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In Session: Authority and its Contradictions: Expressive Traditions and Contested Futures in Kerala, South India
1: The Power and Perils of Satire in the Tullal Genre of Kerala
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
McGill University, Canada
Satire has often been seen as a tool for suspending hierarchies, leveling social differences, and challenging power structures. The question arises whether satire is effective in producing any real socio-political change. In what ways does satire reinforce and strengthen the existing order? How does it justify the status quo?
This presentation examines the authority and limitations of Tuḷḷal, a satirical performance tradition from Kerala. The tradition is attributed to the poet Kuñcan Nambyār (1700-1770) who first developed the art form under the patronage of local chieftains and subsequently, the kings of the early modern state of Travancore. His poetry, written in the vernacular Malayalam language, weaves Hindu religious narratives with social critique of the follies and vices of the upper castes. I highlight the ways in which these hypocrisies are simultaneously excused and justified.
Moreover, the commentary on caste present in Nambyār’s poetry is often omitted in today’s performances. I explore why much of the social satire from the original poetry is lost when artists abridge their performances in order to suit the tastes of modern audiences. While the performer has the authority to mock and lampoon anyone in the audience, I argue that its purpose is for entertainment rather than didactic value. In studying both the poetic and performance traditions, I explore the ways in which these satirical narratives are transmitted in new and changing contexts.