Poetry as an Anthropological Record in the Kuravanji

in Article
Published on: 07 December 2018

Aprameya Manthena

Aprameya Manthena has completed an M. Phil from the School of Arts & Aesthetics, JNU, New Delhi.


Tamil poetry: An introduction


The study of ancient Tamil poetry encompasses understandings of sociology, ecology and cultures of particular times and spaces. The Cankam corpus (dated to the early period of the millennium) makes references to lived practices, culture and economy of societies through the poetic mode. As representative of the poet-patron relationship, these poems, collected in the Ettutokai (Eight Anthologies) and Pattupaatu (Ten Songs), lay out the social, politico-economic and cultural terrain of the lands under the Cheras, Cholas and the Pandyas. These poems describe cultural modes of living and working in the various ecozones that depict human relations in love and war. The people described belong to specific ecozones and display certain conventions of behaviour recorded in poetry (Ramanujan 2011).


The kuravars were communities located in the forests and the hills (Kurinji ecozone), dependent on nature and its produce for their sustenance. As recorded in the songs, the kuravars’ community occupations include fortune-telling, basket-weaving, bead-necklace-making and hunting. The kuravars were also known for their comprehensive knowledge of curative herbs and medicines of the hill region.


In one of the versions, the singan or kuravan asks his acquaintance Nuvan for details of his wife’s movements and offers him herbal medicines and cures for sexual stamina and potency, including the ‘jackal horn’ in return for the favour. As an aside, it is interesting that present-day descendants of the kuravar community are called Nari-kuravar (nari meaning jackal). In many sculptural depictions across temple complexes, the kuravar figure is shown to be carrying a sling bag across his body alongside a long stick (silambam) that was meant for hunting. A common perception exists that silambattam (martial art techniques of stick-fighting) emerged from the hill communities of the previous centuries who had a functional use for the stick in agriculture, bird-entrapment and hunting.


In what ways the poets were acquainted with the lives of the hill and forest peoples is not very clear. The Arthashastra (L. N. 1992: 36-37) mentions that ‘jungle tribes, each with its own chieftain, were feared but were also used as fighting forces…as troops they were useful in showing the way, putting down a small enemy incursion or when their special skills made them valuable (9.2.8)…on the whole, tribal chieftains seem to have been independent of the king so long as they did not harass the country and came to the king’s help when called upon to do so.’ There are other terms such as svaganin and lubdhakas referring to hunters and fowlers, who are ‘employed as guards between settlements (2.34.9); for catching robbers in forests (4.5.15); for clearing thieves, wild animals and enemies from pastures (2.29.21) and the king’s hunting forests (1.21.23) and for guarding the military base camp (10.1.11)’ (ibid: 36). The Arthashastra as a treatise on statecraft is a much earlier text and provides details of social status and occupation of many communities in the Indic region. However, here we will study the ways in which the poetry and songs were useful in unearthing the details of the kuravar community.


Poetry as a marker of geography


Geography emerges as an important way of understanding culture by the sixteenth century in the south of India as well as in the western world. In Europe, fields of study like botany, anatomy, natural history and geography began to develop through experiments and studies that were carried out empirically.


As a format, in most kuravanjis, the heroine pines for the deity of the local temple or the king. She sends secret messages through her friends; however, she is unsure of whether her desires will be fulfilled. She meets an itinerant fortune-teller from a marginal community, a kuratti who while describing her own social position through poetry and songs, helps the heroine be united with her lover. The drama unfolds through different landscapes: the settled temple town, the hills and finally comes back to the agrarian community to suggest that harmony has been established between the couples. The poetic modes linked to the moving physical spaces provides a rich template of mood and emotion. The Kuravanji also includes an episode of jealousy between the kuravan (singan) and the kuratti (singi). Both the kuravan and kuratti, belonging to the hills, make frequent mention of the landscape that they belong to.


Seshan mentions that ‘geographical location was far more important than other features, for they (sic) placed the entire story within familiar boundaries.’ (Seshan 2005, 6) The audience would have been familiar with the topography of neighbouring lands and these storytelling techniques perhaps helped cement cultural notions. Beginning from the ninth and tenth centuries, ‘the process of growth and proliferation of temples in the Tamil country and the travels of the saints and singing of their hymns reinforced one another (Spencer 1970: 240).' This process, allowed for the names of pilgrimage centres to recur in cultural memory, sung over many years, thus creating the concept of ‘sacred geography’. This enactive and evocative function of poetry across physical space is a powerful trope also in use in the kuratti’s songs. This mode of remembrance was already familiar to the local populations and was realised through the kuravanji format as well. The poems make mention of the ‘sacred geography’ of the surrounding regions. This includes temples from neighbouring kingdoms and an impressive list of sacred mountains covered in natural riches, also extolling the value of the kuratti’s travels and work.


In the early medieval period, processes of movement and migration of people showed changing imperial geographies, marked by power and patronage. Shrines and other features of the physical landscape became a salient part of marking regional geography. In the time of (Tanjavur Maratha King) Serfoji II, the Devendra Kuravanji becomes the means of teaching geography not through prose (as done in England), but through poetry and song (Ramaswamy 2017). The Bethlehem Kuravanji is seen as a dramatic ‘tour de force’ and ‘based on a new conception of empirical knowledge, drawn from European science, but in a Pietist frame’ using the insights of geography and other natural sciences (Frykenberg 2013, 105–8).


The Devendra Kuravanji has been described as ‘geography of the world in songs’ where the kuratti sings linking empirical evidence of both geography and astronomy, giving utterance to empirical, scientific modes of knowledge derived from contact with the 'enlightened' Europe. It is believed to have been conceived as an educational strategy based on the world maps, globes, orreries and other cartographic material collected by the Maratha king, Serfoji II. While the earlier kuravanjis locate sacred and lived geography, Devendra Kuravanji is an extension of the kuravanji’s premise by describing world geography, thus extending the power of the kuratti as fortune and story-teller to global ‘ethnographic realities’. This also draws attention to the varied textual versions of the kuravanji where in some earlier kuravanjis, the kuratti is representative of the Tamil language and customs, but in the later Maratha texts, the kuratti’s ability to learn multiple languages and travel the expanse of the world goes beyond previous localised representations, due to the nature of new patronage and developments in the field of empirical European knowledge systems.    


Geography, also, then becomes a signpost of thriving cultural traditions. Branfoot suggests that the mandapa spaces in the temples that house the kuravar sculptures could have links to cultural history and possible historical location of these communities. Most of the temple complexes with kuravar sculptures are based in southern Tamil Nadu. It is suggested that these areas were maintained by the palaiyyakarars (polegars) who were local patrons of the kuravanji alongside other genres in the eighteenth century (Branfoot 2002). Since the southern Tamil Nadu is home to varied ecozones, it could be possible that these locations were in close proximity to hill or forest areas.


Geography is also an indicator of wealth and the 'gift economy'. The temple functioned as the means and mode of economic redistribution—material goods were exchanged as honours and became part of the public landscape. The legitimacy of the ruler rested on ‘his role as the donor par excellence, and his sovereignty had a ritual basis that was far stronger than his more mundane methods of control’ (Stein 1980: 45–46). In the Thanjavur Vellai Pillaiyar Kuravanji, Seshan lists the gifts to the kuratti from various kingdoms—manikuntalam from the Pandya-desa (country of the Pandyas), mrigitrusa from the King of Nepal, kanganam from the Konkan, hara-lata from Kerala, and various gifts from the kings of Anga, Mithila, Kosala and Kausambi. A passing reference is then made to the ‘King of Delhi’ (Seshan 2005, 7). This list of gifts showcases not just the wide swathe of regions visited by the kuratti but also seeks to underline the superlative generosity of her present patron. By comparing her king to other kings, the kuratti seeks to assert the superiority of her patron through the gift economy. Annadana (donation of rice) is one of the ways in which the Nayaka kings proclaimed their newly formed legitimate claim to kingship (Nārāyaṇarāvu et al. 1998). Geography here plays a similar role in the way in which the present patron’s gift is a strategy to assert his power and dominance across physical and politically strategic spaces.


In order to understand the relationship between the different regional zones, strategies of comparison are necessary. By the eighteenth century, it is apparent that the kurinji zone and the kuravar are represented through poetic traditions based entirely in the court even though they belonged to a different terrain. The tropes and conceits of the poetry could have ‘Tamilized’ the kuravar in as much as present them as the idealized ‘Other' (Demmer 2001:76). The kuravar myths are included as part of the Tamil cultural landscape and despite being outside the varna system, their culture has been an integral part of the Tamil literary tradition. The negotiation between the court and the peripheries is an important aspect of the cultural geography. The agricultural lowlands of the hero/deity are described in great detail that builds a particular cultural topography in contrast with the hill/forest regions thus ensuring that the contrast presents a body of knowledge about the communities. Geography, thus traverses economics, cultural modes, lived realities and the making of knowledge within the format of the kuravanji.


How does poetry make mention of cultural characteristics and ways of life?


The ‘realistic’ nature of ancient Tamil poetry makes it one of the prime sources of close study for the representative examples of early indigenous communities and their beliefs and cultural systems. ‘The old Tamil literature nowhere gives a description of a specific ethnic group or a particular hill/forest tribe…so that kuravar/kanavar simply denote 'hill-people' or 'jungle people' respectively. These poems thus provide an 'ideal-typical' pattern of denoting and describing certain communities of that time period (Demmer 2001: 70-71).' He clarifies that while the descriptions are not specific to each particular tribe, they describe economic activities in some detail. The material for the description of landscapes and activities could be based on interaction with these communities.


Since the poetic modes derive meaning from the ecozones, the descriptive categories become highly significant. Peterson underscores the importance of the description of the Kurralam hills as part of the Kurralam Kuravanji dance-drama enacted by Rukmini Devi Arundale in mid- twentieth century. The description of the hills covers not just ecological detail but also religious practices, local deities, occupations, cultural characteristics and compares schemes from different ecozones. On the Tirukutam hill near the town of Kurralam, ‘the local tribes dig for roots and tubers, extract honey from honeycombs, and dance, singing the hill’s praise. In the Kuratti’s song, Kurralam’s Tirukutam Hill is more glorious than the sacred Himalayan Mount Kailasa and the mythic Golden Mountain Meru, situated at the center of the universe …The Kuratti ends her song of Tirukutam Hill with an account of the marriage customs of the Kuravar tribe and a reference to its association with the hill-god Murukan, who is married to the Kuravar girl Valli (Peterson 2008, 68).'


In Azhagar Kuravanji (1840), written by the famous poet Kavi Kunjara Barati, the kuratti describes the glories of her tribe, its occupations, her skill in telling fortunes and the delights of her abode in the hills. The descriptions provided by the Kuratti include an invocation to the shrines/gods of the region, an exhaustive list of the gifts that she was presented by previous beneficiaries, the lands that she has travelled to, and the customs, ways of living and delights of her home land. Sometimes, these include hilly/forested regions belonging to extended members of her family.


An extract is shared below:


The place where the tigress gives milk to the calf.

Parrots in the forest repeat the song of young maidens.

Bees hum when they hear the peacocks dancing,

Young girls collect honey from the flowers

To give to the hermits, who are filled with pleasure.

Cuckoos collect dew from the flowers;

As they fly, the dewdrops fall from their beaks.


One could mistake this country for

Lord Siva's abode on Mount Kailasa.


These lines juxtapose sequences of contrasts to create a rich, sensual and complex vision of coexistence in the hills (tigress-calf, parrots-bees as symbols of fertility, hermits-pleasure, cuckoos-flowers etc.). The kurinji, as a landscape also stands for sexual union in Tamil poetic convention and the metaphors used summarise this purpose. The hyperbolic linkage between the smaller kurinji hills to the divine abode, Kailasa is a poetic conceit that allows the kuratti to elevate the status of her homeland in front of the audience.


This passage, describing the hills and customs, is highly imaginative and meant to suggest a world free from conventional caste trappings. It is a self-contained world where kinship relations between the people extend into other hill territories. Murukan, the god of the hills, is an important symbol of Kuravar life in the poetic mode.  As the god of the Kuravars and as the figurehead of mysterious and sacred power, Murukan stands in symbolically for secret love affairs in the hills (a poetic feature of the kuravanji) in his own sacred and sexual union to Valli.


Poetry as aesthetic marker of social and contemporary reality


In a useful method of approaching ancient Tamil poetry as anthropological accounts, Ulrich Demmer (2001) presents a study of hill/forest tribes as depicted in ‘classical’ Tamil poetry. Poetic conventions cannot be a literal marker of lived realities and conditions, but in the way aesthetic dimensions used ‘realism’ as trope, many relationships between form and content may emerge. Therefore, these poems cannot be taken as directly representative of actual lived systems, since these details could have been typified as poetic conventions over time. These conventions may have been formulated and imbibed by the poets ‘wandering through the territories’. This may mean that existing oral forms of cultural representations may have contributed or found their way into the works of these wandering poets.


The understanding of the Kuravar community comes through the figure of the kuratti. While her characterisation has literary-historical precedents (in the virali/ dancer, kuratti of the Cankam age), her songs and interactions with the high-born women provide socio-cultural details. The fortune-telling episode is the pivot within the drama; it shows members of two different social groups interacting with each other. As Peterson suggests, ‘it also demonstrates the genre’s genius for synthesizing aesthetic and thematic elements of classical Tamil poetry with conventions of later origin, perhaps representing contemporary realities.’ This also includes the ‘stereotyping perceptions of the settled populations of the Tamil region regarding tribal peoples whom they call “Kuravar” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (67).' Therefore, the poets work with accepted notions among the general audience about the Kuravars.


The Thanjavur Vellai Pillaiyar Kuravanji, written not later than 1673, which describes the last years of the rule of Vijayaraghava Nayaka, has a recognised ‘historical’ quality.  The hero and heroine are not given names; only the Nayaka and his dalavay (administrator), who are historical figures, are given names. The kuravanji makes reference to lived figures and not stock-type characters. This hints at the changing nature of this literary enterprise under the Nayakas. Unlike most versions of kuravanjis, which begin with the entry of the heroine, sakhis and the deity/prince/ nobleman, the Vellai Pillaiyar Kuravanji begins with the entry of the kuratti. The entrance of the kuratti and the focus on her worldview through songs and dances create a contrast with courtly ethos (since it was performed at court or in the temple) at the very beginning of the dance-drama (Seshan 2005). Between 1700 and 1830, nine kuravanji dramas were written in the Maratha court at Tanjavur, out of which Sarabendra Bupala Kuravanji enlisted the King Sarabhoji as the protagonist.


With respect to cultural practices and belief systems, as mentioned earlier, the kuratti’s songs make clear mention of the hill-forest communities’ way of life. The ancient Tamil corpus of poetry shows that religious or ritualistic activities were carried out in the form of two types of dances. One dance (kuravai) includes kuravar makkal (hill people) dancing in the cirukuti (hill villages). This ritual was performed alongside the local deity, with the women dancers going into a trance or becoming possessed. The other, called veriyatal (‘dance of possession’ or ‘wild dance’), included the shaman or healer (called velan i.e. ‘one who utters oracles in the state of possession’) who carried a spear. This healer could cure sicknesses, including those caused by love.


While the figure of the velan may be found in other contexts, excluding hills and forests, it is believed that these practices originate among the hill and forest tribes (Demmer 2001, 77-78). The velan as ‘reporter and prophet’ (Venkatasubramanian 2010) through the veriyatal had the ‘explicit function of reassuring, settling panic and ‘transforming anxiety into joy’. The ‘sacrificial’ role of music also extended to reconciling people with the social order, in this case, around the figure of Murukan. The figure of the panan or panar, as a travelling minstrel performed functions as various as waking up his patrons, praising their achievements, during cattle-lifting, rousing soldiers during war and healing lovesick husbands/ wives. The role of music was socially based since its function and dissemination spread across all classes.


Therefore, the singing of songs and the marking of an ethos in its cultural productions allows readers to approach poetry, drama, music, art and literature not just as aesthetic forms but also as socio- cultural and historical modes of knowing regions, peoples, cultures and identities. The juxtaposition of the low (marginal) characters and themes with mythological and classical aspects lends the kuravanji genre especially to multiple retellings that also focus attention on the changing nature of state patronage, communities and self-fashioning. The possibilities for the description of contemporary realities were achieved with some success in the kuravanji format, through aesthetic modes and conventions that nevertheless flirted with the boundaries of reality and representation. In this case, reality and representation need not be seen as antithetical or mutually exclusive, but constitutive of each other in the ways that art forms encompass particular lived realities.




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