Thursday, April 4, 2013

Neeleswaram: Chaliya Porattu

Away from the fast pace life is the serene ambiance of Neeleswaram, Kasargod. At the northern most periphery of Kerala the town is named after Neelakanda, Lord Siva. In this palm fringed land of paddy fields, laterite hills and Theyyams there is a palpable peace. And as if to tell what she is Neeleswaram has a literal forest right in the middle of the town, the Mannanpurathu Kavu. An ancient Sacred Grove spread over several acres, with a picture perfect pond lined with laterite. Here people can be seen taking rest inside the cool shades of the thick forests. Most of it is wild, no one disturbs, save stray animals.

Basically a Hindu town, with some acculturate Muslims, it is a simple unassuming people here. The only Christian community presence, harbingers of 'development', in the region is in the hills towards the Karnataka borders where settlers have made a Kottayam complete with the values and life styles.  The gigantic trees in many of the Kavus, Sacred Groves, here point to the ecosystem in olden days. Presently it is laterite hills all over and the laterite is profusely used in buildings, the temples, houses, all, and the ponds made of laterite in the region show great craftsmanship. Sandwiched between the forest hills of Kodagu, South Kanara and the seas Kasargod has its rare charm. May be the region underwent lateritization, through wrong interventions, in what was once a rain forest ecosystem. And there is a general decadence though, perhaps due to the break up of the traditional agrarian economy.        

And it is here that the Chaliya Porattu festival takes place. It is a privilege of the Chaliya community, who can abuse anyone that day, including the gods. Poratu, a kind of  fancy dress parade, has its customary criticism of all. No one objects. Poratu starts at the Chaliya community Goddess temple. The Padma Saliyas, now called Chaliyas, are traditional weavers. Industrial production has weakened them is obvious but they are catching up.  And the Porattu is staged in between the Siva temple and the Goddess temple, street plays that the community members enact could be the oldest dramas in the land.

It is not religious in the normal sense, they dress up in great variety, use a language what could be termed immoral at other temples, are free to ridicule any community or people on this occasion. The God himself is ridiculed as of no use. Coming in front of the temple, at times drunk, and chiding is not seen elsewhere. It also has a taste of the famous Bharani festival at Kodugalloor, though the language is much less hard. The sexual overtones make the womenfolk blush, men jeer.  No sins here, no satvic pretensions. They all celebrate the no hold barred attitude for a day.    

They appear one after other, the hardy Muslim butcher with the goat; the money lusty Kongini Brahmins; always dancing, scantily clad white woman; the ever complaining potter’s wife; the khakhi clad policeman; the range is quite exhaustive. It is a big crowd that assembles and this includes the local heavy weights like the olden day rajas, nobility, all of whom get attacked. The woman balloon seller comes and complains that someone helped fill air in the balloon, and then pumped in and filled her too, now she is herself a balloon and not able to walk. She is dressed miserably pregnant.

Another batch of youth, dressed as fashionable girls, displays their under bellies, also carry placards that say ‘wear your sarees to cover the under belly, not display it, or expose and  enjoy, then don’t shout peedanam’.  The Muslim butcher is asked by the dhoti clad Kongini Brahmins to get out ‘Edo Maple, Erangu Porathu,  Ithu Ngade Kovilu’, to get out from the temple premises, and the Moplah, Muslim, is pretty furious and tells ‘ 'Edo Kongini Pattare, Rahasyamayi Pothirachy Thinna Karyam Nammalu Vilichu Parayum, Mundandiri Avide’ That is, you Kongini Pattar, I will shout about your secret beef eating habits, or shut up’. So on the Poratu goes, what makes one think of obvious parallels in real life, and it is a time of merry making, fun and gaiety.

It is a faith of another kind, not ostracism and denials. It tells one about the play of life, the actors are all there, recreated. And no wonder the place has a strong presence of Communists, whose religiosity is quite secular and popular, they drink and eat meat and the local deities are many of them similar in habits. Though the major temples are all mostly Satvic. How often  the temples here see fights, one group representing the satvic model and the other rajasic, the Poratu is from the latter school. In a sense it is a Hindutwa versus Communist Hindu tussle that. They don't seem to fight here at Neelewswaram, may be afraid that it will sound like another Porattu. Time they honor each other, be at peace, both are needed. This land of Theyyams, it seems, refuses to be tamed, they have their weird ways that do not fit in to the conventional Hindu paradigms of faith. Or that of other religions. And that perhaps retains the easy going nature friendly culture here, also the ecosystem, unlike elsewhere in Kerala.

The lone white woman with colored hair, exposed thighs and a smattering of English has an urge for too much love, as she says, and is always carrying a hand held fan, its too hot she says. When another group comes with a lawn mower and offers free service, to clear the over grown under growth if any, as they announce. What else can one do but laugh, when the elite women blush, older women smile showing the toothless gums. Poratu is mischievous and as of now no moral police have come to take action, only the fake police is there, hope it goes on, what is life without some fun. And an occasional mix up happens when some of them, having had one drink too many, enacts their own Porattu. Others explain, that is Porattu alright, but not Chaliya Porattu.  But close near there are old palaces now in ruins, which point to the historic changes, post-colonial disregard to heritage. Neeleswaram was the seat of a small kingdom, from the many in Kolathunadu of north Kerala, what was one from the federal structure of the western coast till the arrival of the Muslim invaders, like Hyder Ali of Mysore and the Europeans. But the ruling values and royalty fairly retained positions till the British period, general decay affecting all institutions later. And the Porattu continues unaffected.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fernandez and the Violin

It was a sultry summer noon at the beach. Usually crowded in the evenings there were not many people around. A fiercely mustached man  with his bird cage, a fortune teller, walked around in the sun, looking for clients.  The lone ice cream vendor with his mobile cycle shop was sitting at the band stand. Couple of people slept inside as the hot winds blew the beach sands all around.

Sea was calm and far away in the outer sea one could see a ship in anchor, another boat nearby. Eagles floated around high above in the skies, watching the land below. Some boys on a bike came and left, perhaps those slipping off from class at the nearby college. A police jeep came, took a round, left. No one got out, such was the heat. Another family came in a car, may be mother, father and adult children, they too took to the shades of the band stand.  

And then he came, a clean man ever smiling, in graying old pants, shirt ducked in, a faded belt tied around,
and carrying a violin. The case of the violin was far too old, but he kept it dear as could be guessed. He came silently, sat near the ice-cream vendor, they made some small talk. After a while slowly the man stood up, came to the centre of the band stand and started playing the violin.

He played it well, swaying, as if Yehudi Menuhin in concert at a city hall, as the lashing sea waves gave the symphony. It went on for some time, then he stopped, and holding the violin approached each one around. He did not beg, just stood there, his eyes mischievously asking for small change. When someone gave he smiled, when someone did not give then also he smiled, fine, no complaints. Again went and sat near the friend, the ice cream vendor.    

Later he went out from the band stand looking for more clients. There were a pair of lovers sitting close to the sea under an umbrella, and some boys were playing in the waves and his aim was to entertain them. As he moved away I asked the ice cream vendor, who is that man. That is a very rich man, his name Fernandez. Owns a villa in the city and estates but will not take anything from home.

His wife and children are all very rich as well, they are in the United States as someone tells, he said. An Anglo-Indian he comes every day, sings and collects the donations, then goes to the nearby bar, takes his quota of drinks and takes food. Returns back to the beach and till evening he entertains the people, gets what they give. I looked towards the sea where he went, he was trying to play for the love birds, who seemed not very keen though.  But he has no complaints. Left adding one more to the beautiful people met in this life. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Musings on Womanhood and India

In  the year circa 2013 looking up from down south Delhi is showing paradoxes. Cruelty to women come as a routine, though we have a progressive regime in power, a pious lady, that an Italian by birth, is in charge of the ruling party. Seen here being fed cakes on her birthday, but through a poster, all that the fan can achieve. This purdah clad Muslim woman is one among the millions of Indians who love her. And in Delhi member of a minority community, or so called, is the Prime Minister. What more can we do, ask the man on the street. But they call Delhi now the 'rape capital' and the stories media celebrate are repulsive. As waves of persecuting women appear in news who can stand silently. The questions are obviously intriguing, how come, is it the whole backlog of inhibitions and denials suddenly exploding after the communications revolution. Or is it the cell phones, internet and social networks, triggering vices in a conservative society. Or is it still a counter reaction to the glorification of all past traditions that the political Hindu fold unleashed in the immediate past. Though well meaning it had its traps. Or all of these  together, anyway, as it is the scene is depressing.

And as some of the feminist writers scream aloud about the ugly Indian male the drift in gender distance is growing by the day. Men fear women and vice versa, no sane society can exist that way. They have genuine concerns, just as India's dalits, tribals, there are chronic issues that the India polity refuses to acknowledge. And some of the women writers do get poignant, but given the general trend these end up mostly as cries in the wilderness. Kalpana Sharma, a leading name, has been writing in the mainstream 'Hindu' newspaper for long, with concrete data, of how women in India are a prejudiced lot. There are reports of female infanticide, dowry related persecution, skewed male - female ratios, but the facts remain looked at with disdain. Kalpana's writings in the 'Hindu' did not make much impact even among the Hindus. Perhaps the ruling faith has its own limitations, that is not to say that the other faiths are exemplary, all religions have bias towards women, tell the feminists. But things are changing with the new internet revolution and women so far closed behind iron curtains of custom and faith are breaking doors and speaking out. A cleansing is in order, pent up neurosis shall get cured.

It seems days of the Amazonian women are coming back. Perhaps the legendary Nayar women, to take a native model. The internet and cell phone are breaking barriers and apart from the freedom it gives, also the options of anonymity, the flood of porn material is also breaking open ground. Human beings too have instincts and one sex trying to attract the opposite is a natural urge, no clergy can stop that. But religion with its ideas of sin from the middle ages has pushed healthy, natural sexuality under the carpet. And now the relatively open sexual values of the west are creeping in to the conservative Indian society. Many of these sites may be healthy but some are plain sick. What ca trigger violence in young delinquent people. Some of the placards at the Delhi meet of girls shouted that they shall decide whom to share their bodies with. The violence to womanhood at the Delhi gang rape can make people insane. And that means the volcano is erupting, and that creates shocks in a conservative society. The new dress codes young women have adopted of late, from the west, are indeed provocative in a society denied normal sex for ages. And as if to add there are also archaic colonial laws that linger on, without change. What takes male - female interaction outside marriage taboo, given the sickness of the almost all male police force it gets creepy. And the past process of decolonization, through the native resurgence, sadly, became counter productive in the immediate past, it became regressive. And the scene in general shows threats of future anarchy unless  properly channelized.

Not that Delhi alone is the accused, spread over India random cases of persecution are being reported. Apart from the media psychology of taking in news that sells at a point of time, they run for advertisement revenue and news is just a bait, there are wrong messages being sent out. Soon women may run away from those Indian men going abroad, packs of Indian men are prowling upon women as gang rapes are the current fashion, or so we are told. Within India in a strange mindset the tourists are permitted to wear what they wish and scantly clad women can be seen across the country. Their self dependence, freedom are attractive to the new generation and naturally so.   The denial of Indian society applies only to the desi women. But looking back far the native Indian, call it Hindu, idiom was never this bleak. The caste prejudices too seems to come from the near past. For the tribals are hardly affected by these values. The gods were almost all with wives, some more than one and many far more. So the drift seems from some where in the middle ages, when the present model of Hinduism came to hold sway. So also with the great Rishis, saints, most of whom had wives, so the contemporary concepts of Brahmacharya, Satvic life, no idea how much of these are subverted by vested interests, seems not very old. May be it is time for a change, Sanathan Dharma has always adapted to change.

In any case honor for women cannot be looked at as a feminist concern, for women give birth to, nurture, men and women, the new generations. Women driven neurotic shall mold a generation that is neurotic as well. How thinkers tell that the ills of the country are linked to status of women. Even the present ecological catastrophe. The unnatural curbs on male - female relations and the notions of sin attached to the physical functions of the human body are counter productive and a stage has come when these cannot wait to be redefined. It is only proper that the society cures itself of the sickness, where the Saints have a big role to play. This not the ones who make money and fame by parroting old phrases but those who can relate to the society and its hidden problems. They have enough material available if they are to go by ancient traditions and practices. There are rudiments of healthy practices in India where women are honored in native idiom. Perhaps from before the incoming Semitic faiths also influenced the native faith. And there are parallels. The rituals of Mother Goddess worship, with young girls carrying sprouting seeds come from this list of innumerable cults of India's agrarian past. There were also celebrations of girls coming of age, puberty, where sexuality was no sin. All these got lost in between, bringing in a potent mix of unhealthy trends, both imported and native. Gang rapes have their genesis, it is in a sense the sickness of a society that appeared in a few morbid men. While calling for exemplary punishments this angle cannot be ignored.    

Back in Kerala, where too a series of molestation and rape reports are in the news, the ruffle of the once stagnant equilibrium is visible. Chronic morbidity is showing up, it was so far hidden and far too may cases of inter-family sexual violence are also making head lines. Indeed the very fabric of the holy culture seems breaking up and for those concerned they cannot look away.  The silent suffering of women is no more confined to kitchens. A more healthy male - female relationship, a more healthy sexuality are indeed required and that has to get socio-religious sanction. Where the Acharyas shall have to shed their surplus fat and scholarship and look anew at  society and scriptures. Times are changing, not doing that shall mean distorted ideas of freedom taking over the new generations, what cannot be stopped as the information highways are open and cannot be barricaded. Self denials and pretensions may not stand scrutiny before the new generations and it is only proper that legitimate ways are evolved. The Mother Goddess indeed seems angry and clinging on to past formulas of all is well may not help. For India with her sublime spirituality body centred approaches may be anathema but disowning it is also anomalous. Man and woman are inseparable let there be no distancing there, one affects the other, the Indian society itself needs to heal in this matter. That in no way belittles its greatness.