eurocentric modernity and the tools that came along with, the institutions like Folklore Academy[4] has been looking at “folk arts” like Teyyam. Raghavan Payyanad, the chairman of folklore academy in Kerala, in one of his essays expresses his anxiety and fear that Teyyam may lose its cultural essence with the encroachment of a unified Hinduism and elite values.
Nowadays the Hindu religious belief systems are getting incorporated into the system of Teyyam at many levels. …Gradually the belief system in Teyyam is changing and the tendency is more towards Hinduisation. … The native religion of Kerala is slowly undergoing the process of cultural osmosis with the impact of Hinduism as an organized religion (2001: 12)
He stresses on the need to preserve and protect practices like Teyyam. Payyanad speaks for the state, as folklore academy is an institution that operates for the state. This clearly shows that an institution like folklore academy, which came into being after independence expresses the same anxiety of colonial anthropologists who also lamented over the disintegration and disappearance of certain culturally specific practices.
To push my argument further, I want to examine two articles: one by J R Freeman on Teyyam and the other by Frits Staal on ritual. Since it goes beyond the scope of this proposal here I will summarize them and briefly (though naively) state my points of departure. Freeman in his article “Formalized Possession Among the Tantris and Teyyams of Malabar” demonstrates the fundamental congruity between Brahminical worship and popular rites of spirit possession in northern Kerala by analyzing them under a single cultural paradigm- formalized possession. By formalized possession he refers to the beliefs and practices whereby formally stipulated and ritually prepared bodies, whether of animate or inanimate matter, are routinely transferred into receptacles for the consciousness and person of deities. The agency of body plays vital part in his analysis. Both possession and puja, he argues, are congruous, for both are performed through the agency of body. Staal in his article “The Meaninglessness of Ritual” argues against the widespread assumption about ritual that it consists in symbolic activities, which refer to something else. Staal further argues that ritual is for it’s own sake and therefore meaningless, without function, aim or goal. Rather it constitutes its own aim or goal.
The problem with freeman is his implication that the practice of Teyyam could check the caste system and argues for a universally human experience “of divine possession against the social canons of an exclusionary Brahmanism” (1998: 94). Frits Staal on the other hand breaks down the very notion of the universal transcendence of meaning through symbols. But with such a proposition how can we possibly account for the conditions of meaningfulness.

Works Cited
Ashley, Wayne. 1979. “The Teyyam Kettu of Northern Kerala”. The Drama Review. vol. 23, No.2, Performance Theory: Southern Asia Issue. June 1979, pp 99-112.
Chakrabarthy, Dipesh. 1997. “Post coloniality and the artifice of history: who speaks for the “Indian” pasts?”. Contemporary post colonial Theory ed. Padmini Mongia. New Delhi: oxford university press.
Chatterjee, Partha. 1997. Our Modernity. Rotterdam/Dakar: SEPHIS/CODESRIA.
Freeman,J.R. 1988. “Formalized Possession Among the Tantris and Teyyams of Malabar”. South Asia Research. Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 1988
Niranjana, Tejaswini. 1998. “Feminism and Translation in India: Contexts, Politics, Futures”. Cultural Dynamics. Volume 10, Number 2, July 1998.
Payyanad, Raghavan. 2001. “Teyyam and Our Times”. Indian Folk life. Vol 1. issue 1. July 2001.
Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
Staal, Frits. “The Meaninglessness of Ritual”. Numen, vol.26, fasc .1. june 1979. pp 2-22.
[1] The generic term Teyyam is derived from ‘daivam’ which means god. Teyyattam therefore denotes the ‘dance of god’. In the ritual, the performer represents god. Confined to Kannur and Kasargode districts of the north Kerala it is performed on different days between December and May. There are more than three hundred Teyyam performances characterizing the region. Performances Teyyam takes place during the day and night in front of the village shrines. The performers belong to Vannan, Malayan, Anjuthan Munnattan and pulaya caste.
[2] Teyyam has been defined differently by different scholars. J R Freeman sees teyyam in terms of the efforts from the avarna (those without caste grade) to develop their own modes of worship and institutionalized networks of shrines for serving their own deities. These deities are known as Teyyam. To him Teyyam is a parallel practice and evidence that the exclusionary savarna (caste hindus) practices didn’t impoverish the religious life of the lower caste who were excluded from the savarna practices (1998: 83). Ashley on the other hand sticks to the more or less “classical” definition of Teyyam , and defines it as a colloquial expression which means god, and generally refers to numerous spirits, ancient heroes and ancestors and various puranic deities (1979:100).
[3] For Staal a ritual is primarily an action, which is being governed by certain rules. In that sense Teyyam, a ritual, is primarily an action governed by certain rules. In my project I consider Teyyam as a performative action.
[4] Kerala folklore Academy is an autonomous corporate body constituted by the Government of Kerala on 28 June 1995 under the Cultural Affairs Department, Government of Kerala, Trivandrum It is the main study center at Kannur in Kerala state, South India. The objectives as claimed by the Academy includes promoting the traditional art forms of Kerala, providing training for boys and girls in traditional art forms,recording these arts scientifically and classify them categorically,preparing records of these art forms after conducting fundamental survey etc

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