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In Session: Authority and its Contradictions: Expressive Traditions and Contested Futures in Kerala, South India
3: Folk-colonial Critique: Legendary Pasts and the Present in Kutiyattam Sanskrit Theater
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of Oregon, United States
This paper examines narrative pasts in relation to the present in Kutiyattam Sanskrit theater of Kerala state. It focuses on the legend of the Englishman and the dog, which was collected in the early twentieth century by Kottarathil Sankunni and published in Aithihyamaala (Garland of Legends). Still widely known among Kutiyattam artists today, the legend describes an encounter between a Kutiyattam actor and British colonialist in which the actor clearly comes out on top, and in the process portrays the Englishman in an unfavorable light. Folklorist Sadhana Naithani has urged scholars to take an “axis jump” in perceptions of colonial relations, by seeking out evidence in the colonial folklore archive of folk commentary upon and criticism of colonization.
This paper explores the varied layers of the legend’s past and present meanings for the Kutiyattam community. Heeding Naithani’s call to take an “axis jump,” it considers the legend as potential historical folk critique of British colonialism. At the same time, it focuses on the ways the legend is told and interpreted by Kutiyattam artists today. What can different versions reveal about both the way the past is imagined, and what lessons it may hold for the present? How do artists interpret the legend, and what does this tell us about perceptions of British colonialism and/or artistry today? And finally, how does a past of exclusive caste performance get mapped onto a heterogeneous present, and what may this reveal about possibilities for the future?