Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam: Celebration and Resistance in the Folk Art Forms of South Kerala

in Overview
Published on: 05 September 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’.

Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam are forms of ritual dance practised by Dalit communities in Central and South Kerala. Mudiyattam (mudi means hair and attam means dance) is performed by women and is a dance that demonstrates the power of women. Each caste and region has its own variation of this dance form and its own distinct style of performance. Mudiyattam may be specific to Kerala; however, according to C.J. Kuttappan, the renowned folk singer and chairman of the Kerala Folklore Academy, art forms similar to Mudiyattam, known by different names, can be found all over the world. Pakkanar Kali is a dance form of the Paraya caste, performed by men. These days, the songs associated with these art forms are performed by folk music groups all around Kerala, but there are places where they are still performed as a part of rituals in the traditional style.

There are some limitations and problems in the available literature on Dalit art forms like Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam due to the folklorist approach employed by most researchers. This approach is often not used for capturing the social and cultural dimensions of these art forms. An alternative approach which involves analysing the politics of these art forms is also not helpful. A mutual interaction between the artists of the community, writers and researchers from within and outside the community can develop new approaches for understanding these art forms.

The Paraya Community—Socio-Cultural Background
The Paraya caste was considered the bottom-most in the caste hierarchy. The people of this community were ‘untouchables’ and were treated as slaves and sold in the slave markets of Kerala, just as members of other Dalit castes, such as the Pulayas. The Parayas traditionally made baskets and mats with bamboo and rattan; they also worked as agricultural labourers. They are currently enlisted as Scheduled Castes (SCs) in Kerala, however those members of the Paraya community who converted to Christianity continue to be excluded from this list. There are many myths about the origins of the Paraya caste, most of which claim that the community has a Brahmin bloodline.

There are various views on the etymology of the word paraya. In the Malayalam dictionary, Sabdatharavali (1918), it has various definitions, including panjaman (people who fall outside the four varnas or social classes), or ‘those who play the para drum’. There are several other explanations about the origin of the word, but what is more important and interesting is the social history of the community. During what is known as the ‘renaissance period’ of the territory now known as Kerala, old caste names were renounced because of their low caste associations. Various caste groups merged to form, among others, the Nair and Ezhava castes. In 1918, a council of Parayar in Travancore submitted a charter of demands to Sree Moolam Thirunal, the then ruler of Travancore, South Kerala. One of the demands raised was to rename ‘Parayar’ as ‘Sambavar’, as the caste has been denoted in Tamil-speaking regions. In the Sree Moolam Praja Sabha (the elected legislature in Travancore), leaders from the Paraya community, including the famous social reformer Sri Kavarikulam Kandan Kumaran, were successful in demanding that the Paraya caste name be replaced by Sambava. Even so, both ‘Paraya’ and ‘Sambava’ are still in use, although in the caste certificate issued by the government authority, the name ‘Sambava’ is used.

The art and culture of the Paraya community is very rich. The traditional bamboo work of this community is regarded as among the finest of its kind, including mats, baskets and umbrellas made of bamboo and reeds, and hats made with palm leaves. Parayas also make musical instruments with cattle hides and bamboo. The ritual art forms (thullal) of the Parayas include Kolam Thullal, Mudiyattam, Kalakottu, Bhadrakali Thullal and Pakkanar Thullal. The traditional art forms performed for recreation include Parichamuttukali, Kolkali and Parunthattam. Parunthattam, although considered as a recreational art form, has a ritualistic dimension as well.

The community had its own belief systems in the past before an appropriation into the Hindu belief systems took place. Local deities such as Kali, Yakshi, Madan and Marutha were part of their belief systems, and worship took place in what was known as a kavu, or sacred grove, where stone idols were placed. They also had manthravadam (sorcery) practices, which were used to protect the community from attacks by other groups and evil forces. In ancient times, news of the death of a community member was spread using karu and maram drums, referred to as dukkha paani (drums). Used together, karu is a drum played with sticks, and maram, used as a bass drum, is played with fingers.

Pakkanar Kali or Pakkanar Thullal
Pakkanar Kali, or Thullal, is based on the legend of Pakkanar, and the songs sung during the performance are known as Pakkanar Pattukal. During the annual festival of Onam, performers visit houses in the community and sing and dance in front of each house. It is believed that performing Pakkanar Kali in front of a house banishes bad spirits from it. Pakkanar Kali varies locally and between South and Central Kerala—Thrissur has a particularly distinct variation.

Pakkanar—The Legend
According to legend, Pakkanar was a holy man believed to be the progenitor of the Paraya caste, one of 12 children born to a Paraya woman. Pakkanar’s father, Vararuchi, was a Brahmin who was said to have married his Paraya wife because it was written in his fate to do so. Pakkanar was poor but very intelligent, and became a great scholar. Pakkanar Pattu are songs that recount his deeds.

One of the main stories describe Pakkanar curing Maha Vishnu. It is said that Vishnu fell ill a thousand years after the earth was formed, becoming paralysed and unable to open his eyes. The gods in the devalokam (realm of the gods) tried different remedies but were unable to cure Vishnu’s illness. When they learned that Pakkanar had the ability to cure the illness, he was invited to the devalokam. Although at first reluctant, Pakkanar eventually decided to go. He and his partner, Pakkatthi, sang and danced, playing the para drum, and cured Vishnu’s illness. Vishnu was pleased, and as a reward, Pakkanar was given the right to make a living by making and selling bamboo and reed products. Products like winnows and baskets, mainly used as utensils as also to fulfil agricultural needs, are made by splitting and weaving bamboo slats and reed culms. It is said that from then on, Pakkanar and his descendants in the Paraya caste, created a community of bamboo workers, who earned their livelihood by making and selling bamboo products like baskets, mats, etc. Pakkanar and Pakkatthi also made murams (winnows) to support themselves—it is said that Pakkanar would take 10 murams with him to sell but would give nine away for free and sell just one to earn enough money to sustain his family.

The tale of Pakkanar—a Paraya who cured the god Vishnu, and thereby saved his life—disturbs caste hierarchies, and challenges or ‘contaminates’ caste norms. There are many stories that cross the borders of caste practices, including stories claiming that Parayas were once Brahmins, and that Brahmins who were contaminated became Parayas. This may sound like discourse that reaffirms the Brahmanic logic of purity and contamination, but it can also be read as a subversion of the same idea because it challenges the idea that caste is fixed by birth. When Parayas claim that they share blood or family history with Brahmins, the Brahmanical logic of purity is disturbed, so in that sense, the myth of the 12 children born to the Paraya woman complicates the hierarchy of caste relations.

In the tale of Pakkanar curing Maha Vishnu narrated earlier, when Kothkeri, Neelakeri and Vandathan came to Earth to invite Pakkanar, he was meditating under kanaka kallu (golden stone) in chenthamara paalkadal (the ocean of milk). When he was informed of Vishnu’s illness, he stopped meditating, and he and Pakkatthi went to play para and thudi drums made from cowhide, which produced a beautiful sound and cured Vishnu, thus restoring law and order in the devalokam. Parayas do the work of removing the carcasses of cows and working with animal skins, so they are considered to be of low status and ‘impure’ members of the community. In this story, however, Pakkanar and Pakkatthi cure Vishnu by playing drums made of cowhide. The sound of the para, and the songs and magical powers of Pakkanar, are what cure the disease, proving that the all-powerful god, Vishnu, required an untouchable Paraya to cure him. This subversion of power can be considered an anti-caste discourse embedded in a song.

Vishnu gave Pakkanar a boon—the right to worship five moorthis (idols) and thrimoorthis (Brahma, Maha Vishnu and Maheswar or Shiva), the right to perform sorcery and the right to make bamboo or woven reed products like vatti (a rough basket), muram and kotta (a woven square basket).

There is another story of Pakkanar meeting Azhvanchery Thamprakkal, which explicitly disturbs the caste discourse. Azhvanchery Thamprakkal is the title of the senior-most male member of the Namboothiri Brahmin family of Oriparambil Mana. In the narrative, Thamprakkal was returning after the coronation ceremony of Kulasekhara Perumal, carrying a golden figurine of a calf that he had received as a gift. Pakkanar stopped him on the road and argued that it was his community’s right to take dead cows, at which point, Thamprakkal sprinkled water on the golden figurine and brought it to life. At this, Pakkanar declared that he was indeed a Thamprakkal, and the story goes that, after this incident, the title stayed with the family. This story may be interpreted to mean that Thamprakkal defeated Pakkanar, but if we examine it closely, we can see that the tricky intervention of Pakkanar forces Thamprakkal to claim the golden cow, and this questions the caste job ascribed to the Parayas.

Pakkanar Pattukal tell the story of Pakkanar and of Paraya caste history. As mentioned earlier, the stories of Pakkanar try to establish a common ancestry between the Parayas and the Brahmins. One story about how a certain group of Brahmins became Parayas talks of a cow named Painkurali, who died and was cremated. During the cremation, a part of the cow’s body exploded and flew onto the family members. Apparently, those who wiped the fluid from their bodies with leaves remained Brahmins, while those who licked the fluid off became Parayas.

The Pakkanar temple is situated on the banks of the Perar River in Trithala, where there is a huge kanjira tree in memory of Pakkanar.

The Performance
The dancer performing Pakkanar wears a skirt of split tender coconut palm leaves, and a triangular crown made of bamboo matting or areca nut leaf (kavungin pala) called kolam. Kolams worn by dancers have ferocious faces painted on them. Before putting on the kolam, a glass of water is set out for the ancestors and prayers offered. There are three types of kolams—Pakkanar (who appears with Pakkatthi), Devanar (holding a lighted pantham, or torch) and Ganapathi. The instruments played for the Pakkanar Kali are the para (a small two-sided traditional drum played with two sticks, played by a parayan), thudi (an ancient drum played on one side, used for most Dalit and Adivasi rituals; playing a thudi in the beginning of an event is considered auspicious), thappu (an open-ended drum played with two sticks), and shankhu (conch shell used as a wind instrument). Here, it is important to note what has been mentioned earlier—the word ‘Paraya’ is believed to have come into being from the word ‘para’. ‘Parayan’ hence means ‘one who plays the para drum’. The Pakkanars move to the special rhythms of the instruments and the singing of the Pakkanar Pattu.

Mudiyattam is a dance performed by women during which the dancers untie and swing their hair to the rhythm of the music; both men and women sing the songs. This dance form is quite different from Pakkanar Kali, and it is performed (with regional and caste variations) by many communities, including members of the Pulaya, Paraya, Vettuva, Mala and Nayadi castes. Different versions of the dance are performed by Dalits and Adivasis, and the dance is known by several different names—Thalyattam, Mudiyattam, Malavazhiyattam and Neeliyattam.

The Song and the Dance
Mudiyatta Pattu encompasses different themes ranging from mythology to love stories and tales of resistance. The song structure of Mudiyatta Pattu is identical to most folk song traditions, mainly consisting of couplets. Most of the songs have vaitharis—verbal sounds that do not have meaning but are sung in the same tune as the song. Vaitharis establish the melody and rhythm of the song, and sustain it—they provide a chance for anyone to join in the singing, even without knowing the lyrics. In Mudiyatta Pattu, there are vaitharis such as athintho theenthintho thana theentha thinitho. Couplets are sung after repeating the vaitharis at regular intervals. The lead singer sings a couplet, which the others repeat. The song starts slowly, gathering speed as it progresses; by the end, the rhythm is fast and vibrant.

Interaction with Nature
One of the famous Mudiyattam songs often sung in folk music programmes is Adaado Adaado Penne Aadu Kuzhali (Oh girl, you dance!), the lyrics of which are sung in an interrogative form. In it, a girl from the east is being asked how she learned to dance. She replies that she learned it while visiting the malamkuram desham (forest lands of the eastern mountains), and that she saw the trees and animals dancing—from this, she learned how to dance. She sings:

           I saw the peacock and peahen dancing,
           I saw the male and female snake dancing,
           I saw the male and female coconut palms dancing,
           I saw male and female areca nut palms dancing,
           It is by seeing these dances that I learned to dance.

The discourses of Mudiyattam situate the dance as part of nature and life, not just as an abstract art form. They are not human-centric—all the living beings are actors, who have rights and are part of the celebration. This genre of dance may also be a response to landlessness and oppression the community faced (and continues to face). In these songs, life is being celebrated as is the natural world, which belongs to everyone. The girl from the east finds every living being there to be free and dancing and enjoying life, as compared to life on the plains, where landlordism and caste oppression exist.

Mudiyattam—the Body as a Site of Struggle 
Song, dance and rituals have always been a form of resistance for the subaltern castes and classes. Caste, and the slavery associated with it, controlled the body—lower caste men and women were sold in slave markets and the practice of untouchability restricted the subaltern body in various ways. Untouchables were not allowed to enter public places or temples. Each caste group had different rules to obey, and there were rules for each caste as to how much distance they were required to maintain with people belonging to other castes in order to avoid contaminating them. In the Mudiyattam dance, the bodies of the lower caste women dancers shed all this control and discipline, creating a world of its own. Women untie their hair and let it swing wildly and freely as the song’s tempo increases. Even though Mudiyattam is performed in the community’s rule-bound space, for the duration of the dance, the body is free. Community feeling and faith interact in such performances and cultural identity is affirmed. The body becomes a site of resistance, community identity, desire, freedom, enjoyment and faith.  

Contemporary Approaches to Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam
Mudiyattam or Pakkanar Kali, or any other art forms of the subaltern castes are primarily approached as folklore, but many of their dimensions cannot be fully understood with this approach. The life and struggles of the communities involved cannot be studied or classified using tools derived from outside the culture. There is a further complicating factor in that many modern trends have influenced these art forms, to the point where it is difficult to differentiate between the traditional and the modern. Community life has almost disappeared as many members of the community have moved away, for work or other reasons. The heyday of these art forms was when community members lived in close proximity, but festivals like Onam and art forms like Pakkanar Kali still offer an opportunity for the community to come together. Contemporary shifts in political and social awareness has led young people from these communities to organise Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam in different places as a means to bring together subaltern communities. Cultural assertion by the Dalits has brought in another trend—contrary to the earlier practice, these performances are no longer confined to a single community; different Dalit castes come together for the performance. While traditionally, only the Paraya community performed Pakkanar Kali, in contemporary folk music stage performances, the Pulayas, Kuravas and other Dalit castes also perform. Mudiyattam also is now being performed by a few different communities together at these events.

One of the most important trends is the shift away from the idea that performances should only take place in traditional spaces. Now, Mudiyattam or Pakkanar Kali is performed in a variety of places that bear little resemblance to traditional spaces like the kavu. Pakkanar Kali is performed on stage, which is very different from the days when Pakkanar and Pakkatthi would visit peoples’ homes. Some music groups present this as a form of theatre where they try to recreate traditional practices. Now, performers dressed in traditional costumes perform, while the singers accompany, as compared to earlier times, when the ritual art was paramount. The ritual art is now used to support the music, and is seen as a visualisation of the lyrical content of the songs.

There are still places where Pakkanar Kali and Mudiyattam are performed in a traditional way. Whether practised according to tradition or in the contemporary style, these two art forms are still a living tradition. Members of the older generation are happy to be able to pass this art form down to the younger people of the community. In turn, the younger generation is inspired by these performances, and is able to re-imagine their socio-political identity. The collective memory of the community is expressed both by the traditional ritualistic performance and the contemporary stage performances.


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Pillai, Sreekanteswaram Padmanabha. Sabdatharavali. Kottayam: DC Books, 1918.