The Kuravars as Hill-Forest People in Historical-Aesthetic Imagination

in Overview
Published on: 05 July 2018

Aprameya Manthena

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


Introduction and history


The Vijayanagara empire ruled the majority of the South Indian region (including parts of modern-day Karnataka, Andhra, Telangana and Tamil Nadu) from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. Some scholars have interpreted their rule as cosmopolitan—assimilating various cultural influences from the neighbouring Deccan regions—while others have located the Vijayanagara empire as a Hindu bastion against Islamic invasions in the South, post thirteenth century. The Vijayanagara kingdom was constituted by four dynasties: Saluva, Tuluva, Sangama and Aravidu. Travellers from Europe testified to the glory of the Vijayanagara empire before its eventual downfall.


From the late sixteenth century onward, the migration of Telugu-speaking warrior castes (termed the Nayakas) into the Tamil region, after the collapse of the Vijayanagara superstate, created new formations in social groupings. The Nayakas were military overlords and administrators given territories under the Vijayanagara dominion as part of a ‘segmentary state’ (Stein 1971). Scholars (Nārāyaṇarāvu et al. 1998) trace the migration of the ‘Shudra’ kings (peasant and warrior groupings) and locate the changes in society, polity and culture through the rise of new consciousness. Many groups like the Tamil non-peasant Maravars and Kallars rose to prominence in this time period, alongside the Telugu Vadugar (northerner) social groups. They settled in various parts of Tamil Nadu as ‘little chieftains’ and also kings of regions in Tirunelveli and Ramnad. The Nayakas, through sustained power and administration, gained control over territories such as Madurai, Tanjavur, Gingee and Trichy, while contributing to art and literary production. Some assumed the name of 'Nayakas' though their antecedents were different.


Literary, sculptural and dramatic production reached its peak under the Nayakas with advancements in sculpting techniques, art, the tendency toward production in multiple languages, the setting up of Devadasi settlements and construction of auditoria and instruments (Venkatasubramanian 2010). The rise of the lower social groups, competing for power on the basis of dravya (liquid money) and not land, changed the economic and social landscape of the South. The re-envisioning of myths and the interactions between these various social groups are captured in the courtly literature of this time period.


Literary and cultural production in the seventeenth century took place in Telugu, Tamil, and sometimes Sanskrit. However, by the eighteenth century, under the rule of the Marathas, texts were written in Marathi as well and Tanjavur became the cultural centre until the mid-nineteenth century when the British took over the administration. The multilingual nature of the new administration created numerous opportunities for the depiction of subcultures.


Who are the Kuravars?


Ulrich Demmer (2001), who approached early Tamil poetry as a sociological record, mentions that the generic name of ‘Kuravar’ for hill/forest tribe stands for communities that ‘practised shifting cultivation for subsistence’, ‘food-gathering’ of tubers, honey and jackfruit, hunting, including the chasing of animals—like the wild black boar considered as a menace to farmed lands— hares, pheasants, deer, porcupine and smaller reptiles among other shrub animals. The act of hunting included the use of animals like jackals and hunting dogs.


The kuratti or singi (female belonging to Kuravar community) and the kuravan or singan (male belonging to the Kuravar community) belong to the Kurinji (hill zone). The community’s activities involve fortune telling, bird and animal hunting and curing ailments through herbs found in their region. Borrowing from the songs sung in various kuravanjis, the Kuravar tribe ‘worship Lord Murugan and eat wheat flour; around their necks they wear a tiger's claw talisman; there is never any divorce in their tribe, for they marry only within their clan; the people are content and prosperous (Ranganathan 1970).' In the kuravanji, the figure of the kuratti, before beginning the ritual of fortune telling, asks the heroine for 'a little gruel, some betel leaf and areca nut to chew on, and a bit of the stuff from China (opium) that comes on the ship.' Other kurattis ask their clients for a little gruel for the babies that they are carrying in slings, or a little oil for their hair. Compared to the fortune teller women’s exaggerated claims about their wealthy patrons, 'these requests are modest indeed, and bespeak a marginal, poverty-stricken existence  (Peterson 2008:66).' Therefore, while the poetic conventions might lead the reader to believe that the kuravars were self-sufficient, Peterson draws attention to the discrepancy between actual payment and grand claims and by extension, lived social realities and rhetorical gestures.


Unlike what is generally believed, the hill and forest communities were not completely outside the realm of state. They were at the peripheries of rule but were not excluded from the social relations of their time. 'Many poets, first among them Kapilar, emphasize that the hill tribes lived in areas ruled over by minor kings like Pari, Kari, Pannan…these kings were certainly not, as some scholars (e.g. Iyengar 1929:71) have assumed, tribal chiefs of the Kuravar/Kananvar (Demmer 2001:74).'


Due to the lack of ‘credible’ historical sources (underlining the bias for only particular kinds of historical evidence which does not include oral testimonies), there is difficulty in understanding hill and forest tribes in relation to the State during the later medieval period. The history of indigenous people and their cultures is fractured and difficult to record since there has been movement, migration and some degree of assimilation of cultural practices from plural social identities (C.R. 2003). No clear facts or figures exist for populations and languages of the Kuravars since this was a term loosely associated with many hill/forest people and communities. However, the Kuravars are believed to have links with the Roma and were part of the exodus downward to India in the distant past (Amutha and Christopher 2016).


Popular assumptions about the kuravars include relative freedom in intimate relationships, decadence and mobility. This act of viewing the Kuravars as ‘different’ or ‘exotic’ is located in cultural positionality; the State and dominant views shape the cultural understanding of the Kuravars in history and poetry. Therefore, ascertaining the actual social position of the kuravars through aesthetic modes is an onerous task.


Kuravanji as literature and performance


The literary tradition of kuravanjis flourished between the late seventeenth and the early nineteenth centuries in response to the changing nature of social relations, polities and cultural forms. There were more than hundred kuravanjis written in this time period. The kuravanjis are an ‘opera-like genre’ that are similar to musical dramas with characters resorting to poetry, song, dance and drama to further the action of the plot. While early kuravanjis were written in Telugu and Tamil, the later kuravanjis were also written in Marathi and Sanskrit. A few even had some sections written in English! Peterson (2008) argues that this could have meant to show the kuratti as a well-travelled and complex character, capable of imbibing multiple cultures.


The term kuravanji could have been derived from the Tamil words kuram (fortune telling) and vanji (woman). The dance drama could have evolved from two earlier forms, the kuluva nadakam and kuram. ‘The kuram is a song, represented by four extant texts, in which a gypsy woman predicts the fate of a girl, usually a wealthy lady or a courtesan (Ranganathan 1970).'


These musical dramas were written for the devadasis, as professional dancers and courtesans, to be performed in temple and courtly spaces. Therefore, familiar terrains such as the temple, the boudoir and the court were essential to the script (Peterson 2008, 62). The kuravanji was being adapted to lived realities within pre-existing conventions and to new patrons in multilingual environments. The use of dialects and multiple languages was a marker of the cosmopolitan nature of new social interactions in these time periods.


Peterson states that this literary form was classified into pirapantam (sustained composition) or cirrilakiyam (minor genre) which reflected the rich cultural and literary sensibilities of this time period. The new Tamil pirapantam amalgamated the existing format of the praise of deities and kings with the inclusion of colloquialisms and multiple languages to create a new template that matched the diversity of population living and meeting each other. While the primary location of such writing was the ‘settled landscapes’ and ‘sacred spaces’, new characters from marginal groupings were beginning to appear as protagonists. Therefore, the folk tradition intermeshed with the divine to create an eclectic world of thieves, workers and nomadic people alongside high characters like kings, deities and wealthy women. The three most prominent pirapantam genres include kuravanji which shows the lives of the nomadic kuravar couple, pallu (field labourer’s songs) that refers to agricultural practices of the Pallars and nontinatakam (cripple’s plays) which involves a horse-thief’s travels.


Composition of the kuravanji


Each kuravanji is divided into three segments that link characters from various social milieux through plot and dramatic action. In the first segment, the heroine falls in love with the prince or a passing deity with his retinue in a consecrated town (with a temple at the centre and axial roads made for festival processions). In the second segment, the kuratti, a tribeswoman from the hills, is introduced, who offers to help the lovelorn woman seek her object of desire. She praises the beauty of the heroine, the temple and the deity, paying her respect to the existing powers. She then includes vignettes from the hills and the kuravars’ way of life, extolling their virtues. She describes the lands that she has travelled to, the divinatory powers of her community and her ability to help the heroine achieve her love. She is rewarded with jewels by the heroine for her work. The third segment begins with a description of the kuratti’s husband singan, who is employed as a bird catcher in the rice fields of the temple. Both members of the Kuravar community are linked economically to the plains, but their mode of life is not affected by the constraints of this society.


The Kuravar community provides comic relief in the drama. As outsiders to caste society, their cultural behaviour and traits contrast with the temple and the town-inhabitants and moves the plot forward. Demmer (2001) suggests that it is only after the tenth century that the cultivators from the plains moved into the kurinji ecozones. Therefore, the migration of people between the different eco- zones allowed for different cultures to interact. Through this movement, members of the Kuravar community became integrated into the ‘broader Tamil cultural framework’ and in some cases, in ‘left-hand and right-hand divisions’ (Ibid 75).


The narrative of the kuratti concerning her occupation, community and landscape has many purposes: this juxtaposition of the hills/forests and plains allow the reader or the audience an entry point into the existence of multiple cultural modes of being, especially indicative of the historical periods under Nayaka and Maratha rule. The way of life in the hills does not directly confront the restrictions imposed by caste and temple-bound society. It offers an alternate vision, of a life lived with different codes of social expectations.


The kuratti is presented as an autonomous female character who does not follow convention-gendered norms. The comic mode (especially her conversation with singan) allows her to negotiate her positon as a working, travelling, itinerant and sexually-free woman. Perhaps, the presence of a male character to account for the kuratti might also be a dramatic trope to ensure she does not alienate the audience. Through witty conversation, she placates her husband but does so without revealing any incriminating details. Marital jealousies and lovers’ tiffs are symbolic of the marutam landscape (plains) and show the drama which first began in the temple town, moving through the landscape of hills (or kurinji where forbidden love grows) and finally ending in the middle of the settled agrarian lands.


While some versions of the love affairs involve the high-born heroine’s love for the deity of the local shrine, the others involve her love for a high-born hero. In the first case, the kuratti, through her powers of divination, ascertains the identity of the beloved as the deity of the local temple and assures the heroine of the fruitful culmination of her love. She recognises the beloved as Siva or Visnu and suggests the means for the heroine to have a blissful union with her beloved, the local deity. In the second case, the material aspects of the Kuravars’ life gain utility. The kuravan as an adept herbalist and hunter and the kuratti as a woman of experience and resource come to the rescue of the lovers, through other means. Going by the representation within temple complexes, these means include, in some versions, even the act of kidnapping.


Across temple complexes in the South, from the 1560s onwards, there are depictions of the kuravan and kuratti even though written literature shows evidence of kuravanjis only from the late seventeenth century (Branfoot 2002). The kuravan or the kuratti kidnaps the princess or the prince respectively in order to help them forward in their love affairs. In the Krishnapuram temple, for instance, the kuravan is seen holding a woman on his shoulder in an attitude of swift movement. Within the same set of figures, the kuratti is also seen kidnapping a man, bearing him on her shoulder. The audience can clearly note the importance of the kuravan and the kuratti in the dramatic action. Since they are marginal characters, they are used to perform a wide range of tasks, and additionally marked by the fascination of the settled communities towards them, they are shown kidnapping the high- born protagonists, as part of the comic enactment of the story. Sculptures, carved in roof eaves in Srivaikuntham, depict the kidnapping kuravan fleeing, pursued by horsemen. Branfoot (2002:240) mentions that these are ‘local identifications’ i.e. the literary texts make no mention of the kidnapping episode. However, due to the presence of ‘subsidiary figures’ on the sides and base of such sculptures, including a woman reading the palm of another woman, to suggest the act of fortune telling, these figures were concluded to be the kuravars.


Kuravanji from the eighteenth century onwards


The kuravanji includes iyal (poetry), isai (music) and natakam (drama) and forms the prabandha genre. It is based around the palm-reading done by the kuratti of the high-born women, in the presence of her sakhis (female companions). Kothari suggests that the Minakshiammai kuram, Draupadi kuram and Bhavani kuram are the predecessors of the kuravanji. Some of the most popular kuravanjis performed include Kutrala Kuravanji (written by Tirukkuda Rasappa Kavirayar in 1720), Kumbeswara Kuravanji (written by Papanasam Mudaliar in the eighteenth century), Sendil Kuravanji and Kannappar Kuravanji (composed by Navalar in 1880) among others (Kothari 2005).


Eighteenth century kuravanjis, written for courtly performances, under the Maratha rulers, differ from earlier kuravanjis. Radhika Seshan  takes the representative example of the Mohini Vilasa Kuravanji (natya natakam or dance drama) where there is scant mention of the tinais (eco zones), flowers or vegetation characteristic of each tinai, which were to be found in the kuravanjis of the earlier period. She argues for a change in content and form due to a change in the audience. Since these kuravanjis were written for a courtly audience, they referred to regions (Cholanadu etc.) and practices that were familiar to the particular audience that they were being performed for. They were also used as forms of cultural legitimation as they transferred oral tradition to the court in courtly as well as vernacular languages. This could have also been used as a strategy for new rulers like the Marathas to embed themselves in already existing performance traditions and ingratiate themselves with the local aristocracy. The Mohini Vilasa Kuravanji described Shahji as the ruler that the noble woman Kamalavati falls in love with. This kuravanji is written in four languages, indicating the cosmopolitan character of the court-Telugu, Marathi, Sanskrit and Tamil (Seshan 2004).


Kalpana Ram (2012:4) traces the history of writing about contemporary Bharatnatyam and provides the example of Rukmini Devi’s interpretation of Sarabhendra Bupala Kuravanji (written by Sarabhoji’s court poet Kottaiyur Sivakkozundu Desikar in the early nineteenth century) as a piece entitled Kutrala Kuravanji (1944). This piece was usually performed by the devadasis. Disappointed by the kuravanji being performed in honour of Sarabhoji, a King, instead of God, Rukmini Devi looked for a piece that was meant for the deity.  This highlights the fraught terrains of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, ‘sacred’ and ‘profane and ‘king’ and ‘God’ for early cultural reformers intent on building a national ‘tradition’ for the present. Yet the kuravanji, in its ability to be moulded as a performance text across the centuries, is an example of flexibility and adaptability of cultural texts. Rukmini Devi staged the kuravanji in the Bharatnatyam style and, since then, kuravanji has become a staple in classical dance performances. Kutrala Kuravanji was a popular text for adaptation.


Possible Reasons for the inclusion of kuravar figures within mandapa (performing spaces in temples) complexes


Temple complexes in the South are especially renowned for the wealth of sculptural and artistic detail that reveals much of the region’s history. The introduction of detached mandapas in the southern temple complexes can be traced to the early-Vijayanagara time period (Michell 1995; Branfoot 2002). However, the mandapas become an inextricable part of temple economy as large festival spaces during the Nayaka period when life-size royal, folk and divine figures become a part of the construction. Many scholars (Branfoot 2014; Michell 1995; Garimella 2012) argue for the specific utility of the mandapa to the evolving functions of the temple complex as a public space.


These mandapas were used as utsava (festival) mandapa and kalyana (marriage) mandapa, where deities and kings partook in the ritual activities centred on the temple. The Nayaka kings patronised a plethora of royal portraits within these temple complexes to suggest a new index of power and performance before a watching public. Many of these spaces (like the Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi, under the Vijayanagara rule, meant specifically for the Mahanavami celebrations but also used for royal ceremony and for the receiving of feudatories pledging their allegiance to the King) hosted performances by the devadasis (Kothari 2005). Therefore, it is possible to believe that performances could have also taken place apart from ritual ceremonies in front of a watching public.


Tartakov studies the caste dimensions of the mandapa suggesting that the mandapa, located furthest away from the garbhagriha (inner sanctum) was meant for the floating population belonging to various social groups that visited huge temple towns during the festival period (Tartakov 2012). This perspective throws light on the inclusion of peripheral figures like the kuravan and kuratti within mandapa complexes, where they might have been viewed by a growing population of lower professional classes such as potters, craftsmen, ironsmiths among others. These communities of people including the professional, artisanal castes (shudras) had become donors to larger temple complexes during the late medieval times. This interesting development post sixteenth century could be linked to a renewed confidence in the lower social groups to access larger temple economy due to social mobility. Cynthia Talbot, in her study of the above phenomenon through donor inscriptions, also suggests that their desire to contribute as donors to larger temples had to do with their own physical mobility and the desire to participate in pilgrim economy, apart from seeing themselves as rightful stakeholders in political and religious affairs, in keeping with the ascent of the Shudra kings—the Nayakas (Talbot 1991).


The fact that the kuravar figures are depicted in diverse temple complexes from across the region suggests their visibility in state imagination as well.  Examples from the seventeenth century niti texts suggest that the rulers treated the hill and forest tribes located at the peripheries of empire with some caution (Narayana Rao and Subrahmanyam 2009). They were understood as resourceful, brave and shrewd negotiators and the rulers present various diplomatic means with which to include them within the growing boundaries of the state. Therefore, their inclusion within the temple complex suggests that they were seen as important to the State’s agenda.


A prose passage within the niti section: 'Allay the fears of the hill-folk, and bring them into your army. Since they are a small people, their loyalty or faithlessness, their enmity or friendship, their favour or disfavour, can all easily be managed'. Another passage, this one in verse, runs as follows: ‘Trying to clean up the forest folk is like trying to wash a mud wall. There's no end to it. No point in getting angry. Make promises that you can keep and win them over. They'll be useful for invasions, or plundering an enemy land. It's irrational for a ruler to punish a thousand when a hundred are at fault (Narayana Rao and Subrahmanyam 2009).' The nature of the State’s relationship with its people will require many more records and other forms of evidence to investigate. However, this statement clarifies that strategies were used to deal with certain identified communities.


While poetic conventions and literary tropes point to particular conventions, that appear ahistorical and descriptive, for the depiction of certain communities, scholars like Peterson compare the discrepancies in the rhetorical strategies against the content of the verses and try to ascertain the precise social position of the Kuravars. Other scholars look at the inclusion of contemporary references, through language, space, circuits of knowledge dissemination and object histories within aesthetic forms to come to an understanding about marginal figures. Political economy provides some ground within which to locate the socio-historical position of such figures. It would thus be richly rewarding to look at multiple literary-cultural sources and contexts simultaneously in order to integrate understandings of convention and forms of 'real' production of social identity during this time period. This would allow as close a reading as possible of the cultural history and social position of peripheral yet significant communities like the Kuravars.




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