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Tragic Widows or Cunning Witches? Reflections on Representations of Women in Tamil Myths and Legends

This article looks at some of the broad paradigms within which women-oriented Tamil myths and legends have operated. Besides presenting contrasting images that cut through the frozen iconisation of women encountered in classical or so- called "high tradition" texts, the article also focuses on the transformational qualities of folk legends as they move between texts and contexts.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1257Tragic Widows or Cunning Witches? Reflections on Representations of Women in Tamil Myths and LegendsVijaya RamaswamyThis article looks at some of the broad paradigms within which women-oriented Tamil myths and legends have operated. Besides presenting contrasting images that cut through the frozen iconisation of women encountered in classical or so-called “high tradition” texts, the article also focuses on the transformational qualities of folk legends as they move between texts and contexts. Women’s studies and folkloristics have an almost symbi-otic relationship. A major rationale behind this argu-ment is that while men have been perceived as active agents in the creation and dissemination of literate culture with women figuring primarily as “objects and audiences”, women have been active subjects in the sphere of orally transmitted tra-ditions and arts1. Thus the mainstreaming of the discipline of folkloristics has logically moved in tandem with the recovery of women’s voices and women’s history.2 It was in the 1970s, when both women’s movements and wom-en’s studies rose to prominence on the cultural landscape, that women also began to engage with the oral history of women.3 In the process women have found themselves locked on the horns of an intellectual dilemma, being at one and the same time both subject and object of research. To borrow Simone de Beauvoir’s phrase, women’s folklore researched by women makes the women in such studies “truly subjects rather than objects”.The Feminist SubjectivityIn an emic research of this kind it is tempting for the feminist scholar to position herself in such a fashion that the folkloristic representations depict women in a positive, even combative light, constantly challenging male patriarchal society. Here again is an academic dilemma of balancing between natural empathies and intellectual impartiality. To quote Sherna Berger Gluck, “Though we – and our narrators – might be uplifted by the hearing and telling of their successes, their ingenious coping mechanisms, and especially by their acts of daily resistance, is this really what women’s history is about?It is a part of it, and an important part. But I struggle with trying to achieve that balance about which I worried when I first began to teach women’s history. How do we simultaneously understand and document women’s subordina-tion and resistance?”4. It is clear that Gluck’s critique is intended for the feminists who have been overenthusiastic in valorising this process of retrieval of women through the mode of folk-loristics. An interesting example would be the book Women’s Folklore, Women’s Culture, edited by Rosan A Jordon and Susan J Calcik5 and the comment of a feminist reviewer of the book stat-ing that “Though the cover is grey, the book’s pages are awash with the colour purple”.6 The obvious allusion is to Alice Walker’s landmark bookThe Color Purple’ which came out in 1982 and radically changed the way people thought about women’s narrations in general and the lives of coloured and black women in particular.Vijaya Ramaswamy ( is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
SPECIAL ARTICLEmarch 21, 2009 vol xliv no 12 EPW Economic & Political Weekly58Many of these theoretical reflections find an echo in this present study on the representations of women in Tamil folklore. The thread of feminist subjectivity is as strongly present in this discursive analysis as in other studies where women have under-taken a similar exercise. In addition to the theoretical debates which are taking place in the context of western scholarship, the present study is also concerned with the intertwining of classical-textual and “folk”-oral traditions, rendering these categories fuzzy. It is equally concerned with the mutations of some of these women-oriented myths through historical time and space, in the course of which both the myth and its female protagonists go through a metamorphosis. One cannot rule out the possibility of some of these having been matri-local myths which gradually got subsumed in the patriarchal register. Unfortunately, however, there are no extant versions of the core story of myths, such as the Alli story, and what remains for the researcher to look at are only the myths as they appear after the process of patriarchal so-cialisation, especially as reflected within the performance tradi-tions. One has perforce to proceed on the assumption that these myths may not have a non-patriarchal origin.This study is also concerned with the fluidity of oral traditions in moving between the written and the oral, changing every time in tone, emphasis and even in the narrative content and folk per-formances. As Blackburn and Ramanujan point out in their path-breaking volume, “the dual nature of folklore that has long fasci-nated scholars... is ‘traditional’, yet it lives through variation. The fixity of form confers authority and familiarity, while variation allows changes in content.”7 This article will look at some of the broad paradigms within which the women-oriented Tamil myths and legends have oper-ated. Besides presenting contrasting images, which cut through the frozen iconisation of women encountered in classical or so- called “high tradition” texts, I shall also specifically focus on the transformational qualities of folk legends as they move between texts and contexts. The myths in the process of their transmis-sions and transmutations do not follow a linear course but tend to zigzag between various representational modes. Most of these women centred folk traditions are a part of ei-therkadaipadal(song stories), villupattu performance tradition or religious/ritual traditions many of which find their way into popular chapbooks. Interestingly, one may not find the tales of women like Alli or Aravalli-Suravalli nor of tragic-heroic figures like Kannagi or Nallatangal in the folksong genre specifically identified with women, such asoppari (lamentation songs) or ta-lattu (lullabies). A plausible reason could be their deviant or tragic personalities. Nevertheless these ballads or tales are an important component of popular literature, what A R Venkatach-alapathy (1994) calls Gujili books. The PeriyaEzhuthu publica-tions which is one of the main sources of this present study, is part of this Gujili market which targeted a neo-literature audi-ence, avid for tales of murder and all forms of deviance including myth and black magic. In his thesis, Venkatachalapathy quotes the following passage: Some train should meet with an accident somewhere; or somebody should commit a murder or some woman should give birth to a mon-key… or some place should be gutted in a fire. Immediately these poets will compose a song. The lilt of the song and its word-order will enthrall the common folk. Moreover, if the poet himself were to hawk the songs (ballads) at crossroads, who from among the common folk will not buy?8It is important to make the point here that the representational categories used in this article are my own. They are intended to serve the purpose of enabling feminist scholars to use their “dou-ble gaze” to critically view these categories within which Tamil women have been imaged. Secondly, I have treated my shifts be-tween these “type-castings” somewhat in the manner of cine-matic “cuts”, without seeking to enforce any artificial connectiv-ity between these groupings.Situating the Theme: Texts and ContextsThe first section of this article deals with the two “virtuous” tragic widows – Kannagi and Nallatangal; and the second section deals with negative representations of women and is titled “Cun-ning Wives and Sorceress Queens”. It is noteworthy that among the earliest scholars to theorise on Tamil ballads were N Vanamamalai,9,10 S D Lourdu10 and M Aru-nachalam.11 I have applied some of their insights to attempt a gendered reading of Tamil ballads. These folk representations have passed on from myths, ballads and other narrative forms into the field of performing arts such as villupattu andterukoothu and eventually found their niche on the silver screen. These bal-lads and legends have been represented in folk performances probably since the 16th century when villupattu first came to rep-resent a popular form of the performing arts.12 In this a huge bow is twanged to the accompaniment of singing of the ballads. The villupattu gradually flowed into theatre performances and even-tually moved into the cinematic mode.13Much of Stuart Black-burn’s folkloristic researches centred on the villupattu traditions in Nanjil Nadu.14 A recent study in Tamil looks at the ways in which social tangles and tensions have been handled in villupattu performances.15 Terukoothu literally means “street performance” and represents the proto-type of street-plays. The texts for the various modes of performance differed in tandem with contex-tual changes and have today become a part of the store of printed folklore still available in old bookshops in Parry’s Corner, a fa-mous colonial market street. Here I shall look both at the texts and the performance contexts of such ballads although there is very little source material on the latter aspect with the exception of the cinematic mode.16Tragic Widows: Kannagi and NallatangalIt is important to foreground the imaging of the chaste wife in Tamil oral tradition with a discussion of the notion ofKarpu (chastity), which is an important cultural signifier for the Tamils. George Hart, in a significant article, has pointed out that this no-tion which is considered primary to brahminical-patriarchy, is actually very much a Dravidian concept.17 TheTolkappiyam has an entire section titled “karpiyal” meaning “The grammar of chastity”.18For want of any other suitable word in the English language, karpu has been translated as chastity. It is, in fact, a broader term which takes into its sweep virtually all the qualities “good”
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1259women are supposed to possess such as “service” (to one’s husband), the spirit of loyalty and self-sacrifice, modesty in bearing, etc, apart from the imperative virtue of chastity. Hart makes the interesting observation that the karpu of the wife “consisted of a sort of asceticism, the restraining of all impulses that were in any way immodest. Clearly, the more sexually attractive a woman is, the more power her chastity endows her with.”19 The stereotyp-ing of women in Tamil society has largely revolved around this notion of karpu. From her innate karpu comes the sacred power of the woman, whether she is an unmarried girl or a married woman. The power of karpu was to be both feared and revered because it could be both boon-giving as well as extremely de-structive if threatened. Karpu in the Purananuru is equated with “godliness” – ‘kadavir chanra Karpu’,20 literally “divinity like chas-tity”. In aAhananuru poem,21 karpu is treated as being synony-mous with divinity – kadavur karpu. The virtue of karpu imbued the wife with immense spiritual powers and transformed her into Pattini Daivam, literally “wife-goddess”. The same notion of karpu is also found in the didactic Jain textTirukkural which belongs to the late Sangam era.22 Clearly, the operative force behind the worship of the Pattini Daivam is the fear of her power of chastity. Chastity as power is a recurrent theme that runs through not only the Sangam text but even the medieval devotional movements.The fearful aspect of karpu connects it with another recurrent term in early Tamil literature, namely,ananku. A poem from the Ahananuru uses the interesting expression ananku uru karpu.23 The coupling of the term ananku with chastity or karpu lends a more nuanced understanding of chastity by connecting it with the nature of female sexuality. In Dravidian cultures, the spiritual power of women was linked to both the fear of pollution (through menstrual blood, etc) and the male fear of female sexuality. It is likely that the ancient Tamils defined female sexual power as ananku, a force to be simultaneously feared and worshipped. The woman’s ananku, if contained within the paradigm of the chaste wife, could be auspicious, making her a sumangali, literally “the auspicious one”. But, outside the marital status, whether as a vir-gin or as a widow, the ananku was a deadly and destructive power. The complete identification of ananku with female sexu-ality is a debatable point. However in the present context, Hart’s definition would hold true since the Silappadikaram does associ-ate ananku with female power and personifies it into Ananku, the youngest of the seven virgin sisters “who made Siva dance”24The entire discussion on the twin notions of karpu (chastity) and ananku (which broadly covers notions of female sexuality), becomes relevant because the two concepts get connected to Kannagi, the heroine of the great Tamil epicSilappadikaram. Kannagi, who is hailed in texts asKarpukkarasi, literally “the queen of chastity” would be the outstanding example from the Tamil epic tradition of the power of chastity and female spirituality. Kannagi’s entry into the court of the Pandyan king of Madurai, from Ilango Adigal’s text, is worth quoting here be-cause the herald’s description of Kannagi is both dramatic and awe-inspiring.Someone waits at the gate. She is not the deity Korravai, the goddess of victory, holding in her hand the victorious spear, and standing uponthe nape of the buffalo with an unceasing gush of blood from its fresh wound. Nor is she Ananku, youngest sister of the seven virgins who made Siva dance; nor even is she the Kali of the forest, which is the residence of ghosts and goblins; nor again is she the goddess that tore up the mighty chest of Dharuka. She appears to be filled with resentment. She seems to swell with rage. She has lost her husband; she has in her hand an anklet of gold, and she waits at the gate.25The legend of Kannagi is recorded in the great late-Sangam epic Silappadikaram(approximate dating of the Sangam period is from the third century BC to the third century AD). The epic written by Ilango Adigal can be dated to around the fourth cen-turyAD. The main characters are Kovalan, the son of Machattu-van (the name has been interpreted to mean “a great caravan trader”), Kannagi, the daughter of Manayakan (which means “a renowned seafaring merchant”) and Madhavi, the courtesan who forms the third end of the romantic triangle. The core of the epic is the attempted sale of Kannagi’s anklet by Kovalan in the bazaar of Madurai to a craftsman who happens to be the king’s goldsmith. The state goldsmith, who has stolen the queen’s an-klet, falsely implicates Kovalan as the thief who is then summar-ily executed. The karpu of Kannagi blazes forth as she confronts the king with the truth. The fire of her chasity burns up the city of Madurai. While the power and fury of Kannagi’s karpu leaves the city of Madurai burning, she herself retires to Murugavel Kottam in Malainadu (Kodungallur or Cranganore) eventually ascending to heaven in her bodily form.Across the sea in Sri Lanka, the legend of Kannagi took a curi-ous twist. It is said that after attending the consecration cere-mony of the Ma-daivam or Pattini Daivam, Gajabahu carried with him a consecrated image of Kannagi. However when Kannagi reached Yazhpanam (Jaffna) her sacral power was seen as vicious and fearful. This fear is reflected in her worship in Yazhpanam as a five hooded snake.26 In this folk version, Kannagi by the power of her chastity brought the slain Kovalan back to life. On regain-ing consciousness, he uttered the word “Madhavi”, the courte-san’s name. In great anger and disgust Kannagi turned into a five-headed cobra and it is in this vengeful form that the diaspora Tamils of Sri Lanka worship her. Deified in Tamil society as a goddess, Kannagi also has many temples dedicated to her in Sri Lanka. The Nagabhushani or snake temples in Sri Lanka in and around Yazhpanam such as the ones at Alavetti, Suruvil and Se-erani, are all temples dedicated to Kannagi.In the texts operating between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka which lies across the Gulf of Mannar, the representation of Kan-nagi changes from a wife seething with righteous anger to that of a vengeful wife, a veritable cobra. Kannagi and the burning of the city of Madurai have found many theatrical and cinematic representations. One of the best known is R S Mani’sKannagi produced in 1942 with Kannamba in the lead role. One of the most popular scenes within the performance tradition is that of Kannagi flinging her breast onto the street of Madurai, causing the entire city to burn:Men and women of Madurai, city of four temples,Gods of the skies and men of austerities,Hear me.I am enraged at this citywhose king wrought injustice upon him I love,and I am without fault.
SPECIAL ARTICLEmarch 21, 2009 vol xliv no 12 EPW Economic & Political Weekly60With her hand she twisted off her left breast,encircled Madurai three times keeping it to the right,uttered a curse,and shining with her ornamentsthrew her lovely breast on the pollen-covered street.27 There is yet another dimension to the multiple representations of Kannagi – her historicisation. Kannagi seems to exist on the borderline of historical and epic traditions. Paranar, a Sangam poet, specifically refers to Kannagi and the consecration of a me-morial stone to her by the king Cheran Chenguttavan.28 The ref-erence in the Sangam textNatrinai to Tirumamani who cast off one of her breasts in fury is also believed to refer to Kannagi. The Purananuru evidence also states that the stone was ceremoni-ously washed in the Ganges water before being installed in the Chera country. The site of this temple calledPattini Kottam, is at Kodungallur (British Cranganore) around 130 km from Ma-durai.29 According to the Buddhist textMahavamsa, the conse-cration of this one-breasted Pattini-Daivam, is said to have been attended by Gajabahu, the king of Sri Lanka. V R Ramachandra Dikshitar30 gives the approximate date as around 172 or 173 C E. The celebration of Kannagi’s karpu persists even today in the Pat-tini Kottam where a major festival (consisting of dances and dra-matic performances) is held in honour of Kannagi in the month of Panguni which falls between 15 March and 15 April.Nallatangal, the Good Younger SisterThe story of Nallatangal captures the tragic imagination of the Tamils and is an evergreen favourite within performance tradi-tions including the silver screen. Nallatangal was a widow with many children who was left destitute by her husband. Ill-treated at her in-laws place and at her brother’s place during his absence by the sister-in-law, Nallatangal decides to kill herself and her helpless children. She pushes them into a well and jumps into it herself. In another version, Nallantangal’s husband went off to distant lands to make a living. His wife was therefore left at the tender mercies of her cruel in-laws and driven to suicide. Irre-spective of her location in patriarchal society, either as an aban-doned wife or as a widow, her tragic end remains the same. In some later versions, Nallatangal and her dead children are re-stored to life by her brother who had committed suicide in re-morse and become a “benevolent” ghost. The resurrection of Nal-latangal in some of the popular versions may owe its story twist to the middle class penchant for “happy endings”.In the Periya Ezhuthu edition of Pugazhendi Pulavar’s Nalla-tangal ballad, her father is Ramalinga Maharaja, a petty chief-tain of Madurai. The parents die, leaving their daughter Nalla-tangal in the care of her brother Nallatambi who is married to the evil Moolialangari. Nallatangal marries a prince of Kashi. The reference to Kashi in this context must be to some petty principal-ity near Madurai since Kashi or the holy city of Varanasi is located in northern India, miles away from Nallatangal’s birth place. Nal-latangal gives birth to seven children. The ballad now takes a dramatic turn with the description of a severe famine which dev-astated the kingdom. In the face of impending starvation, Nalla-tangal decides to seek refuge with Nallatambi. The conclusion takes the familiar trajectory with the ill-treatment of Nallatangal and her children by her sister-in-law. The hapless woman falls into a well with all her children. Her husband and her brother who are looking for Nallatangal, both commit suicide out of guilt and remorse. This version ends on a miraculous note with the di-vine couple Siva and Parvati, intervening in the tangled lives of these human beings and bringing the dead back to life. The com-ing back to life of Nallatangal is not however the most abiding image of her in folk memory. Her presence in the Tamil folk land-scape is that of the tragic widow who is driven by a cruel patriar-chal society into killing herself and her innocent children. Today, Nallatangal is remembered within the Tamil commu-nity by the practice of brothers giving green saris to their sisters on the day of her death anniversary. The reason these sarees are green is perhaps because this colour symbolises the renewal of life. The myth of Nallatangal has been made popular on the stage and on screen through innumerable theatrical and cinematic ver-sions of her story. One of the best known is the filmNallatangal which came out around 1950, with the Urvashi award winning actress Sharada in the lead role. The patriarchal subsuming of Nallatangal which iconises her as a suffering widow without im-buing her with any spirit, takes us back to the paradigmatic di-lemma, that while some women’s folklore are about women, they do not fall within the domain of women’s active agency.31 Rather, they are indicative of male appropriation of woman’s (in this case widow’s) misery as aesthetic expression. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that Nallatangal seems to move within the structure of patriarchy but, at the same time, indicts it in un-qualified terms. The legend of Nallatangal was woven into the lives of modern day Tamils by the anthropologist Margaret Tra-wick in her book Notes on Love in a Tamil Family based on her field work undertaken in the 1990s and published in 1996. In her chapter titled “Desire in Kinship” she looks at social ten-sions within Tamil kinship especially the deep-seated antago-nism between wife and sister-in-law or between wife and moth-er-in-law or the brother-sister bonding which places the wife at the periphery.32Cunning Wives and Sorceress QueensThis section will deal with two balladic traditions which have foregrounded two anti-heroines – Pazhayanur Neeli and the murderous queens Aravalli and Suravalli. While the negative representation of the latter two follows a linear pattern, the legend of Neeli tends to zigzag between two bi-polarities. She is sometimes the dreaded Neeli pey (the term “pey” can be broadly translated as demoness), sometimes the feared and worshipped goddess Isakki Amman and yet again the revered Karaikkal Peyar33 of the Periyapuranam, a 12th century Saivite hagiograph-ical text. The versatile Neeli thus goes through a range of imag-ing from a prostitute to a proselytising Jaina nun to the saintly Shaivite Nayanar "Peyar'.Demoness or Goddess? The story of Neeli occupies a whole trope of literary genre rang-ing from ballads and tales to the dramatic poetic forms known as villupattu and the folk theatre especiallyyakshagana in Karnataka. The tale or myth is as widely varied in historical
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1261timeasinspace,changing its character as it moves from Tamil Nadu into Karnataka.The theme of Neelakesi is the folk story of Pazhayanur Neeli. The folktale/ballad of Neelakesi which is popular to this day is encountered for the first time with some crucial variations, in the story of Neelakesi narrated by the saint Chekkizhar in his cele-brated hagiographical textPeriyapuranam which is a narration of the lives of saints. This text is placed in the 12th century. In this version, Neeli was the chaste wife of a brahmin of Pazhaya-nur (which place is identified by this author with Tiruvalan-gadu) who fell into the trap of a prostitute and killed his preg-nant wife, robbing her of all her jewellery.34 In the next birth the brahmin,now in his incarnation as a merchant (i e, achetti who is a non-brahmin) came to Pazhayanur in search of trade prospects. Neeli who had turned into a vengeful ghost (“pey”), pursued him with a ghostly child that she had materialised. Claiming to be his wife she appealed to the Vellalar (the agricul-tural community typifying wealthy landlords) to restore her conjugal rights. It is said that the deceitful Neeli shed copious tears to hood-wink the village elders. Even today in Tamil culture any woman shedding hypocritical tears is said to shedneeli kannir meaning “false tears”. This shows the extent to which mythical imaging in its turn gets reflected in common parlance and popular culture. Despite the protests of the brahmin that he does not know her, the Vellalar believed her story and forced them to stay together. In the night Neeli murdered him most cruelly thereby avenging her own murder. It is said that the 70 Vellala elders of the village who had passed the judgment committed mass suicide in re-morse. Evidence of memorial stones to the Vellalar from the Tiru-valangadu site seems to confirm some of these events. If one were to alight at Arakkonam junction and travel about eight kilometres one would come across a place known as Ti Paynta Kuntam which is between Pazhayanur and Tiruvalangadu. In a dilapidated stone structure here one finds the statues of the 70 Vellalar who immo-lated themselves. There is also said to be a memorial stone to Neeli at the same site.35After murdering her husband at Pazhayanur, Neeli continued to live in Tiruvalangadu. The Tiruvalangadu Sthala Mahatmyam gets linked with the Neeli legend at this point. Neeli had become the dreaded Kali of Tiruvalangadu, reigning on the border be-tween Pazhayanur and Tiruvalangadu (according to some one version both names referred to the same area). As theEllai De-vatai36 of the area (the unknown author of the Sthala Mahat-myam states that this Kali was none other than Neeli) she, along with a fearsome army, spread devastation all around her. Even the gods found her antics intolerable and appealed to Vishnu (the force signifying protection among the trinity) for help. Vishnu told them the Kali had the support of Siva's consort Par-vati and hence they must appeal to him. Instead of waging an open war against the destructive Kali, Siva decided to chall-enge her to a dancing contest. Following the famous mythology of the Siva Shakti dance which is narrated in other Saivite sa-cred sites, Kali matched him step for step till he took recourse to the Chanda stance in which the legs had to be lifted up. As a woman Kali would not do this out of modesty and therefore lost the contest. Thus at Tiruvalangadu the dancing Nataraja reigns supreme while Kali abides at the borders as a subordi-nate EllaiDevatai. In yet another feat of metamorphosis, the Karaikkal Peyar, the highly revered Nayanar saint of Tiruvalangadu of the seventh century blends into the Neeli legend. According to Chekkizhar,37 Punitavati was a beautiful woman who is deserted by her hus-band. As a consequence of this, she severs her links with the world and becomes a skeletal being, a ‘pey’. She assumes the eter-nal role of witness of Siva's dance at Tiruvalangadu. The opening stanza of Karaikkal Ammiyar's own composition Tiruvalangattu Moota Tiruppadigam is very revealing in the context of the Pazhayanur/Tiruvalangadu Neeli ‘Pey’. I quote:She has shrivelled breastsand bulging veinsIn place of white teethempty cavities gapewith ruddy hair, hollow bellya pair of fangs, knobby ankles and long shinsthe demon woman ('Pey') wailsat the desolate cremation groundwhere our Lord...dances among the flamesHis home is Alangadu.38Siva’s abode is at Tiruvalangadu close to Pazhayanur where the wicked Neeli fooled the people with her tricks and her tears. Alternately moving from chaste wife to temptress/murderess Neeli at one point is imaged as goddess Parvati herself . The con-sort of Siva in the temple of Tiruvalangadu is calledVandaiyar kuzhali which seems to be the exact Tamil equivalent of the San-skritic name Neelakesi. Perhaps Neeli who had troubled the peo-ple of Tiruvalangadu and been subsequently subdued by Siva had eventually found a place by his side asVandaiyarkuzhali. The zig-zagging of mythologies and folk traditions between the wicked demoness and the divine consort of Siva is so "fuzzy" that it takes us back to the point raised by Blackburn and Ramanu-jam39 as to how categories such as folk and classical, oral and textual, even secular and sacred, are rendered untenable due to the obvious “continuum”, which is, however, not linear but zig-zag in itsmovement.The earliest textual Jain version which draws the story line from oral traditions is the Ratnakarandaka Sravakaachara by the Jain Acharya Samantabhadra of the second century AD dealing with JainGrahastha dharma or “duties of the householder”. Sa-mantabhadra is said to have been one of the leading lights of Jina Kanchi, so called because Kanchipuram was then under the sway of Jainism. The text has an elaborate commentary by bhattaraka Prabhachandracharya of the 14th century. Another early version of the Neeli story is found in the Jain text Neelakesi, which has an anonymous authorship but is roughly da-table in terms of its time frame to the 6th century AD. The other contemporaneous work in which Neeli is referred to at some length is the Buddhist textKundalakesi. The author (unnamed) of Neelakesi claims that the entire story unfolded before him in a dream (vision?). It is significant that the central women charac-ters in both these texts would be treated as anti-heroines in the brahmanical canon. Kundalakesi, who is said to have defended
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SPECIAL ARTICLEmarch 21, 2009 vol xliv no 12 EPW Economic & Political Weekly64Buddhist philosophical doctrines and spread her faith widely, was a prostitute. Neelakesi, who became her main rival and challenger, is said to have been Neeli Pey, a cunning female demoness, before her conversion to Jainism and her emergence as its votary. The first ontological confusion immediately arises out of the apparent transformation of a spirit into a person and the question of whether she exists in the spirit world or the real world.The Jain versions refer to Neeli as the daughter of a Jain mer-chant who was married off by trickery to a Buddhist merchant named Sagaradatta. When asked to cook meat for a Buddhist guest (some Buddhists, unlike Jains, had become meat eaters) Neeli responded by making a dish out of a leather slipper. This was dangerously deviant behaviour. Neeli's husband and in-laws retaliated by falsely accusing her of unchastity. Eventually the gods themselves came forth to proclaim her pure and virtuous. A devata (deity) appeared in a dream to the king and informed him that he had fastened the city gates by his magical powers. The gates could be opened only when a chaste woman of the city would come and open the door. The next morning the king or-dered all the women to assemble at the city gates and try opening them. All the women failed to do so. Neeli had not been called upon to take the test because her in-laws had already branded her unchaste. When finally Neeli was called upon to try, her mere touch opened the door and Neeli was proclaimed virtuous and divine. It is noteworthy that in the medieval 14th century com-mentary on Neelakesi by Diwakara Vamana Munivar, Neeli is reverentially addressed asMa daivam, literally “the great god-dess”. Here, Neeli is described as having won great theological battles against the Buddhists, especially at the great polemical debates held at Kampili.40 One of the interesting aspects of this version of Neelakesi is that this Neeli could be the prototype of any chaste wife within the brahmanical patriarchal structure. In-cidentally this text also shows that unlike the period of theSilap-padhikaram when the heterodox faiths presented a joint front against brahmanical orthodoxy, by the sixth-seventh century Buddhism and Jainism were cutting into and destroying the sup-port base of each other. The story of Neelakesi as re-told by its 14th century commenta-tors, both Bhattaraka Prabhachandra Acharya and Diwakara Va-mana Munivar, gives rise to another vexatious problem. Is the problematic of the age, dealt with by the commentators, in any way an authentic representation of the age of Samantabhadra or is it more reflective of the problematic of the medieval commen-tators? Some of the tensions between brahmanism on the one hand and Jainism and Buddhism on the other, as they existed in the post-Sangam age right up to the Pallava period in the 7th century, is borne out by multiple sources, including the Sanskrit play Mattavilasaprahasana by king Mahendravarman of the Pal-lava dynasty. It is therefore likely that these tensions do actually reflect the concerns of Samantabhadra. However the latter ele-ments of the story dealing with the Vellala community, are sug-gestive of a medieval context during which the landowning com-munity of Vellalas had gained both power and prestige. The im-portance given to the Vellala community in both medieval com-mentaries supports this assumption. Popular versions of this myth conclude with the deification of Neeli and her enshrinement as Issakki Amman in the Tirunelveli and Kanyakurmari districts as well as the area in and around Palayamkottai and as Kaliyamman in the Chingleput district, especially Tiruvalangadu. The deification of deviant or dangerous women (including murderous women) who can be said to consti-tute the socially marginalised/ostracisedsubaltern women, is not a phenomenon that is uncommon to south Indian culture.41The jilted virgin (exemplified in the Kanyakumari Amman), the mur-dered woman and the murderous woman have all been regarded with fear and awe, leading to their worship as local deities or El-lai Devata. The worship of deviant women as Ellai Devata sug-gests very interesting possibilites. Ellai in the Tamil language literally means borderline. It can be interpreted to mean both vil-lage “limits” as well as liminalities of social, moral behaviour and the transformation potential of these deviant women. Valoris-ing and worshipping deviant women can be one way of freezing them at the borders of an established culture threatened by potential change. In the present times two significant representations of the Neeli tale are to be found in the performance traditions: yakshaganam42 and Villupattu.43 Yakshaganam broadly represents the folk musical theatre in the Karnataka and Andhra regions. Like the terukoothu of Tamil Nadu it takes up for rendition popular stories from the south Indian myths and traditions including the Alli Kadai and the Neeli Kadai. According to oral tradition, Siva sent his fol-lowers calledganas to learn music from the sage Shukrachariyar and this came to be known asYakshaganam. In Andhra the local people call itJukkula Paata. This genre of dance music was popular in the Vijayanagar court. Kavi Nannayya wrote Karutachala Yakshaganam while Allasani Peddanna codified the musical grammar ofYakshaganam. The genre of musical story narrations known as “villupattu” is still widely prevalent in the Tamil country. The termvillu refers to a huge bow which is the main musical instrument along with the udukku, a percussion instrument used for dramatic effect by the villupattu singers. The themes were closely associated with mythology (Seetha Kalyanam), folk deities (Aiyyan Kadai) or folk ballads (Nallattangal Kadai). The villupattuNeeli Kadai had a dual implication – it was the ballad of the deceitful demoness Pazhayanur Neeli and at the same time the story of the folk goddess Issakki Amman or Pazhayanur Kali. TheNeeli Kadai versions of both the Yakshaganam and Villupattu constitute representations of the popular culture and religious beliefs of south Indians. Interestingly, most of these tales have currency among the non-brahmin communities of Tamil Nadu and Issaki Amman or Kali Amman who become symbols of the metamorphosis of Neeli, are folk deities who are worshipped by communities like the Paraiah, Pulaiya, Maala and Madiga who are lowcaste or outcaste.Aravalli and SuravalliThe ballad of Arvalli44 and Suravalli is set in the kingdom of Nelluru Pattinam of which they were the undisputed rulers. Theballad in fact refers to seven sisters but the reins of control wereinthe hands of these two women who are described as sorcerers. Like the ballad of Alli this ballad also feeds back into
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1265theMahabharata legend. Here the chief protagonist is not Arjuna but Bhima. The Pandavas ruling Indraprastha are perturbed over the militant quality of these two women, who used both might and cunning combined with sorcery to ruthlessly crush all oppo-sitiontothem, and Bhima offers to conquer them. The first part of the ballad is about the ignoble defeat of Bhima at the hands of these two women who utterly humiliate him and send him back to hisbrothers.The main plot of the story unfolds when the hapless Pandavas use the astrological skills of Sahadev to formulate a master plan against the two cunning women. This plan is to adopt their nephew Alli Rajan (also called Alli Muthu), the son of their sister Sangavathi, for the specific purpose of taking up the challenge, posed by the sisters, on behalf of the Pandavas. Neither Sanga-vathi nor Alli Muthu figure in the ur texts of the Mahabharata and are to be seen only in this Tamil ballad. In this context one can in fact go beyond Blackburn’s arguments of a classical-folk continuum. The printed folklore of Aravalli-Suravalli in terms of the dominance of women who are non-existent in mainstream epics but are brought in deliberately in oral literature makes them more like counter-texts because of the stark contrast.In the third part of the ballad, Alli Raja who is now the legal heir of the Pandavas goes to Nelluru Pattinam. On the way, he defeates the Ellai Kali, the local goddess who stands at the bor-ders of the village and guards the villagers through her awe-inspiring presence. Kali is pleased with Alli Raja’s earnestness and his special mission. She therefore gives him water sanctified by powerful incantations and other assets like a magical horse.The major part of the epic comes to an end with the humiliat-ing defeat of the two cunning sorcerers, Aravalli and Suravalli. Here the importance of cockfights as status-deciders is note-worthy. Cockfights become signifiers of a power struggle involv-ing loss of territories and political eclipse. I would like to draw attention in particular to the celebrated essay by Clifford Geertz titled “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in his book The Interpretation of Cultures.45A significant departure here from the Balinese tradition is the pro-active role played by the queens and their women in the bloody cockfights while women are con-spicuous by their absence in the Balinese context. The cunning queens of Nelluru Pattinam had so far managed to poison or meddle with their opponents’ cock to bring about their defeat. The victory of Alli Raja’s cock marks the end of this battle of wits in the arena of the cockfight. As a sign of their submission they offer their adopted daughter Palvarisai in marriage to the victor. The concluding part of this play is like the fifth act of a Shake-spearian play. The scenes are packed with dramatic incidents leading to the denouement. Alli Raja initially suspects that the daughter may have learned black magic from her mothers but is eventually convinced of her goodness and innocence. The newly wedded pair make their way into the forest where the bride, in her innocence, follows the instructions of her mothers and gives poisoned lemon juice46 to her husband after first intoxicating his senses with the fragrance of a poisoned bouquet. Palvarisai discovers the perfidy of her foster mothers only when her bridegroom lies dead. She curses her wicked mothers and the land of her birth with the strongest invectives including a curse seeking the destruction of Nelluru Pattinam by fire.47 Aravalli and Suravalli welcome their widowed daughter trium-phantly, seeking to console her by promising re-marriage!48 It is unusual to find a reference to widow re-marriage in ballads which are largely patriarchal in tone. This is held up in the text as a further indication of the devious path taken by the two cunning queensGods and mortals actively participate (as in the Greek plays) towards a final solution of the human tangle. The play ends with the resurrection of Alli Raja and the burning of Nelluru Pattinam. Not only Aravalli and Suravalli but all the seven sisters are dis-figured by having their noses cut off and this is strung into a gar-land and offered to Ellai Kali.The defeat of Aravalli and Suravalli brings about the patriar-chal taming not only of these defiant queens and their unbridled energies (born probably out their celibate status) but also of the tale itself which seems to be strongly rooted in a non-patriarchal Tamil society. The crowning achievement of patriarchy is the in-spired advice of Lord Krishna that Palvarisai having become the wife of Alli Raja, should now bear the Sanskritic name Balambal completely discarding her original (Tamil Dravidian?) identity!The dramatised versions of Aravalli and Suravalli as well as its cinematic versions have followed the pattern of unbridled female power tamed by patriarchy. However the texts are rendered com-plex by the excess which flows through, indicative of non-patriar-chal elements forming a fragmented sub-text. To give just one instance, while the leading female protagonists are tamed by pa-triarchy, one of the sisters escapes into Kerala and becomes the “fierce Bhagavati” (evocative of the fearsome Durga or Kali) who attracts worship embedded in fear.49 There is a constant tension in the many gujjili texts and per-formance scripts of the ballad of the seven sisters, between the female protagonists of the ballad and its multiple renderings. Ar-avalli and Suravalli, as well as their other sisters, were cunning queens and sorceresses in the eyes of whom? The appropriation of these characters by male scriptwriters and their strong nega-tive representations create a different problematic for the entire genre of women-oriented myths, re-forming the myths as part of a patriarchal agenda. The narrators of these ballads were all male and very often even the onstage performers of these anti-hero-ines were male till the beginnings of Tamil cinema when women began to take on these challenging roles. Deconstructing the ren-derings of the Aravalli-Suravalli texts may probably present us with images not of cunning witches but of women rulers with political acumen who refused to succumb to any kind of taming, whether “patriarchal” or “political”.50 ConclusionsThis article has endeavoured to use folkloristic as the mode to trace the historical process by which indigenous imaging of women by women or by various male agencies in Tamil folklore have engaged with a patriarchal society. This study has high-lighted the processes, in historical context, of mutations in the tales/myths centre staging Tamil women. On the one hand, ballads like that of Neeli and Aravalli and Suravalli represent reprehensible social and moral behaviour
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 126732 Margaret Trawick, Notes on Love in a Tamil Family (Delhi: Oxford University Press), 1996, Chapter IV.33 This honorific ‘Peyar’ is unusual since it literally means “demoness” but was being used as early as the eighth century AD by Saivite saints like Sundarar and others to connote the extreme re-nunciation of Karaikkal Ammaiyar. Sculptural representations on temple walls of a demonic fig-ure beating time with cymbals to the cosmic dance of Siva, reinforces her nomenclature as ‘Ka-raikkal Peyar’.34 See for instance the Tamil essay ‘Pazhayanur Neeliyum Kannagiyum’ by K P S Hameed in the journalTamarai’, Malar 9, No 10, April l968, pp 26-34 which attempts a lengthy comparison of the behaviour of the two wronged wives – Kannagi and Neelakesi.35 G S Balakrishnan who has provided the English rendering of the Neeli Kadai (A Tale of Nemesis, general editors Shu Hikosaka and G John Samuel; special editor P Subramaniam, (Madras: Institute of Asian Studies) 1996) relates his visit to the site of Tiruvalangadu connected with Neeli and states that the local people, especially women, believe the area to be haunted by Neeli.36 The term refers to folk deities placed on the bor-ders of villages for the purpose of preventing bad elements including marauders or diseases from entering the village. These ‘ellai devatas’ (‘devatai’ is the feminine form) can still be seen in interior Tamil Nadu.37 The story of Karaikkal Ammaiyar is to be found in thePeriyapuranam of Chekkizhar published by the Saiva Siddhanta Mahasamajam, Chennai, 1950.38 Norman Cutler’s translation vide Vijaya Rama-swamy,Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spiritu-ality (Shimla: IIAS), 2007, p 132.39 Blackburn and Ramanujan, Another Harmony, op cit, introduction, pp 4-5; 14-15 and passim.40 Some versions of the story of Neelakesi including the above version are to be found in my book Textiles and Weavers in Medieval South India (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study), 1997, pp 97-98. 41 The phenomenon of deviant women emerging as village goddesses was studied for the first time by Reverend Henry Whitehead in his bookThe Village Gods of South India, (Calcutta: Association Press), 1921. Refer specifically to pp 21, 52-53, 117-18, etc.42 Neeli Yakshaganam (Tamil) P Subramaniam (ed.) (Chennai: Institute of Asian Studies), 1994.43 Stuart H Blackburn,Performance as Paradigm: The Tamil Bow Song Tradition, (USA: University Microfilms International), 1980;Singing of Birth and Death: Texts in Performance (Philadelphia: University of California Press), 1988. 44 In this paper I have followed the ‘Periya Ezhuthu’ printed version provided inAravalli Suravalli Kathai said to have been composed by Pugazhen-di Pulavar. The text was re-printed in the 20th century by R G Pati and Co, Chennai, 1973.45 Basic Books, New York (1973): pp 412-54. Follow-ing Geertz’s study other scholars have looked at the significance of cockfights in traditional cul-tures and politics. Cockfights in the context of the regime of the Philippino dictator Marcos and his overthrow in the subsequent electoral battle is discussed in a recent publication in Tamil – Vincent Britto,Matru Kalacharam in G Stephen (ed.), Panpattu Verkalai Tedi (Tamil Culture: Hermeneutics), (Palayankottai, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu: Folklore Resources and Research Centre), 1999, pp 220 ff.46 Lemons are usually used by the performers of black magic to contain their incantations in the fruit. Sweet lime is therefore perceived in traditional Indian society both as a source of be-witching and is at the same time used as an anti-dote to black magic. It is not uncommon to find a garland of margosa (neem) leaves interspersed with sweet limes, hanging on the threshold of traditional south Indian homes.47 Palvarisai’s imprecations can be read on pp 78-79 and again on p 81.48 Ibid, pp 80-81 of the text. 49 PeriyaEzhuthu Aravalli-Suravalli Kadai (Chen-nai: R G Pati Company), 1973, see pp 97-98. The connection between dangerous sexuality and controlled ‘female power’ is discussed in George Hart’s article on ‘Woman and the Sacred in An-cient Tamil Nadu’ in Kumkum Roy (ed.),Women in Early Indian Societies (Delhi: Manohar), 1999, pp 233ff.50 The story of the seven sisters as the legend of Ar-avalli and Suravalli’ is popularly called, has been subject to analysis as performance texts by A Dhananjayan in his article “Ezhu Kannimar Vazhipatttil Puranamum Chadangum” (Puranic Content and Ritual Content in the Worship of the Seven Sisters) in the bookPanpattu Varkalai Tedi (In Search of Cultural Roots) (ed.) by J Stephan and published by the Palayankottai, Tamil Nadu: Folklore Society, 1999, pp 105-14.51 American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol 88, No 3, pp 734-35.52 Henry H Stahl,The Traditional Rumanian Village Communities, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p 9.

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