Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Of Death, Rituals and Songs for the Dead:
Kodavas and their Histories

Sowmya Dechamma C.C.

  1. I begin with a personal anecdote. It was 1990–91 and, at fourteen-years old, I was in the ninth grade at High school. The school had taken us for a trek-picnic and we had hiked up a hill on the outskirts of our small town, Somwarpet, in the district of Kodagu, Karnataka State, India. Among others, we were accompanied by our history teacher who was from Mysore, the cultural capital and the scene of all 'the noteworthy’ history in the State for centuries. The view from the hilltop was magnificent and we were taking it in when the history teacher joined us and said: 'You people of Kodagu have only scenic beauty to boast about and have no history at all.’ Fourteen years is still an age when the teacher's word is sacrosanct. This is especially so when you are trained to believe that history happens 'out there' to someone 'up there' and not for or about you, and that history is the written record of the rulers with temples, palaces, forts and monuments for witnesses. Histories, oral or otherwise, of people like Kodava, a minority community in terms of number, power and socio-cultural practices, are dismissed and erased during such day-to-day discourses, which is largely a result of the way in which mainstream academic discourses governed by hegemonic groups deal with history. It is only now as an adult academic that I can of think of counter-arguments, of alternate histories that are much richer and enlivening than the history we are normally asked to accept unquestioningly. This paper is therefore an attempt, to listen, to retell, and to understand our own histories through narratives—oral and ritual.
  2. My effort in this paper is to point out how death becomes central in the production of human life and human history. And, how, through the songs for the dead, a minority community offers its own version of its history that differs from dominant versions of history. More importantly, it gives us methods of doing history, knowing history in a way that has rarely been considered or has been considered peripheral. Despite the notion and vision of history emerging from the peripheral and marginal—I, following Nadia Seremetakis, argue that these histories are not dependent and 'are capable of denying recognition to any centre.'[1]
  3. What follows in this introductory section is a brief discussion of the method I followed to gather source material for this paper. In the first section, 'Death Rituals and the Kodava: Reading against the Hindu,' I briefly attempt to situate the ethnographical history of Kodavas and their socio-cultural practices in the context of their identity as an indigenous community, not belonging to the order of the Hindu. I connect this to my focus on the rituals surrounding death which I describe in some detail. In outlining the ritual practices of a community that is somewhat less studied, I want to make it clear that my reading of these practices is concerned about and connected to the constantly changing perceptions of modernity among the Kodavas and also to the changing customs and practices of the community. Very importantly, it is through these customs that I read a counter-culture/counter-history to the dominant Hindu culture/history that, through assimilative strategies, has gradually erased histories and practices of cultures that, by their very nature, question the ways of the Hindu. The next two sections analyse death songs through which the community's histories are read. In the section entitled, 'Of Binaries and Gendering,' I explore and question the masculine and the feminine as elaborated and generalised in the Hindu-Indian context. My main concern in this section is to show how songs sung for the dead and rituals of death are indeed proof of the different gendered roles among different communities. Unlike the much-studied caste-Hindus among whom gender roles and history are seen as very specific, exclusive, and non-interchangeable, I point towards a fluid and material world of genders that to me is possible only in the absence of brahminical hegemony. In the final section, 'Little Stories and Big Histories', I read songs sung for the dead as documents of history that record the little moments; the little stories; the lives of 'inconsequential' individuals; their work; minor and major changes in climate, that affect subsistence agricultural practices; relationships, etc. In failing to recognise a central history that controls all histories, this documenting of little stories, I argue, counters the big history which is recorded and made available to the literate world of the powerful.
  4. My focus here is on a Kodava community that speaks the Kodava language in Kodagu or Coorg district in Southern Karnataka, India.[2] Since I belong to the community that I am researching, the information mentioned here and its interpretation constitute an ongoing process of my observation and understanding of my community over the past ten years or so, when I began to be conscious of 'our'/my difference from mainstream culture. I lived with my community in the district of Kodagu, for the first twenty years of my life; the following twelve years I have spent studying, researching, and working outside Kodagu. I, like most Kodavas, 'go back' to Kodagu for every wedding, death/funeral, child birth and Puthari—our main festival which can loosely be translated as the harvest festival. This switching between the rural/urban, moving back and forth, neither completely rural nor completely urban—is a cultural continuum with which Kodavas identify themselves. But being a researcher, I make it a point to spend at least two months a year at home travelling within the Kodagu district, trying to understand various subtleties that have marked us as different and also have pushed us to assimilate into the Hindu fold.
  5. However, I want to make it very clear that being both an 'insider' and a researcher is not at all easy. This is not because being an insider lacks the 'dispassionate objectivity' that is supposedly required of the researcher, for I believe passion and subjectivity are essential for any researcher. Being an insider was not easy because of the multiple roles I had to play—as an individual, as a member of my family, of my clan, of my village, community, as an observer, ethnographer, a fellow celebrator or mourner as and when rituals demanded. This is what drew me strongly to Nadia Seremetaki's book, The Last Word: Women, Death and Divination in Inner Mani in which she demonstrates how being an insider is more rewarding and enriching.[3] While observing and recording rituals of festivity, even as I participate as a fellow celebrator, is a matter of joy and does not necessarily break any ritual protocol; observing and recording rituals of death demand a far more sensitive approach. Therefore, my memory of attending funerals from May 2003 to December 2007—during my annual two-month visits to Kodagu and at the death of people close to me, and making notes on them much later are all central to this paper. More crucial are discussions with and interpretations of my informants, two men and two women, all of whom have passed the age of fifty, (seventy being the oldest), and many others with whom I could talk (usually someone related to me, but not necessarily) during and after the death and funeral ceremonies.

    Death rituals and the Kodava: reading against the Hindu
  6. The Kodava speakers are minorities in the sense of being linguistic and ethnic minorities and as minorities in relation to the caste structure.[4] They are a community that is best classified as indigenous non-Hindu, for their practices clearly point to a non-brahminical status. The Kodavas number little more than 100,000 and the speak a distinct Dravidian language also called Kodava. They are indigenous to Kodagu, a district in the western ghats of Karnataka state, India. The district is scenic, surrounded by hills, it has one of the heaviest rainfalls in the country and has a pleasant climate throughout the year. In recent times, Kodavas have dispersed and are mostly concentrated in the cities of Mysore and Bangalore and, to a small extent, all over India and some abroad. Kodavas maintain a strong sense of cultural and social independence. They all used to be and many still are subsistence agriculturists, though they have given up hunting. In terms of everyday culture and ways of life, Kodavas are governed by their material world and are quite secular. Unlike Hindus, their religious beliefs are not embodied in permanent forms and they do not practice idol worship and eat meat and consume liquor at all ritual occasions. They also do not worship fire and fire does not figure in any traditional rituals (fire being central to Hindu rituals).
  7. Kodavas are divided into patrilineal clans called okka, with each okka having a separate kaimada (place of worship for the ancestors). They also worship agricultural and hunting tools and appease the ancestors and certain spirits (kuliya) once a year. There seems to be no central concept of god, with most god-based temples of recent origin being from either the neighbouring Mangalore or Kerala. Along with Kodava, Kannada and Malayalam (Kodagu borders Kerala) are the other two main languages spoken in Kodagu. Again, the relationship among Kodava speakers within Kodagu and their relation to Kannada speakers within and outside Kodagu are marked not only by differences in language, but also by differences in what is generally termed as 'ethnic culture,' but most importantly they are marked by caste that characterises this culture.
  8. In the popular memory of both Kodavas and Kannadigas (other peoples who also live in the State of Karnataka and who speak Kannada), Kodavas are thought of as warriors. This automatically leads to the assumption that they belong to the warrior caste. This misconstrued warrior identity arose because of the supposedly good martial skills of Kodava men who 'served' under the kings who once ruled Kodagu.[5] Though the geographical and political entity of Kodagu has changed over time and under different rulers, Kodagu has never been ruled by an 'insider' —Kodava or any others from Kodagu. Interestingly, it has always been ruled by 'outsiders' including the kings belonging to the Lingayat caste. These kings hailed from Haleri in north Karnataka and had their seat of power in Madikeri. The people of Kodagu have been small-scale agriculturists with hunting and gathering as supplements to subsistence until the arrival of British coffee plantations. From the well-documented times of Haleri kings (1600–1834), Kodavas at best have been dewans and mostly foot soldiers for the king. A cursory glance at the customs and rituals of most Kodava-speaking peoples show that they are neither idol worshippers nor do they include priestly brahmins in any of their ceremonies.[6] All their festivals revolve around agricultural practices and none in the name of any Hindu god. This is to a large extent practiced even today. But interestingly, the government of Karnataka categorises the Kodavas of Kodagu as belonging to 'Other Backward Castes' (OBC)[7] which falls under the shudra / low category under the Hindu caste system, although they are a modernised indigenous group outside the fold of Hindu. Because the notions of the Indian government are strongly governed by the caste system and it is difficult for majoritarian policy-makers to think and see outside caste, the government of Karnataka has categorised Kodavas as 'other backward castes.' When a community that defies a definition that frames it within the brahminical order, the state apparatus finds it is convenient to 'bind it serially' in the OBC Hindu list, thereby saying that, though communities like Kodavas are 'a little different'—eating pork for instance—but are not Christians, and are not Muslims and therefore they are Hindu. And precisely because they are different, they need to be ranked down in the order, but definitely not outside it. This now becomes a classic example of much difference is desirable and, these differences are not suppressed but are subordinated to the 'standard.'[8] Therefore, I argue that by virtue of being forced into the caste system as an OBC in itself becomes a point of identification as a Hindu although this hinduisation does not happen through rituals and practices; however, many Kodavas when asked about their religion, mention it as Hindu. This is possibly because of their OBC status and because one perceives as necessarily belonging to Hindu by default—by not belonging to other organised religions. The polarisation of Hindu and Muslim in the recent decades has also pitted the Kodava against the Muslim and has strengthened the perception of Kodava as Hindu.
  9. Therefore, I begin and end with the premise that Kodavas are a minority community whose practices do not belong to the hegemonic Hindu brahminical fold. I have repeated this because it is important to know how such communities have been very conveniently bracketed as communities that in some way or the other, follow the 'Hindu way of life' since it is uncritically believed that 'Hinduism is nothing but a way of life.' Through the reading of songs for the dead and rituals surrounding them, what I question is precisely this: how communities like the Kodavas, despite their autonomous religious practices, have been gradually assimilated as being one Hindu, albeit of a lower caste. The study of death and related cultures offers a host of issues from which I can take off. Understanding death is inseparable from understanding history and, as Nadia Seremetakis points out, is inseparable from a people's 'cultural imagination.'[9] Also,

      the study of death rituals is a positive endeavour. In all societies, regardless of whether their customs call for festive or restrained behaviours, the issue of death throws into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed.[10]

  10. Talking about death is significant because it signifies history that is not past, not removed from the immediate, and because it does not 'completely exhaust the living tradition.'[11] To talk about death is also to talk about kinship, clan, family lineages, relationships, as well as autobiography—the autobiography of an individual important in herself / himself and to the community in which s/he has spent her/his life. In all these ways and more, rituals of death offer us a space of contestation, of antagonism, of retrospection of our own and community's 'self' at different levels.


  11. The customary death rituals among Kodavas are many and at times in the past extended to six months. These are now usually restricted to eleven days after a death. Since my purpose here is not to describe in detail the ceremonies during death and thereafter, but rather to examine the songs that are sung during the process and place both the songs and rituals in a historical context, I shall very briefly give an outline of the death rituals, detailing whenever it seems necessary.
  12. From the time when members of the okka (clan) are sure that a person will not recover, the rituals start with making a vow for the dead (parake) and continue until tike uttuva (the ritual end of the mourning period). Between these two practices, Kodavas practice a range of customs most of which are prevalent to this day. However, the customs vary from region to region within Kodagu and sometimes can vary from village to village within the same region. I also note with interest that many of these customs are subject to change when conditions are not conducive. In 2009, during early monsoons, when a woman of ninety belonging to the Kunjangada clan died in my village Nemmale, South Kodagu, there were incessant rains. Since it is almost impossible to cremate during rains, she was buried. Cremation is usually the norm for aged individuals who die a natural death. After the vow is made (parake)), the dying person is carried to the central hall (badek edpa) where a vigil is kept. As soon as the person dies, water is poured into the corpse's mouth (baayik neer kodpa) and two gun shots are fired so the villagers will know of the death.[12] Once this is done, dalit men (called poleyas, the lowest in the caste order) in the village or the nearby villages are engaged to beat the funeral drum (Chaav Pare). Then the mourners—husband/wife, children, close relatives take a dip in the nearby pond (neerk iliyuva) and remove their ornaments. Some food is kept in the lane (onik kul beppa) and when the mourners return from the pond, they pay obeisance to the corpse (chaavuk kai kodpa) after removing their head-dresses. This is done by touching the chest of the deceased with the back of his / her palm and then by touching his / her own chest with the palm as if one is beating the chest. This not only can be interpreted as a sign of mourning but also to check if the 'deceased' heart has indeed stopped. Many have noted how customs of death are a reverse/inverse of the customs of life. Younger Kodavas usually pay respects to living elders when met after a gap of time, by touching their feet with their palms. But when an elderly person is dead, the respects are paid with palms turned upwards and by touching the chest. Among Kodavas, I find the inversed customs more important, because the ritualistic Hindu and the ritualistic Kodava seem to exist in complete contradiction. If Hindus use rice coloured yellow with turmeric for all auspicious rituals,[13] Kodavas use rice coloured with turmeric only for funeral rituals, something which for Hindus is clearly inauspicious. While the colour white is auspicious for Hindus, among Kodavas, men wear white for their wedding and death, and for women, white is inauspicious and is worn only for death rituals. While Kodava women wear red for their wedding, women of the brahminical castes at least in the past had to wear red only as widows. Therefore, for the Kodavas, the lines between what is inauspicious and auspicious are not clearly defined and, unlike the way dead bodies are treated by brahminical castes, dealing with the dead is not defilement (only a certain caste of Dalit men prepare the pyre, and handle it once it is lit by a male—in case of people belonging to braminical castes). In fact, it is a matter of honour, and it is only people close to the deceased among Kodavas who are involved in cremation or burial.
  13. Once everyone pays their respects to the deceased, the corpse is made to lie in a position so that there is no bleeding in the case of a late cremation (tekat kutuva). It is then that four men and four women begin the lamenting. The men and women alternatively sing the funeral song (chaav paat). In case the corpse is kept overnight, the song is sung throughout the night, though this overnight singing is rarely practiced these days. Though singing of the funeral songs and songs in praise of the dead takes place, this is restricted to people who know the songs. The constant movement of the younger generation between Kodagu and their newer habitations outside Kodagu has to a certain extent affected the transmission of these songs. But more importantly, a very definite change in the local economy has had its effects on the socio-cultural fabric of Kodavas. According to my seventy-year-old informant, Chengappa, the meadows where young Kodava boys and girls took their cattle to graze and a communal setting of the joint-house (balya mane, literally big-house), were spaces where youngsters met, sang and learnt songs from one another. A gradual shift from subsistence agriculture to plantation,[14] from joint/clan holding of property to individual family-based holdings and living has considerably reduced spaces and chances where these are songs are learnt, transmitted and sung. So in effect, if in the Kiggatnad region of Kodagu, there are very few people who know how to sing, in Mendale nad and Surlabbi nad, there are still many who know how to sing and practice in ritual ceremonies.
  14. Once the chaav paat (funeral song) is sung, the corpse is bathed and dressed. If the deceased is a man, he is dressed with his white overcoat (kupya—a man wears a white kupya only at his wedding and after his death; on all other occasions, men wear black kupya) which is worn inside out: if the deceased is a woman, she is dressed with a sari and her blouse is worn inside out (yet another case of reversal of custom).[15] Then, the corpse is made to lie (chaav kutuva) in the central hall (nellaki nadu bade) and then the husband/wife and close younger relatives of the deceased go the pond/river and take a dip once again.
  15. After certain rituals involving the funeral drum beat and cooking of food specially meant for the funeral, once again, obeisance is paid by everyone who attends the funeral. Men and women who attend the funeral are required to wear light/white coloured clothes. In the past, when certain Dalit families were attached to certain Kodava families, the Dalit man or woman who mourns along with the chief Kodava mourner used to perform a funeral dance (anga muripa) which is no longer in practice. Meanwhile, a few Kodavas are sent to prepare the burial pit or to cut firewood for the cremation. Once this is complete, the corpse is placed on the bier which usually is a chair and is carried only by Kodavas. People who do not follow the corpse to the cemetery give water to the corpse (nir kodpa) and then everyone places some money next to her / him which is considered as contribution to the funeral expenses.[16] They lift the bier from the courtyard, rock it as they sing the funeral song and dance three rounds in a counter-clockwise direction. The song is again sung all the way to the cemetery. Close relatives and chief mourners circumambulate the pyre/pit; the pots they carry are broken, bangles of the widow are broken; a widower ties a silver coin to the hem of his dead wife's saree (symbolising his detachment from jewellery/adornment/),[17] the corpse is stripped of all jewels, (padichi kadatuva), clothes removed (if body is to be cremated) and then covered completely with a white cloth, and is placed on the pyre or in the pit. It is then the chief mourner—wife/husband, son/daughter/niece/nephew who lights the pyre or puts three handfuls of earth into the pit. The last ritual of lighting the pyre or burying the dead is to me hugely significant and I shall come back to it again in the next section. There is a period of mourning which ends on the pannand day (eleventh day) or on the maada day (ritual ending of mourning which these days usually coincides with the pannand day, when everyone from the family, clan, village and other relatives is invited for lunch to pay their last respects), until then, in the family of the deceased, family members younger than the deceased should stay apart for mourning (mengate nippad) and observe certain rituals. The chief mourner along with people who observe mengate nippad, should also observe kulik nippad (literally standing aside for the bath or rituals observed by the closest mourners). Certain people who are either pregnant or ill or too old, or too young are exempted from these rituals, which involve cooking for themselves and abstention from certain kinds of food, not to attend weddings and so on. On the day of the maada, after the mid-day meal, the polichi paat (songs in the praise of the dead) are sung to signal an end to the mourning period.
  16. The songs for the dead among the Kodavas are songs that are sung for the deceased individual (woman, man, child) at three different points of time. First, when the corpse is laid in the central hall for others to pay their obeisance immediately after the person's death. As it has already been mentioned, four men and four women alternatively sing the funeral song. If the corpse is kept overnight, the song is sung throughout the night. While singing, each singer addresses the dead individual according to his/her relationship with him/her. The deceased is addressed by name if s/he is younger than the singer, and in cases where the dead is not related, but older than the singer, they are addressed in general terms depending on the age difference between the singer and the deceased—Tayavva (Grandmother), Ajjayya (Grandfather), Akkayya (elder sister), Annayya (elder brother). The funeral song is repeated for the second time during the funeral procession which is sung again by men and women who accompany the bier to the cemetery. The song sung for the third time is the one sung during the last day of the ritual mourning (maada) which is called Polichi Paat or 'The Song Sung in Praise of the Dead.' Once everyone is served lunch on the day of the maada, a taliyatakki bolcha (a lamp lit and kept on a brass plate) is kept in the central hall and four Kodava men with dudis (drums) and four Kodava women with taala (cymbals) sing in front of it. Before they sing, the singers announce the end of mourning and signal the arrival of all celebrations. The larger framework of these two songs is the same for every deceased individual. A few stanzas differ depending on whether the deceased is a woman or a man. As mentioned, the form of address also differs depending on the singers' relation to the dead person and the gender of the deceased. My argument is that the 'Funeral Songs' and 'The Song in Praise of the Dead' sung for a deceased Kodava are indicative of a people's history. All the songs talk about the dead individual by tracing her/his lineage, by discussing the kind of work the individual was involved in (both within and outside the house), by discussing the relationships within the family, with the clan and within the community, thereby not restricting the focus on the dead but discussing various issues that relate to the community. In the context of Russian lament songs, Vladimir Propp demonstrates that 'there is no way of reconstructing the life of the Russian village from folktales, but from laments we can reconstruct it with details not mentioned in other sources.'[18] Also, by definition, these songs among the Kodavas are not mourning songs; chaav paat is the Song for the Dead and polichi paat is the Song in the Praise of the Dead. It is also obvious that there is no pristine form of lament or author for the songs for the dead. These are often based on biographical content which changes from person to person. The singers in effect need to know the individual and they also need to locate them in the socio-cultural fabric of the community creatively signifying the loss of the dead. And, more than being about the individual self, autobiographical strains in folklore and practices from the periphery reflect history in a number of ways. Though there is a very strong autobiographical strain, both the funeral song and the song in praise of the dead embody the history of the place in terms that range from the political, cultural, social and climax to a point that is a history that unsettles the dominant, gendered and casteist histories of brahminical Hindus.

    Of binaries and gendering
  17. What struck me while reading and researching death and funerary rituals was the central role of women as mourners. Indeed they are central in the role of mourner. Most studies on death ceremonies/rituals focussed on the ways of the principal mourner or the chief mourner who invariably was a woman and in some cases many women.[19] Men were involved in other rituals—in the procession from which women were barred, burying, paying homage, singing, performing, and so on, but the 'act' of mourning/wailing seemed exclusive to women. Most studies also focussed on the rituals where a man dies and the chief mourner is invariably his widow. Isabel Clarke-Deces in her book, No One Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs and Graveyard Petitions, very sensitively captures the death of 'Perumal's Mother.'[20] All the chief mourners in what she describes as Tamil society are women while it is the 'dalit men' (women somehow are not marked by caste) who with their rowdy/bawdy/comical and often lewd songs during death rituals entertained themselves and others. She describes how in almost all the deaths she had witnessed in her field research, it was primarily women who gathered together to mourn and men who made merry and got drunk. As noted in endnote 19, the subject of studies on death in India including that of Isabel Clarke have been women and in a very specific and almost defined role of a mourner. Though Ronda Simms and, to an extent Nadia Serematakis point out how women of both Athens and Inner Mani respectively have created a space for themselves,[21] a space that is empowering in many ways, in the context of India, a victimised mourning has been the framework through which women have been type-caste in studies related to death rituals. In a generalised caste-Hindu context, Clarke-Dece's reason as to why women are cast in the routine mode of victims, while men do not seem to be so deprived by death is convincing.

      Men are less deprived by the death of close kin. When their parents die, they inherit the ancestral home. When their sisters die, their ritual, social and economic standings do not change. When their wives die, they can remarry as soon as they want. In startling contrast to women, men seem to actually gain from death in relation to property, status, authority, another family, and so on. Ironically, death completes rather than depletes them. This perhaps helps to explain why men do not lament at funerals.[22]

  18. Until I began to read on the subject of death, and because my knowledge was limited to the practices of the Kodavas, this seemed strange and very unfamiliar to me. Among the Kodavas, the role of the chief mourner depends upon the circumstances of death. It could be the widow, widower, daughter, son, sisters, brothers, and so on. Though Kodavas are patrilineal, women enjoy certain rights both at their natal and at her in-laws' house. In the case of her husband's death, a woman can choose to stay in either of these places. By rule of tradition which has continued up to now, a widow is not considered inauspicious and she has the right to remarry whenever she chooses. The same is true for a widower. Kodava customs also allow for divorce and remarriage. And so, a woman's ritual and social status is hardly affected by her widowed status and in case she is elderly, she has all rights and privileges enjoyed by elders—both men and women. Unlike the customary Hindu widow who is inauspicious, and the married woman with her husband alive (muthaide/sumangali in some Indian languages), who is auspicious in a space that is not material, Kodava women enjoy certain material rights that unsettle the idealised version, but nonetheless victimised womanhood of caste-Hindus.
  19. I shall discuss this material aspect that, to a certain extent, translates into the material well-being of Kodava women against the idealised Hindu woman with select excerpts from the funeral song. I shall again come back to the ritual aspects surrounding death in order to show that the binaries of gendering the masculine and feminine into the domains of the material and spiritual is a generalised upper-caste Hindu concept and that this can be questioned from several positions, the practices among Kodava being one of them.

      At such a time, Tayavva[23] one fateful day, Tayavva
      at twilight, Tayavva
      after sweeping and sprinkling water, Tayavva
      you lit the nanda[24] lamp, Tayavva
      and saw two flames instead of one, Tayavva
      not that day but the next, Tayavva
      when the golden dawn broke, Tayavva
      you opened the silver door, Tayavva
      the one that faces the east, Tayavva
      and saluted the sun, Tayavva
      after washing your feet and your face, Tayavva
      you swept the floor and sprinkled water, Tayavva
      and lit the nanda lamp, Tayavva
      when you looked at the lamp, Tayavva
      the flame was neither high nor bright, Tayavva
      a little while thereafter, Tayavva
      you had your meal, Tayavva
      and with a knife in your hand, Tayavva
      you went to your fields, Tayavva
      you walked thrice, Tayavva
      around the glistening neka, Tayavva[25]
      and prayed with folded hands, Tayavva
      when you returned, Tayavva
      your right eye twitched, Tayavva.[26]

  20. Partha Chatterjee, in his now well-known argument in 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question,' points out that the nationalist ideology in its struggle against the dominance of British colonialism in India had tried to restore the question of women by separating the domain of culture into two spheres—the material and the spiritual. The material and the spiritual distinction is further connected to the distinction between the outer and the inner which in turn is assigned to specific gendered roles of masculine and feminine.[27]
  21. While agreeing that elites refashioned the 'Indian' tradition during colonialism, what Chatterjee does not point out is that this refashioning also created the 'other' within India, the backward and lower castes who are even now perceived as being tradition-less, history-less. Also, the construction of the feminine as spiritual and masculine as material is, as I have mentioned earlier, something that stands out as a stereotype for the Hindu upper castes. Elsewhere, Dilip Menon argues that Chatterjee's kind of 'Nationalist' Resolution is quite limited in the sense that for people of the lower castes, imagining a free nation had little to do with the material/spiritual divide.[28] This was particularly so because freedom for the lower castes meant a family free of slavery, a happy family well-knit and free from bondage to the brahmanical upper castes. Though the songs for the dead are not directly framed in the context of the struggles against both colonialism and the upper castes, Chatterjee's theory and subsequent arguments assume importance because in most contexts gender roles are generalised as reflecting the material/spiritual and outer world/home divides, a generalisation based on the gender roles of the upper castes. And, these arguments are also important because a nation and its history are almost always defined by the ideology of the upper castes. Hence, talking about the oral histories of Kodavas and the like in relation to mainstream histories is significant.
  22. Going back to the funeral song noted in the beginning, I would like to point out that traditional songs do not make a distinction between what constitutes the material and the spiritual worlds.[29] In addition, there is also no neat gender roles assigned to Kodava men and women. And as Propp argues, the spiritual phenomena of the working classes, if any, can be explained 'by referring to the socio-economic base.'[30] What particularly interests me in the quoted excerpt is that the role/work that has been assigned to the woman. The woman sweeps the courtyard, the house, sprinkles water, lights the lamp, has her food and goes to her field with a knife (not the chaak, which is used in the kitchen, but the kathi, which is used in field/outdoor work) in her hand. While the stereotype of ordering the house/home holds true, it is also obvious that this role performed within the house and outside cannot simply be categorised as spiritual. For, a woman with a knife in hand is not a very common image when one sees/reads/imagines images of 'Indian' women (perhaps the kitchen knife is an exception).[31] This is despite a large percentage of workers in the unorganised sectors including agriculture being women. The song therefore tells us about the work women do both within and outside the house and the connection between the two. The song also records the role of the man as a member within the house, his role within the family and his role outside it. As I shall illustrate, there is also no neat division between any of these categories. A man's or woman's external functions also include her/his commitment to the family, responsibility towards the children and to the Okka, the patrilineal clan, to other kinship relations as an extended family, and an extended home. In addition, songs sung for both women and men are same except for a few stanzas that talk about a woman attaining puberty and a man entering adulthood. Also, the images that are used when talking about the dead person's children do not confirm to any masculine/feminine framework. In effect, though all children are referred to, the images are mostly what can generally be construed as feminine. This only goes to say that the lines between what is seen as masculine and feminine are blurred and these categories are fluid enough to be accommodative.

      This noble and well-known
      Okka full of children
      Is like a string of cakkotta flowers[32]
      Pleasing and fair,
      Like the yarn drawn for carding—
      The fine yarn spun by the weaver
      Like the sheen of golden silk,
      Like the radiance of red silk,
      Like the lustre of green silk,
      Like the embroidery on a grand saree,
      Like reflections in a mirror,
      Like sparks of diamonds,
      Like beads of pearl,
      Like the sky full of stars,
      Like the garden full of flowers.
      Among these children,
      The four of us together

  23. According to ritual practices among the Kodavas, the people closest to the dead—husband/wife/children/brothers/sisters/nieces/nephews—should observe certain restrictions in food, clothing, etc. Including the surviving spouse, at least one or two others from among the group listed above should stand apart for mourning (kulik nippad) after the funeral is over and until the maada—the ritual ending of mourning. It is this standing apart for mourning that decides the chief mourner. And there is no difference in rituals that are to be followed by a male mourner and a female mourner—except for the complete tonsuring of the head for men. (Though not in practice now, among the brahminical castes, it was the widow who had to tonsure her head, in order not to appear sexually attractive, throughout her life once the husband died.) Also, the practice of beating the chest and head and loud wailing by women that is widely recorded among many castes/communities in India deviates among the Kodavas.[34] When the body is laid in the central hall so that people can pay their last respects, both men and women touch the chest of the deceased and then touch their own chests and heads as if to beat themselves. When women return from the first dip in the pond immediately after death, they are required to beat their chest and head. Both these practices of mourning, I observed, are hardly practiced now among Kodavas, while weeping is a matter of individual grief.
  24. What I had mentioned in passing in the first section as hugely important are the ritual aspects in which Kodava women are involved. In cases where the deceased is a man and is survived by his wife who is not indisposed due to illness, it is the wife who has to light the pyre at the cremation ground or fill the burial pit (in cases where the dead is buried). In situations where the dead man's wife is already dead and he has no sons or has a daughter who is first born, the daughter has the same rights. If the deceased is a woman and is survived by her husband, he gets to perform these last rites and if the husband is also dead, it can be the eldest son or daughter. In cases where the man/woman leaves no children behind, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, can light the pyre or fill the pit. That this practice is steeped in the Kodava tradition is proved by its inclusion in the polichi paat, which is not only a song sung in praise of the dead (in this excerpt a man) but it also tells us the complete procedural rituals (that were) to be followed from the time of one's death to that of maad.

      The kai muruva youths
      Placed the blue-faced corpse
      Gently with care
      On the mango-wood pyre.
      Then his dear wife
      With her hand twisted outwards
      Took a lighted stick
      And placed it under the funeral pyre.
      When she had done that
      His family and relatives
      All returned home.[35]

  25. This goes against the basic tenets of patriarchal-brahminical Hinduism where a man should beget a son because only a son can perform the last rites of his father/mother. It is strongly believed even today that only when a son performs the last rites will the departed soul attain salvation and reach heaven. In situations where one does not have a son, a man who by some blood-related definition is a son will have to conduct the rites and no woman however close to the deceased can do the same. As mentioned, among most of the upper castes, women are not even allowed to join the funeral procession. The craving for a son which has led to many a problem in contemporary India among many castes basically revolves around the concept of attaining salvation through the performance of many such rituals by a son. I am not making an argument here for the inclusion of women in rituals, because as far as I can see, there is no direct co-relation between ritual acceptance and material well-being. Because among the Kodavas, the ritual itself is not something that is connected to transcendental salvation or transcendental spirituality, the role women play in rituals is, to some extent, carried over to their material well-being and power in decision making and the freedom of choice in matters relating to family and work.[36]
  26. Studies that have focussed on folklore/oral traditions and certain ritual traditions involving women have mostly discussed how these narratives offer resistance to patriarchy at different levels and in different contexts.[37] These are either categorised as being passive and conforming to the prevalent norms or as offering resistance to the same. Saba Mahmood in her book, The Subject of Freedom, urges us to conceptualise different kinds of agencies to the roles women play beyond the binary of passivity and resistance.[38] Extending this argument to folklore and to ritual practices among Kodavas, I would see how certain histories also enact different kinds of agencies by rejecting, assimilating, conforming, questioning the values of the community and the hegemonic values of the majoritarian communities. I use the word 'enact' in relation to history because 'History—the past transformed into words or paint or dance or play—is always a performance.'[39] This is also similar to the idea of gender. Judith Butler argues that gender is a performance and Saba Mahmood borrows her ideas in relation to the 'performance' of history.[40] Looking at history as performance or as an enactment by an individual or by a group/community at a given point is important as not only does it destabilise the authenticity of written/documented history but also through the very same act of destabilising, it posits itself in a similar destabilised-stable space.

    Little stories and big histories
  27. Stuart Blackburn and A.K. Ramanujan in their introduction to, Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India talk about classifying folklore into two broad categories: akam and puram. Akam broadly means the interior or the domestic and puram, the exterior or the public.[41] As Ramanujan and Blackburn explain,

      Genres can be positioned on a continuum from domestic/interior (akam) to public/exterior (puram). The puram genres, performed in public mostly by men, contain personal names, historical and communal events, especially battles; the akam genres, performed by women in or around the house, describe generalised human (especially familial) relationships.[42]

  28. Though there is no clear line of division ('a continuum from…'); akam and puram quite neatly fall into the same line of argument as that of Partha Chatterjee. Simply put, both these arguments though in different contexts generalise gender roles into a broad, simplistic kind of divide and they need to be re-examined. The uneasiness with this kind of binarising the genres of oral traditions and connecting them to gender roles can read along the lines of Judith Butler's problematisation of the concept of gender.[43] Taking the songs for the dead among the Kodavas as a case point, we can see that these songs, which are sung by both women and men together and sung for both women and men and sung in a way that refutes stereotypes, cannot fit into the framework of the material/spiritual or the akam/puram divide. For me, this signifies many things. Most importantly, the study of any genre is complex as it needs to take into consideration many issues–intertextual, thematic, social histories, interventions both political and socio-cultural and so on. In the context of Theatre and Performance, Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks postulate the idea of a 'blurred genre' which is 'a mixture of narration and scientific practices, an integrated interdisciplinary, intertextual and creative approach to recording, writing and illustrating the material past.'[44] This kind of a non-definition and non-classificatory definition suits my purpose because my attempt is to show that the songs for the dead among Kodavas describe and illustrate an immediate and not so immediate material past of the deceased individual and that of the community.

      In an ill-fated year, Tayavva
      in an untoward month, Tayavva
      in the month of Kumbyar,[45] Tayavvao
      on the peak of Tumbe hill, Tayavva
      when the scorching sun shone, Tayavva
      the wild gooseberry broke with such force, Tayavva
      as to set the fine grass on fire, Tayavva
      so too, on the peak of this Okka, Tayavva
      you are destroyed, Tayavva.[46]

  29. The above lines describe the approximate time of death of the going-to-die woman. It gives us the time as the Kodava month of Kumbyar. The Kodava months are divided according to the seasonal rhythms of Kodagu which, being a hilly and forest region, has one of the highest rainfall levels in India. In the above stanza and in other places we are also told about the location (Tumbe hills), the space inhabited and its characteristic features. The song describes how this particular season had an unusually hot summer that caused the gooseberry to burst and set fire to the fine grass on the hillside. Being the song for the dead, the song tells us about what went wrong to the 'place'—the place that intimately relates the people to nature. The song in many ways can be read as a record of events that happened at a particular time, in a particular region within a region. The song describes how a tree in the village forest had leaves with holes and broken hollow stalks (which can tell us about the borer insects that can destroy a whole area of forest/plantation),[47] how a strong wind razed the banana plantation to the ground, how a huge banyan tree fell, root and branch, without any kind of intervention and how there was a fire on the grasslands, and so on. This again, as Pearson asserts, is history at multiple levels of meanings that 'resonate from landscapes and memories, providing a mechanism for enacting the intimate connection between personal biography and the biography of place.'[48]
  30. The song for the dead sung fully is basically a conversation with the person who is now dead. It is not like talking with the dead, but more like talking to someone who is very much with you. While the song is a conversation, it is also a narrative; it reads like a story, the story of a person, the events of her/his life, the events that lead to her/his death and the events that happened during her/his lifetime. The song, while narrating the arrival of death, referred to as Sanideva, Sani, the god who brings death or ill-fate, describes the whole region and the region within the region and the ways in which they are divided. This particular version of the song talks about a king who ruled Kodagu. As has been mentioned earlier in the paper, Kodagu has always been ruled by kings from outside the region who also belonged to the powerful castes of Hindus. The Kodava community does not have a structure that allows a kingly function and a structure that supports such a hierarchy. From the times of Ganga dynasty in south India, to the more influential Lingayat Haleri kings (17th–19th centuries) to the times of British occupation, and to a large extent even now, Kodagu has been governed by outsiders. Here, in the song for the dead, the king and his clout are described while describing the path taken by the god of death:

      Then god Sani, Tayavva
      proceeding from there, Tayavva
      went around the country, Tayavva
      and entered the cattle shed, Tayavva
      of the king who reigns today, Tayavva
      and the cattle shed was cursed Tayavva
      when the cattle shed was cursed, Tayavva
      and thousand head of cattle, Tayavva
      were annihilated, Tayavva
      not only this, Tayavva
      the white elephant perished, Tayavva
      the chestnut-coloured horse died, Tayavva
      the fortress broke down, Tayavva
      and its walls crumbled, Tayavva.[49]

  31. From here, the song proceeds to tell us how the god Sani moved from the king's seven-storied building to the nad[50] of the deceased person; from the nad, Sani entered the village temple and from there the hamlet and the house of this okka where the particular person stayed. Other than detailing the division of the region, what interests me is how the god Sani destroyed the king's belongings. As pointed out before, Kodavas have always been ruled by outsiders and there has been no record of organised rebellion against any kingdom. This is understandable because, being basically hunters and subsistence agriculturalists, Kodavas never had the military power or any other kind of power to overthrow the existing power. Moreover, since the community's beliefs, life-systems, interests, value-systems and practices did not intersect with those of the rulers, Kodavas cared not a hoot about the rulers and went about their lives as they pleased. But interestingly, the songs talk about how cattle, the white elephant, the much valued horse and even the fortress of the king crumbled. The crumbling of a fortress does symbolise the death of a kingdom. For me, this leads to questions such as, is this the way the ruled articulate contempt or even nonchalance for the ruler who most probably was not very familiar with the language of the ruled? Or is this a kind of prediction that indicates the mortal nature of everyone including the king? Or that the king's rule is as good as dead and that it hardly matters? Or that the history of the king/of the powerful runs parallel to that of the subjects where the only difference lies in the visible authentication of the former? For the historicity of this song 'lies in the people's expression of its historical self-awareness and in its attitude toward past events, persons, and circumstances rather than in the song's correct depiction of historical persons or relation of events considered real.'[51]
  32. The song as already illustrated traces the map of the region with its complex set of internal divisions. Further, the song in praise of the dead traces the lineage of the person who is now dead.

      In this land of our birth
      which nation[52] is the most renowned?
      as we sing we find
      it is pommale Kodagu
      which is the most famous nad?
      [this song tells us that]
      it is cendole Kadiyatnad
      in the village of this nad
      is a village half its size
      Kannadi Karada
      And in this village
      An okka with half the people in the village
      If the pommale Nadikerianda okka.[53]

  33. A person among the Kodavas is known and identified through her/his patrilineal okka clan. The above lines illustrate how a particular person belonging to a particular okka also belongs to the village Kannadi Karada and to the larger Kadiyatnad. That people not only belong to the okka but also to the place they inhabit is something to be noted. It shows how identity formations actually happen at multiple levels and how these are interconnected in a complex manner. And therefore, as Serematakis notes, talking about death is also talking about life-histories 'in terms of local history, village personalities, genealogies, and the importance of place.'[54]
  34. The song while describing the kind of work the individual was involved in mentions the growing of coffee in the region for which Kodagu is now famous.

      You planted ginger and turmeric, Ajjayya[55]
      And sold them and earned money, Ajjayya
      You planted cardamom and coffee, Ajjayya
      Earned three panis full of gold, Ajjayya.[56]

  35. The mention of coffee is significant, because coffee was introduced to Kodagu by the British after 1834. This particularly tells us how oral histories expressed in different cultural forms take into account the changes that happen around us. Another example for this is

      Uyyi![57] That your children, Tayavva
      Be blessed with good fortune, Tayavva
      Uyyi! Your children, Tayavva
      You got them educated, Tayavva
      Spending money liberally, Tayavva
      And they learned to read and write, Tayavva.[58]

    In India's brahmanical history, reading and writing was simply unavailable to everyone else except the male brahmans who made the rules and coded them. Literacy for the lower castes literally came with colonialism and formal schooling to which missionaries from Europe contributed significantly. Though for the lower castes being literate in the brahmanic sense made little sense, the power of the written word was always denied. For the lower castes being literate meant to be literate in their own occupations, their own narrative traditions and in the well-being of their members. But the fact that the songs and rituals of Kodavas record and celebrate the ways of formal schooling—a historic moment that was ushered in by the Europeans shows not only the disturbing power of written knowledge at one level but also the first steps against the barriers of brahmanical hegemony at another.[59]

  36. I have in this paper argued that a community whose history has thus far been marginal can be looked at from various positions and be retold through different narratives. More importantly, histories—socio-cultural, political or otherwise of such communities have been peripheral precisely because they unsettle the dominant version of history when told. Here, the attempt to open up this history through rituals of death and songs for the dead/songs in the praise of dead is to narrate a material history of the individual, of a people who are apparently unconcerned with the question of 'spirituality' after death. Nowhere do the songs mention any kind of transcendental discourse or philosophise about death. This has to be noted because brahmanic Hindu philosophy is very concerned about rebirth and philosophises the aftermath of death in a major way, the concept of heaven and hell being a small part in it. As a fact, the song for the dead urges the deceased not to be reborn. But these songs for the dead of the Kodavas not only do not mention 'the other worldly' things, but instead mention what matters in the lifetime, the materiality of living and living well, the problems, pleasures, 'small traditions,' 'small' resistances, 'small' heroics and 'smaller' histories. Yet at other places, the song for the dead tells us about the crops that are grown, the labour that goes into agriculture, about harvesting, and the fluid gender roles that do not conform to the conventional inner/outer domain, about life-histories, histories of the community and so on.
  37. The narrative history of the Kodavas, as interpreted here using the funeral songs and songs in praise of the dead and death rituals, is also much steeped in memory. This memory is not only the memory of the person deceased, but also the memory of a place, the memory of a community, of kinship, of work, of belief systems, etc. As Kerwin Lee Klien suggests 'Memory can come to the fore in an age of historiographic crisis precisely because it figures as a therapeutic alternative to historical discourse.'[60] Memory, as expressed in oral history, performs more than a therapeutic function. It indicates a relationship between personal and collective histories. It also indicates that memory and history are deeply connected to a sense of place and how we use our past and our sense of a community and place to create a sense of our identity.[61]
  38. By narrativising the dead individual's history, the songs and rituals contextualise an individual's history within the history of the community. Apart from stating the obvious that narratives–oral and ritual, and here specifically the songs and rituals for the dead do give us a version of history, my attempt is to show how this history differs from the hegemonic understanding of history and how this history not only differs, but also actually questions notions of histories and ideologies of the dominant. Through this my attempt is also to point out how written cultures' recorded histories have marginal histories as supplements, as tokens to fill in the obvious gaps in their attempt to weave a single history of a nation, here that of Hindu India. This paper like Wendy Singer's study of oral histories of a village in Bihar addresses a 'post-modern preoccupation with demonstrating the inherent power-relations within scholarship, as well as the relative nature of all 'truths' and histories.[62]


    [1] Nadia Serematakis, The Last Word: Women, Death and Divination in Inner Mani, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 1.

    [2] For a detailed linguistic-demographic statistics of Kodava speaking peoples, see Thambanda Vijay Poonacha, Conflicting Identities in Karnataka: Separate State and Anti-separate Movements in Coorg, Hampi: Kannada University, 2004, pp. 6–11.

    [3] Serematakis, The Last Word.

    [4] The relationship among Kodava speakers are characterised by caste hierarchy where the dominant Kodava caste within Kodagu are officially classified by the government of Karnataka as belonging to the Other Backward Castes (OBC) along with Amma Kodavas, Peggades, Airies and others. Kodagu also has a sizeable number of Adivasi population among whom Kudiyas and Kembatties speak the Kodava language and others like Yeravas, Kurubas, speak Yerava and Kuruba. Many native Dalit communities like Holayas, Madiga, Meda, and Maillas of Kodagu speak various dialects of Kannada. My focus is on the Kodava community which is dominant within Kodagu in relation to other indigenous communities mentioned above. The whole point of this paper is also the relative nature of this dominance when it comes to the brahminical/Hindu order.

    [5] For a detailed discussion on this misconstrued imagination of Kodavas as being warriors and belonging to the warrior caste, see Sowmya Dechamma, 'Is there a Kodava cinema?' in Cinemas of South India: Culture, Resistance, Ideology. ed. Sowmya Dechamma and Sathya Prakash, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 190—215, where I discuss the image of the Kodava warrior in Kodava and Kannada cinema.

    [6] Brahmins from neighbouring Mangalore were brought by the Haleri kings. Most brahmins in Kodagu are thus Tulu speakers. And, most temples in Kodagu date back to this period (mid-seventeenth century) coinciding with the arrival of brahmins.

    [7] Other Backward Castes (OBC), caste groups that are neither higher in the ritual-social hierarchy of castes nor in the lowest order. These are nevertheless considered 'impure' by the higher caste groups. Although this is a very heterogeneous group and OBC constitutes hundreds of caste groups that are very different and do not relate to one another, this governmental classification helps these groups to make use of affirmative action provided for them.

    [8] Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein (eds), Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Verso: London, 1991, p. 96.

    [9] Serematakis, The Last Word, p. 3.

    [10] Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf, Celebrations of Death. The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 2.

    [11] Serematakis, The Last Word, p. 9.

    [12] No gun is fired for the death of a young person. However, it is very difficult to speculate on what was done before the arrival of the gun. Earliest written records by Europeans, and even the Kodava compiler record the dispatching of messengers to different families, clans, and villages. See G. Ritcher, Gazetter of Coorg, New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1870; H. Moegling, Coorg Memoirs: An Account of Coorg Memoirs and of the Coorg Mission, Bangalore: Wesleyan Missionary Press, 1855; Nadikerianda Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, Bengaluru: Kannada Pustaka Pradhikara, 1924.

    [13] Turmeric by itself signifies auspiciousness among Hindus. Turmeric powder is sacredly used by most Hindu women , especially of the brahminical order on their thali (a gold pendant that is tied by the husband and that signifies a married woman). Notably, there is no thali for the Kodava woman and turmeric as auspicious does not exist. M.N. Srinivas notes this use of turmeric among Hindus and Kodavas but sees this as a process of sanskritisation which is now questioned by many scholars. See M.N. Srinivas, Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1952.

    [14] Though paddy is grown in a subsistent way by every family even now, several factors have led to people giving up traditional crops.

    [15] The Kodava way of wearing a saree is unique with the pleats behind and the loose end brought over the shoulder and tied/pinned.

    [16] It is a usual practice among Kodavas to contribute/gift money towards any ceremony they attend—be it wedding, death, a child's naming ceremony, a new house warming ceremony, etc. All the money contributed will go towards expenses. Especially in a wedding, where the expenses are shared both by the groom's people and bride's people and since there is no dowry and there is money/gifts from everyone who attends, weddings are hardly a burden, unlike among caste Hindus, and this has implications on the birth, growth, education, empowerment, general well-being and happiness of women among Kodavas.

    [17] Nanjamma and Chinnappa note that the practice of breaking the bangles of the widow —which is a Hindu custom was introduced to Kodavas by the Haleri Kings who ruled Kodagu during the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The Haleri Kings were from North Karnataka and were Hindu Lingayats by caste, who were themselves rebels against the brahminical Hinduism as followers of Basavanna. Many Kodava customs that have a semblance to Hindu ones can be traced to this period. See Nadikerianda Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Bovverianda Nanjamma and Bovverianda Chinnappa, New Delhi: Rupa, 2003, p. 175.

    [18] Valdimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, ed. with an introduction by A. Liberman, trans. A.Y. Martin and P. Martin, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984, p. 32

    [19] See Isabel Clarke-Deces, No one Cries for the Dead: Tamil Dirges, Rowdy Songs, and Graveyard Petitions, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; Osei-Mensah Aborampah, 'Women's roles in the mourning rituals of the Akan of Ghana,' Ethnology, vol. 38, no. 3 (1999): 257–71; Stephen Fuchs, 'The funeral rites of the Nimar Balahis,' The Primitive Man, vol. 13, nos 3–4 (1940): 49–79; Ronda Simms, 'Mourning and community at the Athenian Adonia,' The Classical Journal, vol. 93, no. 2 (1988):121–41; Richard Kent Wolf, 'Mourning songs and human pasts among the Kotas of South India,' Asian Musi, vol. 32, no. 1 (2000/2001): 141–83; Seremataki, The Last Word;Veena Das, 'The work of mourning: death in a Punjabi family,' in The Cultural Transition: Human Experience and Social Transformation in the Third World and Japan, ed. Merry I. White and Susan Pollak, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 179–210; Margaret T. Egnor, 'Internal iconicity in Paraiyar "crying songs,"' in Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India, ed. Stuart H. Blackburn and A.K. Ramanujan, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, pp. 294–344; Martha Chen Alter, Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000; Diane Paull Mines, 'Hindu periods of death "impurity,"' in Contributions to Indian Sociology, vol. 23, no. 1 (1989): 103–30.

    [20] Clarke-Deces, No One Cries for the Dead.

    [21] Simms, 'Mourning and community at the Athenian Adonia'; and, to an extent, Serematakis, The Last Word.

    [22] Clarke-Deces, No One Cries for the Dead, p. 42.

    [23] Tayavva is grandmother and as mentioned, this form of address in the song differs according to the relation of the deceased with the singers.

    [24] Nanda literally means a lamp that is always lit, which is also considered sacred.

    [25] Neka is the part of the paddy field where paddy is sown before re-planting

    [26] This excerpt is from the part where the singers describe how death came upon the woman on her day of death (right eye twitching is considered a bad omen) and this part differs from that of the song sung for a man. Though I have heard others sing funeral songs and songs in praise of the dead, I have not memorised them. Whatever I quote from one of the most exhaustive collections of Oral Traditions of the Kodava Community by Nadikerianda Chinnappa in 1924, considered to be one among the first in any language traditions of India. Though the compilation was done in Kodava, Chinnappa used Kannada, the State's administrative, official and more powerful language to describe his compilations. See Nadikerianda Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, Bengaluru: Kannada Pustaka Pradhikara, 1924. This Book Pattole Palame was translated into English (a task he had begun and left incomplete) in 2003 by Chinnappa's grandchildren. See Nadikerianda Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Bovverianda Nanjamma and Bovverianda Chinnappa, New Delhi: Rupa, 2003, p. 165. In this paper I refer to both versions—the original Kodava/Kannada and the English translation.

    [27] Partha Chatterjee, 'The nationalist resolution of the women's question,' in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989, pp. 233–53, p. 239.

    [28] Dilip Menon, The Blindness of Insight: Essays on Caste in Modern India, Pondicherry: Navayana, 2006.

    [29] It is also important to redefine 'spiritual' with reference to the non-upper-castes as something which is very much connected to the material and something which is non-transcendental.

    [30] Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, p. xv.

    [31] In Kodava, a small knife used for kitchen purposes is called chaak and bigger knives used for purposes mostly outside the house are called kathi. English has one word for knife which may be interpreted in different ways.

    [32] A large citrus tree/fruit with fragrant flowers

    [33] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Nanjamma and Chinnappa, p. 188.

    [34] Clarke-Deces's No One Cries for the Dead:, Aborampah, 'Women's roles in the mourning rituals of the Akan of Ghana'; Fuchs, 'The funeral rites of the Nimar Balahis'; Simms, 'Mourning and community at the Athenian Adonia'; Wolf, 'Mourning songs and human pasts among the Kotas of South India'; Seremataki, The Last Word; Egnor, 'Internal iconicity in Paraiyar "crying songs"'; Das, 'The work of mourning'; and 'Our work to cry: your work to listen,' in Communities, Riots, and Survivors in South Asia, ed. Veena Das, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 345–98; Alter, Perpetual Mourning; and Mines, 'Hindu periods of death "impurity."'

    [35] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Nanjamma and Chinnappa, pp. 197–98.

    [36] Kodava women are very visible in the urban spaces of Mysore and Bangalore (known centres of brahminical cultures) who move between Kodagu and these places for education and work. Their independence, freedom of choice and an outlook that is very forward looking is construed as 'too fast' and 'too modern' by the brahminical castes. We all experience 'other' parents advising their children not to make friends with Kodava children, especially women who 'do not know their limits of womanhood' and who are not 'traditional' (read brahminical). This connection between the Kodava and the 'not traditional'/'too modern' is something that needs to be looked into in-depth especially because it is antithetical to brahmanism and therefore construed as undesirable.

    [37] See Gloria Goodwin Raheja, Songs, Stories, Lives: Gendered Dialogues and Cultural Critique, New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2003; Seremataki, The Last Word; Simms, 'Mourning and community at the Athenian Adonia.'

    [38] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2005.

    [39] Greg Dening, 'Performing on the beaches of the mind,' in The Nature of History Reader, ed. K. Jenkins and A. Munslow, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 117–34, quoted in Mike Pearson, In Comes I Performance, Memory, Landscape, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2006, p. 4.

    [40] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge, 1990.

    [41] Stuart Blackburn and A.K. Ramanujan, 'Introduction,' in Another Harmony: New Essays on the Folklore of India, ed. Blackburn and Ramanujan, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 1–47.

    [42] Ramanujan and Blackburn, 'Introduction,' p. 12.

    [43] See Butler, Gender Trouble, for a problematisation of the concept of gender

    [44] Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology, London: Routledge, 2001, p. 153.

    [45] Kumbyar is a Kodava month. Kodava months follow the seasonal and agricultural calendar and are different from the Hindu monthly calendar and from the Gregorian calendar as well.

    [46] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Nanjamma and Chinnappa, p. 146.

    [47] Villages had/have forests attached to them for communal grazing and hunting purposes.

    [48] Pearson, In Comes I Performance, Memory, Landscape, p. 17.

    [49] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Nanjamma and Chinnappa, p. 152.

    [50] Kodagu is divided into nads, which is a conglomeration of several villages.

    [51] Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, p. 51.

    [52] Kodagu has always been referred to as Kodagu desha meaning Kodagu nation in the language and cultures of Kodagu.

    [53] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, p. 165.

    [54] Seremataki, The Last Word, p. 6.

    [55] Ajjayya is grandfather and this part is meant to be sung for men.

    [56] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Nanjamma and Chinnappa, p. 149.

    [57] An exclamation in Kodava.

    [58] Chinnappa, Pattole Palame, trans. Nanjamma and Chinnappa, p. 150.

    [59] Thanks to Prof. Bates for discussing the significance of this issue. Though formal schooling was/is another way of inculcating brahminical values in colonial and post-colonial times. At least theoretically everyone was allowed access to formal (read Colonial Methods of) schooling. Whereas, pre-colonial formal schooling, where the written word was well established, was accessible only to male brahmins. I completely agree with Stuart Blackburn on his idea that print/written word and the oral word co-existed. But this co-existence again happened with the people who had the power of the written/print. For those who did not, orality was the only form. Though Blackburn makes this connection between Caste and Literacy in a footnote, it is very telling to my argument. I quote:

      For Madras city in 1891, literacy in Tamil is reported to have 49 percent for males and 8 percent for females; for the Madras Presidency as a whole, the figures were 9 percent and less than 1 percent; literacy in English in the Presidency was less than .05 percent.

      Caste variation was enormous: for example, in 1901, the figure for male literacy in Tamil across the presidency was 74% among Tamil brahmins and 15% for Nadars; the corresponding figures for literacy in English in the Presidency among the same castes were 18% and .05%. See Stuart Blackburn, Print, Folklore, and Nationalism in Colonial South India, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003, p. 198.

    This pattern I think can be generalised across India. Of course, Kodava and many such languages of the minority did not have a script which essentially proves that written and oral did not exist until the coming of print in other scripts—Kannada and English.

    [60] Kerwin Lee Klein 'On the emergence of memory in historical discourse,' in The Nature of History Reader ed. K. Jenkins and A. Munslow, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, 328–32, quoted in Pearson, In Comes I Performance, p. 13.

    [61] See Pearson, In Comes I Performance.

    [62] Wendy Singer, Creating Histories: Oral Narratives and the Politics of History-making, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 7.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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