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In Session: Authority and its Contradictions: Expressive Traditions and Contested Futures in Kerala, South India
4: Ritual Changes in Process: Embodying Authority as Possession is Questioned in Ancestor Worship Rituals of Kerala
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of Toronto, United States
Changes that are introduced in possession rituals during performance will have to be accepted or challenged on the spot as they have the potential to be repeated in the future. What happens when those who have the authority to judge and interpret these situations are the ancestors by whom the performers are possessed? I am addressing these issues following an ethnographic research that I did in northern Kerala on the revival of ancestor worship in the Mavilan and Malavettuvan tribal communities. In these communities, possession rituals usually take place during Teyyam festivals where gods and goddesses are performed by low-caste men who are specialists in these performances. The situation with the deified ancestors is somewhat different as they may also possess family members, men or women, outside rituals, but then usually without any controlled speech. However, I witnessed a woman who, exceptionally, began to experience possession while speaking as her ancestor in a controlled way, in the ritual context of Teyyam. As the authenticity of her possession was contested, she had to engage in debates about the rules of possession directly in the ritual space. Is it possible that the speech of the possessed, when referring to a figure of authority, has a part to play in the adaptation of rituals to new social contexts?