Spirituality of a Folklorist

Vincent Britto S. J.

Image: Banjo Emerson via Unsplash

One of the gifts that the people in Tamilnadu have received during COVID-19 lock-down period is Rain. One of the ill effects of this lock-down period is lack of food or lack of Sharing Of Food. Showers of rain and sharing of food not only sustain the life of every human being, but also add meaningfulness to life itself. In the Worship of Folk Deities or in any Folk Religious practices rain and food are the core elements.

Naadu sezhikka venum nalla mazhai peyya venum” (May the country prosper, may good rain pour down) are the words of greetings with which Folk Artistes bless the people in various performance contexts. More than entertainment, efficacy is a very important objective of Folk Performing Arts. The discourse through which the aesthetics of the performance of Folk Art forms and the rituals which go hand in hand with them is expressed is in terms of powerfulness and efficacy of the performances. Whether a performance of Folk Art or ritual has induced people’s participation such as gradual expansion of the circle of performers in a Kummi performance or in tribal dance, people getting possessed by the deities and dancing in trance and people making ritual offerings in the form of food and animal sacrifice, etc. or whether such performance has brought in graces in the form of rains, prosperity, fertility, etc. are the aspects based on which a Folk art or ritual would be assessed. In most of the contexts of Worship of Folk Deities and other rituals, showers of rain leading towards prosperity and sharing of food would be the desired grace.

In the villages Aarsuthippattu and Narthevan Kudikadu of Thanjavur region, there are troupes which perform Iraniyan Naatakam (Iraniyan Drama). The efficacious expectation out of its performance is rain. Within their own villages or in other villages the artistes perform this play when they experience the need for rain. Towards this purpose they rehearse the play for more than a week by observing fast and abstinence. In many places where the Iraniyan Naatakam troupe of Narthevan Kudikadu performed it rained heavily including Palayamkottai where this ritual play was performed during a Folk Festival organized by Folklore Resources and Research Centre, St. Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai in 1995. There have been also occasions when the performers of other folk art forms felt very happy to experience rains immediately after their performance as blessing from heaven. It rained at the end of the three day long Vaasaappu ( a form of Christian Folk Theatre) on Dhairiya Rayar (The play seems to be on King Constantine who defended Christianity) performed by the men of Gengappattu of Thiruvannamalai District in May 2007. Similarly at the end of Modikkoothu performance in Nallaan Pillai Petraal of Thiruvannamalai District there was a drizzle in 2006.

The very fact that the annual festivals of the Folk Gods and Goddesses in Tamilnadu is called as Kodai (offering) in Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli Districts or as Pongal in some parts of Thoothukkudi and in Virudhunagar and Ramnad Districts or as Koozhootruthal (pouring porridge) in Northern Tamilnadu, it is very clear that food is given prime importance in festivals of folk deities. With gratitude to their family or village deity, people offer cooked food in the form of rice and meat of the animals sacrificed during the festival or in the form of ragi porridge for the good rains they have experienced, for the good harvest they have reaped and for the protection and well being of the people. The food that is offered to the deity will be finally shared by the people who participate in the village festivals.

In Dargah worship by the Muslims there is a ritual called ‘Peer pot lifting’. In this ritual, a man who has been fasting for several days would lift from the oven a pot containing ritual food cooked out of rice and herbs, keep it on his bare head without any cloth on the head and would walk fast to the Dargah to the chanting of Allah’s name and to the sounds of rhythm produced by percussion instruments. In the Dargah this ritual food would be distributed to the people.

During important days of feast and church festivals in the Christian tradition of southern districts food is shared by the people in the form of ‘Asanam’ wherein people offer vegetables, fruits, etc. and the food is cooked out of these offerings and shared by all.

As rain and food are the basic necessities of life in the universe and of the humanity the Spirituality of the subaltern people is concerned about fulfilling these basic necessities.

About the Author:

Vincent Britto, S.J. is at present Principal of Loyola College, Vettavalam. He specialised in Ethnomusicology through a Masters programme at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His Ph.D. was on “Mausic-making and People’s Participation in Ritual Contexts”(Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Palayamkottai). He is quite active with his varied experiences in the fields of Music, Theatre, Folk Performing Arts, Spiritual Direction and Counselling.