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Updated: June 5, 2014 18:07 IST

When the Gods speak

Meena T. Pillai
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The cover of Naattu Daivangal Samsaarichuthudangumbol.
Special Arrangement The cover of Naattu Daivangal Samsaarichuthudangumbol.

Theyyam is that spectacular ritual art form of Malabar where Gods transplant themselves on human soil and then seep deep down into the cultural and religious unconscious of a land and its people.

Naattudaivangal Samsaarichu Thudangumbol from Mathrubhumi Books by Theyyam artiste Rajesh Komath is a compelling book that delves deep into the life, faith and tribulations of a people who enact the Theyyam and are transformed for a brief span of time into Gods.

As official histories continue to be fabricated for the glory of the powerful and the dominant social elite, here is a book that tells a history from below, a history curiously resonant with conventional beliefs, subversive energies and vibrant colours that have become so integral to Malayali’s religious past and cultural present.

An auto ethnographic account par excellence, it is a good example of how a first person narrative scholarship can lay claim to a voice and signature by a highly subjective act of authoring the self, and others who belong to that ethnic community. By carefully constructing the life of a Theyyam artiste through the documentation of his own life and the lives of others in the community, Komath offers very interesting insights into the notion of creative commitment that is so integral to such acts of authoring.

Though rarely used in Malayalam, which abounds in autobiographies, auto ethnography is a kind of alternative form of writing where the author draws upon his/her own lived experiences, in the process connecting the self to the social, the cultural and the political.

As Theyyam too is slowly incorporated into a thriving culture industry, as native gods are plucked violently to be paraded in cities, the book details the agonies and angst that each Theyyam artiste feels deep down in his own self – a guilt linked to betraying his ancestral gods which is tantamount to betraying one’s own self.

Komath’s narration is picturesque, lucid and eloquent, echoing a rare honesty and transparency that is enamouring in its simplicity. It very often transcends the narration of the self to critically engage with cultural, social and religious analyses and commentary.

However the beauty and poignancy of the book come out most in the personal narrations bordering on the memoir. Komath’s vivid and poetic descriptions of his childhood, his fine detailing of the totems and taboos, rituals and witchcraft lend an aura of a myth to the narrative. This is interspersed with a personal history that offers factual data, ancestral professions and family tree charts, weaving the social and the political into mythical landscapes.

The switchover into first person narratives of others including his mother gives a rich multi-vocality to the book that makes it richly nuanced and strategically narrated from multiple subject positions that cut across time and space.

This method also offers a brilliant way of connecting the past with the present and the future, making meaning out of not only one’s own life but deriving a deeper appreciation and understanding of the diversity and complexity of generational interaction.

The sections on the journey of Theyyam from the time of William Logan to William Dalrymple, its Eurocentric readings, its caste stratifications, the ideological moorings of its ritualistic base are all fine pieces of social commentary that offers an insider’s critique with rare candour.

The book evocatively captures the change of seasons in a Theyyam artiste’s life. As the sun ripens and the wind changes directions and monsoon clouds darken the sky these men and women who enact Gods engage in different kinds of rituals, some for subsistence, some for faith. In its pithy fragments this book seems to plumb the depths of a community’s little known cultural and social life.

It has only one pardonable fault which is probably its fascinating forte too, a canvas so vast that it sometimes dwarfs the writing subject. In a book on Gods it is the speech of mortals, of little men and women and their perennial struggles with transient immortality that mesmerises the readers.

It is in the pendular swing between mortality and immortality, in the grey margins between metaphor and mythology that Komath places his ethnographic subject. It has the charm of unconsciousness, the thrill of the divine and the pangs of the all too human, combined in fine scholarship and studied transparency.

Naattudaivangal Samsaarichu Thudangumbol, Rajesh Komath, Mathrubhumi Books, Rs. 160

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