In Conversation with C.J. Kuttappan: On Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam

In Conversation with C.J. Kuttappan: On Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam

in Interview
Published on: 30 August 2019

Ajith Kumar A.S.

A writer, music director and documentary filmmaker, Ajith Kumar A.S. lives in Thiruvananthapuram. He writes on music, art, cinema and Dalit culture. He has also directed a documentary on caste in music titled ‘3D Stereo Caste’.

C.J. Kuttappan, renowned folk singer and former Chairman of Kerala Folklore Academy, explores the history, myths and perspectives associated with Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam, folk traditions from Kerala.

C.J. Kuttappan touches upon the various mythological, legendary, philosophical perspectives on Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam. He describes the ritualistic aspects of the art forms, and elaborates on how they capture the consciousness of the community and people associated with both practices. C.J. Kuttappan is a renowned folk singer and the former Chairman of Kerala Folklore Academy.

C.J. Kuttappan (CJK): When we talk about Pakkanar, the clan of Pakkanar and the songs and tales of Pakkanarit is a vast repertoire of music, literature and stories combined. I am not sure whether this should be treated as myth or in a historical fashion. On the one hand, it appears to me as a narrative of mythical imagination that stands beyond historical realities. On the other hand, it is a reality that descendants of Pakkanar, people of his clan, live amidst us. Pakkanar is a character in the famous tale ‘Parachipetta Panthirukulam’ (The Twelve Clans Born of Parachi), (where Parachi/Parayi was a female member of the untouchable caste-community called Paraya). Pakkanar was the Paraya son of the Parachi, who had 12 sons starting with Agnihotri (the Brahmin offspring). Even today in Kerala, we can identify several songs and games that describe the stories of these 12 clans represented by each of her sons. The songs and tales of Pakkanar are immensely popular across the region. Songs even mention the place of birth of Pakkanar. Hence the story cannot be conclusively considered as imaginary or mythological.


       ‘The birth land of Pakkanar is the hills of Paluvathi’ (x 2)

So, the oral songs that carry the references to his birthplace are available to us even today.

As far as we are concerned, the notions of the Upper World (melulokam), the Middle World (idailokam) and the Underworld (keezhlokam) are prevalent in many traditional tribal societies and other communities. There is a belief that the Upper World is the abode of devas or gods and the Middle World is populated by humans.

When we talk about Pakkanar, his magical powers, his lofty worldview or his cultural perspective, there are many special aspects to these that we need to understand properly and then hand over to coming generations.

There are many stories that describe the relationship between devas and Pakkanar in the songs of Pakkanar. It is to be understood that the songs I mention here as the songs of Pakkanar are part of our oral song tradition, not the written one. Hence, these songs might have suffered some leakages in the oral handover between generations. The porous nature of the oral tradition transferred from one generation to another might have led to certain fissures in the songs and their narratives. There might have also been some additions to them. We need to approach and understand them, keeping these issues in mind.

Let me describe a couple of such stories. The clan of Pakkanar is Paraya. The Paraya community considers Pakkanar as their lord and the forefather of the whole clan. There is a mythical story in one of the songs that depicts an encounter between Pakkanar and Mahavishnu. In that story, Mahavishnu gets possessed by a demonic spirit and Pakkanar gets chosen to be the one to rescue Vishnu from the spirit.

A few lines from the song-story:

       ‘Once upon a time
       Pakkanar and Vishnu had spent
       Some friendly time together . . .’

These lines denote the contemporariness of the two figures.

       ‘. . . Pakkanar and Vishnu had spent
       Some friendly time together
       Pakkanar and Vishnu had spent
       Some friendly time together
       One day Pakkanar
       Went to see Vishnu
       One day Pakkanar
       Went to see Vishnu . . .’

This moment is not when Vishnu is ill, but from before that. Then Mahavishnu says,

       ‘Vishnu does not know
       A name such as Pakkanar
       Vishnu does not know
       A name such as Pakkanar . . .’

Thus, Vishnu says, ‘I do not know anyone named Pakkanar’. That is, despite being contemporaries who lived alongside for some time, Vishnu uttered this negative response about Pakkanar. At this point, Pakkanar becomes angry and curses Mahavishnu, which becomes the cause for his affliction.

When Mahavishnu becomes ill, an astrological method called devaprashnam is employed to find its cause and remedies, and Pakkanar is revealed as the only one capable of saving Vishnu from this disease. The messengers of devas come to earth to meet Pakkanar. They inform him of Vishnu’s condition, and request him to come over and treat Vishnu, as he is the only one capable of doing so. Though Pakkanar refuses to go initially, he later goes with his wife (Pakkathi) to the Upper World to treat Mahavishnu. First, he tries to cover his para (a drum-like percussion instrument)[1] with the leaf of maaranchembu (a type of Colocasia), and sings using the para. When this does not cure Vishnu’s possessed state, Pakkanar skins the thigh-skin of the black calf born of a painkilari cow (a mythical creature). He covers his para with the skin, and sings using the para and finally cures Mahavishnu of the possession. It is also said in the song that Mahavishnu blesses Pakkanar in the aftermath of this. All these tales have been handed over to us orally through songs by our predecessors.

There are several instances depicted in the Pakkanar songs that talk about his worldview and his humanity. There is a story about a conversation between Parameswara and Parvathi wherein Parvathi raises some complaints. When we assess all the superhuman characters in the songs, from Agnihotri to Pakkanar, the latter stands out from the others in certain unique ways. As I already said, there are many stories that depict the material and spiritual universe of Pakkanar in detail. For instance, his take on private property—something which is constantly discussed in modern societies, both personally and ideologically. It also finds mention in belief systems and religions. Pakkanar had a very clear take on private property. He was insistent that life should not be founded on private property.

Once Parvathi tells Parameswara, ‘See, your best disciple on earth is Pakkanar. There is no one else who worships you better. Despite this, he is so poor. He and his family do not have enough to eat a full meal a day. They do not have a decent house. No food and drinks. Why can’t you help them out of their poverty?’ In response, Parameswara says, ‘Dear Parvathi, it is not because I am disinterested in helping him out. I know well that even if I were to try, he will not accept my help.' Parvathi responds, ‘I don’t believe you, that is your cunningness speaking. Try giving and then let’s see what happens.' Finally, succumbing to Parvathi’s pleas, Parameswara attempts to bless Pakkanar with riches, but fails at it miserably. In the story, Parameswara grows pearls around Pakkanar’s small hut one day. When Pakkanar’s daughter comes out in the morning, she finds the courtyard filled with coral reefs. Excited, she rushes in and tells her parents, ‘Our miserable days of poverty are over. We have been blessed with good fourtune. Our courtayrd is filled with coral reefs.’ Like her daughter, Pakkathi (Pakkanar’s wife) too becomes happy upon seeing the coral reefs. But Pakkanar tells, ‘Grab your stuff, and get the children. We have to leave this place immediately. This is an aalukolli (something which possess the potential to cause grave damage).’ This story is included in the Malayalam textbooks, and students have to explain what ‘aalukolli’ is. Pakkathi and children accuse Pakkanar of being mentally ill. To this Pakkanar responds, ‘If you want to live with me, come with me right now. I cannot stand here a moment longer. I am leaving. This is an aalukolli.’ Being a good wife, Pakkathi obeys him and follows him, though half willingly. Pakkanar and family hide behind a bush and observe the place, as Pakkanar wished to convince them of the impending danger. Four travellers come by, and they collect all the treasure in their bags and leave for the forest. Pakkanar and family follow the travellers to the forest. As they reached the middle of the forest, they witness the travellers fighting and killing each other over each of their share of the treasure. Showing this, Pakkanar explains to his family the decadent jurisprudence underlying the idea of greed and private property. There are several moments in Pakkanar Pattu which reveal such visions and philosophy of Pakkanar.

There are mentions in Pakkanar Pattu that the earth is spherical. Pakkanar Pattu says the earth was formed when winds blew from all four directions and met at a mid-point where they then merged with air. Hence, the earth is spherical, mentions Pakkanar Pattu. It took several generations till the fact that the earth is spherical was scientifically proven. Like I said in the beginning, Pakkanar Pattu is rich with endless philosophical, social, humanistic, environmentally-informed and ethical messages. There have been hardly any studies that have researched the historicity and mythological status of these stories and songs.

We know Pakkanar as the character in the legend of ‘Parachipetta Panthirukulam,’ as I already mentioned. Today Eerattingal family is considered to be the family of Pakkanar. The present head of the Eerattingal family is a person named Sreekandan. There is an interesting story he once mentioned. One day the earth started to shake a little bit. The traditional experts and priests started a Bhumipuja (worship of the earth). A mantra that was supposed to be chanted silently was accidentally chanted aloud by one of the priests. The others threw him out immediately and to be treated as an outcaste. The descendants of the priest who chanted aloud became the Parayas. Thus, the person who uttered the knowledge out, for everyone, became the outcaste Paraya, and the people who kept it a secret became the noble castes, according to Sreekandan. Pakkanar endeavoured to mark his life and effort against social evils and inequalities, and his superhuman aura noted it in words, songs and acts for future generations.

For instance, take the art form of Mudiyattam. I am not sure if it can be called an art form; it may be called a performance form. Different people perceive it from different perspectives. Some consider it as only entertainment. Some consider it a ritual. There are others who consider it a performance associated with socio-agricultural life. I find the third perspective most significant and meaningful.

Right now, we see Mudiyattam artists subsumed in various processions as part of Onam, other festivals, tourist celebrations, etc. They tread along with the procession, in such scorching heat, on tarred streets, with paints on their faces and body, sweating, and hair left untied and scattered. The new generation has been falsely led to believe that this is Mudiyattam.

The artists might be doing it for money, the remuneration, which might help them survive their miserable conditions. But beyond that, Mudiyattam has its meaning and form tied to an organic, natural location, which our consciousness as viewers cannot fathom by watching the street performers. If you ask me why this happens, I would say, Mudiyattam has been degraded to just some art form for entertainment, devoid of its mythology—ritualistic mythology.

There is a positive aspect to this. Most of the art forms and ritual forms emerged out of societies divided into classes, races, castes, etc. and belong to particular communities. For example, Pulluvan Paattu belongs to the Pulluva community and Panan Paattu to the Panan community. There are also songs of Pulayas and Parayas. But Mudiyattam is not specifically performed or propagated by any one community or social group. Different communities in Kerala perform the ritual of Mudiyattam. There are various groups in northern, southern and central Kerala who use this ritual for worship.

Not just in Kerala or even India, several countries that have an agricultural base, have similar rituals even today. Hence, we need to see it as a ritual related to agricultural practices. There are some truths revealed through the signs left by traditional life of the agricultural civilisation before us. Then, we were solely dependent on nature. When the seasons were not favourable, and rains were scarce, our mothers and sisters attempted to invite the monsoons and rain clouds back, by bathing, following strict rituals, and swaying their hair wearing their wet clothes, while sitting in the fields. This emerged as a noble ritual organically bound to nature. Hence, we need to reiterate how life and art are not separable. My tongue can only utter of the unity of life and art. So, Mudiyattam is the marker of a time that is not merely human-centred or profit-oriented, but one that is creative, organic and lively, making life and art a single entity.

We can understand the truth and order of the art form of Mudiyattam when we go through the songs sung in the performance, its lyrics and the song-literature as such. The woman who is about to sway her hair in front of an audience readies herself by paying respect to all directions—north, south, east and west—the earth, the sky and all the creatures in the universe. When the viewer who stands at an objective distance asks her, ‘From where did you learn all these, girl?’, she responds by explaining how she learnt it all from neither university nor school, but the environment around her. She says, ‘I have no printed certificate to prove my learning. I learnt my music and steps from life itself. I learnt to dance from the movements of the peacock and the peahen. I learnt the swinging movement of my head and hair from the female and male areca palm. I learnt kathirattam from the swaying male and female paddy leaves.’ Thus, goes the song of Mudiyattam. The song could have instead said ‘the swinging movements were learnt from the palm trees, the coconut dance was learnt from the coconut palm, or the movement of the paddy was learnt from paddy. Why does the song describe all the natural elements through malefemale couples? That denotes the two life-elements. That denotes the manifestation of male and female energy. Life emanates from the mingling of these two elements. Hence, the art form itself has a life-centric, organic nature. Therefore, when the dancer says she developed her performance from the union of male and female elements that birth life, it is evident that the performance is rooted in the organic environment and symbolise the meaning and sense of organic justice.


[1] The traditional occupation of the Paraya community was skinning and tanning skin of various animals and processing them for diverse purposes including the making of an array of musical instruments such as different varieties of drums.