Dr. Lillykutty Abraham

Department of English, Kristu Jayanti College (Autonomous)


This paper attempts to delve into the art forms of the Mavilan tribe of the Kannur and Kasaragod districts of Kerala. The art forms focused in the paper include oral songs, theyyam and mangalamkali. The paper, based on ethnographic research, examines the efforts of the tribe to cope with the agricultural slavery that they were subjected to in the past and their voice of resistance against power and oppression. The songs they sang while they worked in the land of the landlord; theyyam, the ritual dance they performed annually; and mangalamkali, their nuptial dance manifest their different ways of resistance to lack of freedom and forceful change of their life style. The song of ‘Muthukuttinayar thampuran’ depicts how the tribe attempts to voice out their protest against the oppressive agricultural slavery. Similarly, it becomes a counter narrative when the oppressor becomes a devotee of the oppressed as the oppressed is metamorphosed into a deity in the form of theyyam. This role reversal aids in levelling the division based on the caste system and acts as a mode of resistance. The songs sung in the aniyara (make shift pandal erected for the purpose of theyyam) reinforce equality of all humans. The steps of mangalamkali reveal how the tribe silently tries to cope with the sexual advancement of the landlord as they beat themselves while dancing even on a happy occasion like wedding. These narratives of resistance reveal the need and longing of the tribe to construct an alternate egalitarian world.

Keywords : Resistance, Art forms, Narratives, Theyyam, Mangalamkali

Art forms of Mavilan tribe represent the lived experiences of its people at various stages of their trajectory as a group. Against the backdrop of their agricultural slavery and the saga of sufferings, these art forms are viewed as means to express their resistance. The art forms discussed in this paper mainly focus on the tribe’s oral songs, theyyam1 and mangalamkali2.These art forms manifest their histories of resistance to their lack of freedom and changed life style. This paper attempts to explore these narratives of resistance.

This paper is based on ethnographic research. Fieldwork was conducted in the hamlets of Mavilan tribe in both Kannur and Kasaragod districts during the period between 2011 and 2018. The tradition bearers namely, the elderly people of the tribe were the main informants of the study. Having built rapport with them the author listened to their ethnographic narrations of recalling and re-counting their lived experiences. The oral songs videotaped during the interactions and interviews were transcribed and reverted to the informants to clarify the unclear phrases and expressions. Further discussions and interviews with the experts and reference to secondary materials augmented the comprehensive view of the art forms.

Observation, interviews, conversations, field notes, videography and reference to secondary sources are the tools employed to study the art forms theyyam and mangalamkali. Mangalamkali was observed both in the formal and informal set up. Similarly, theyyam and the related rituals were observed and studied. At the vicinity of theyyam performance during the intervals, the author held conversations with the devotees to gather further data. An insider view is employed in analysing and interpreting the text.  The author has translated the transcribed text employed in this paper from Malayalam to English.

The people of Mavilan tribe inhabit Kannur and Kasaragod districts of North Kerala. According to the census of the year 2011, their total population was30,867 of whom 14,972 were males and 15,895 females. They were hunter-gatherers. During the course of time, the janmi3encroached their habitats, coercing them to leave their traditional way of life and employing them as agricultural labourers. The janmi began to exploit the tribe and even tortured the members mentally and physically. He took charge of the tribe in the new social set-up. The people of the tribe were not entitled to any rights or privileges. They were not justly paid for their hard labour. The janmi controlled their lives as their “caretaker.”He even targeted the young virgins of the tribe for his sexual pleasure. The community had to accommodate with the new system and be subservient, as they could not resist the absolute power and authority of the janmi. He became theirthampuran4 as they were the adiyan5. It meant their tragic fall from freedom to slavery. Due to these unfortunate circumstances, they remain backward even after many decades of freedom from the clutches of janmittam6.

The art forms of the tribe functioned as narratives of resistance in this backdrop. Suzanne McKenzie-Mohr and Michelle N Lafrance define narrative resistance as “a concept that attends to power and oppression,” and that which “provides a platform for tangible applications to support people’s efforts to resist harmful storyings of their lives”(190). The sufferings of the members of Mavilan tribe evolved as narrative of resistance as well as counter narratives. Molly Andrews identifies counter narratives as “the stories which people tell and live which offer resistance, either implicitly or explicitly, to dominant cultural narratives” (1).Such counter narratives brought to light the dominant cultural narrative of people belonging to the high caste that treated the tribe as untouchables. Therefore, the art forms of the tribe can be termed as “narrative acts of insubordination” (Lindemann8) that address those “culturally-rooted aspects of one’s history that have not yet become part of one’s story” (Freeman 298). In the process of their articulation, these narratives enable them to infuse “one’s history with new meaning, complexity, and depth”(290)and to heal the scars of the past. The narrative resistance thus aid in constructing “another space to revise hierarchical discourse, to give voice to those without power to shape perception or invent alternative worlds” (Bona 2).

The narratives of resistance of Mavilan tribe attempt to bridge the gap between the oppressor and the oppressed. Their art forms question the fundamental basis of the discrimination that they faced/ face and their unequal status. The dehumanising experiences undermined their dignity. The art forms represent their struggles to re-establish an egalitarian society. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ report of high-level expert meeting, Vienna, 29-30 May 2017 explores the integral relationship between human rights and arts:

Much of the human rights agenda is directed at bridging attitudinal disparities, such as prejudices based on race, religion, gender, age, nationality, culture and identity. Art can help to overcome those barriers, by bringing a counter-discourse, contesting privileged narratives and perspectives. … The arts dignify human experience by giving voice to thoughts and feelings, which trigger recognition of one’s own humanity….(6)

The art forms of Mavilan tribe attempt to re-establish their dignity by raising their voice even in the controlled circumstances of oppression. The oral songs of the tribe was a means to voice out their right to equality and justice. Kakkoppuram Kunhiraman recounts that tribesmen had to continue working without any respite until the janmi arrived to evaluate the day’s work. Therefore, until the janmi came to supervise, they sang songs related to him. Naturally, the tribe was expected to sing his praises. However, in his absence they attempted to voice out their resistance to the system of agricultural slavery. The exhausted workers sang derogatory songs mocking his shrewdness and immoral ways. These pejorative songs provided them a platform to vent their pent up emotions. Through the songs, they satirized the janmi and the oppressive agricultural slavery.

The excerpt that follows is an instance of the satire of the social reality of janmittam:

Onningu kekkenam paniyum panikkaaru, O, workers kindly listen,

Nammude thampuran                                         Our thampuran

Ezhunnalli varunnuntu.                          Is solemnly arriving.

Kuthithazhanha vadiyeduthu,                 With the worn out stick,

thantu kuzhinha kudayode,                                 And old umbrella,

………………..                                    ………………..

Odinha kudayeduthu,                             With the broken umbrella

poonu noolu cherippode.                                    Sacred thread and sandals.

Velere moothino kattottum illayo.                       The sun is too hot and even no breeze.

Vayattil kudalilla,                                              No intestine in the stomach,

vaayil vellolla.                                      And in the mouth no water.

(Sung by Kakkopuram Kunhiraman)

The text above juxtaposes the janmi and his workers. The miserly and unmerciful janmi commodifies the tribe while they are generous in offering their skills to cultivate his land. It is to be noted that the janmi is associated with the cultural components like the staff and sacred thread which are symbols of power and oppression while the tribesman are associated with their emaciated body and natural elements like breeze. It is evident that while the janmi is comfortable, the tribesmen cannot withstand the hunger and heat. The staff is a symbol of authority (Pattanaik 25).By projecting the worn out staff of the janmi, the tribe is referring to the degenerated social system of intra-species discrimination based on birth. The text represents two worldviews as that of the ruler and the ruled. Though the tribe was not able to confront the unjust social system, songs of these types obviously served as a means of their protest as well as resistance and projected their hope for an alternate egalitarian society.

The following extract from the oral song “Kaitharitharavadu” is another instance of the voice of resistance:

Onnundu kelkku nambyare                                 Please listen, Nambyar

Kaithari Nambyare,                                           Kaithari Nambyar,

Thodalum theendalumUntouchability and unapproachability

Ningakkille nambyare?                          Don’t you, Nambyar, observe?

Pinnengana nambyare                           How can then, Nambyar

Nhanaduthu varunnu?                           I come near to you?

Annaram parayathundu                         Then says

Kaithari Nambyar,                                Kaithari Nambyar,

Karincholakkani penninu                         Let Karincholakkanni girl

Theppum kulippotttum venda.                  Go barren.

Annaram parayathundu                         Then says

Karincholakkani,                                   Karincholakkani,

Nammude thampuratti                          

Our goddess

Aladabhagavathi,                                  Alada Bhagavathi,

Nercha palathum                                   Much nercha7

koottiyathu kollunnu.

Is offered.

Karincholakkanni penninu                       Karincholakkanni girl

Theppum kulippum undakunnu.                Becomes fecund.

(Sung by Kakkoppuram Kunhiraman)

The text above exposes the double standard of the licentious janmi who observes untouchability and unapproachability. It is a challenge to the social norms that if untouchability exists it has to be in all the aspects. By projecting their deity as their saviour to lift the curse of the disappointed janmi, the tribe is reversing the situation and is voicing out their integrity and dignity. Though the tribe is not able to challenge the repressing forces due to their oppressive status, the song becomes a means of resistance of the unspeakable reality. In such a precarious situation, songs of these types reinforced their moral sense and affirmed them of their self-worth.

Every event in the life of the tribe revolved around the thampuran and his agricultural field. It had a direct influence even on the culture of the tribe. P.M. Karichi narrates that after the marriage the bride and bridegroom had to be taken to the house of the janmi, who would present them with gifts. C.J. Kuttappan, a renowned folk artist, states that the brides had to be offered to the janmi before the couple lived together. In such circumstances, the community had to endure the collective experience of exploitation, deprivation and misery. Mangalamkali or their nuptial dance, must be understood in this perspective.

At the final phaseof mangalamkali,the steps are of thrashing oneself with hand on the back with heightened intensity. With folded left hand, they strike the left side of the body while they smack the area of shoulder blade with the right hand. The onomatopoeic singing of lashing reinforces the mood of the artists to enhance their performance. The singing goes on with the instructions to kneel down and dance, to stand up and dance and so on. Mangalamkali culminates with the intensified action of lashing oneself. This action must be viewed as their gesture of voicing their protest against the oppressive social structure:

The steps of self-torture is the manifestation of the hapless situation of an oppressed people.  Kuttappan states that this art form of self-torture originated against the prevailing social system of sexual oppression which could not be protested. It is significant that the gesture of self-torture is intensified at the song referring to the occasion of attaining puberty. (Abraham and Alex 48)

Theyyam, another art form of the tribe, is also a visible sign of protest against the caste system. In front of the theyyam artist who metamorphoses into a deity, even the oppressor becomes a devotee. This role reversal aids in levelling the division based on the caste system. Theyyam itself is considered a form of protest and counter narrative against the prevailing caste system. Raghavan Payyanad states, “Pulayan and Mayilon [Mavilan],who are engaged in agricultural labour, are looked upon as untouchables” (47) and were excluded. Therefore, they “developed a parallel system of theyyamperformance and rituals” (53). Hence, theyyam became part of their existence and amode of resistance against discrimination. As William Sener Rusk asserts, “the human being expresses himself in art forms which objectify his experience, physical, environmental, and transcendental.” The art form, theyyam objectifies the intense experience of alienation and distancing that the tribe endured. It is a means to voice out their resistance. Some songs sung in the aniyara (make shift pandal where the theyyam performer gets ready) reinforce equality of all humans. However, they were not able to express it openly as their janmi also watched the performance of theyyam. Yet, this song can be viewed as a powerful means of resistance against the egocentric attitude of the oppressors.

From the discussion above, it is evident that the tribe is not voiceless but their voice is suppressed. These rituals therefore become a means to express their resistance. It is argued that some of the songs and dance forms of Mavilan tribe evolved from the nadir of their subhuman existence under the janmi. These art forms became the expressive symbol of their silent protest against the prevailing system of social injustice. Their life and art forms cannot be separated. These art forms are the narratives of resistance.

To sum up, the oral songs of the Mavilan tribe, like mangalamkali and theyyam are unique means of resistance against the social injustice and oppression meted out to the tribe as agricultural slaves of janmi. These art forms not only aided them in coping with the trauma of being alienated as untouchables in the past, they aid them even today in their way of protesting against the injustices  of their present contemporary ‘mainstream’ society.

Notes :

  1. Theyyam is a ritual dance and a socio cultural art form wherein the performer metamorphoses into the deity he is representing. It is a live performance of god appearing in front of the devotees. ‘Theyyam’ is the corrupt form of daivam which means god.
  2. .Mangalammeans marriage. Mangalamkali is the dance performed as part of wedding celebrations.
  3. Janmam is hereditary property and the privilege of the person who has absolute right over the land. Janmi is the one who holds the janmam. Janmitham denotes this social structure. The word janmi stands for the plural as well in this paper.
  4. The word denotes god, lord and landlord
  5. Adiyan is almost like a bonded slave.
  6. See note 3
  7. Vow to god which will be fulfilled when the prayer or wish is granted

References :

Abraham, Lillykutty, and Marykutty Alex. “‘Mangalamkali’ of Mavilan Tribe: An

Ecocritical Reading.” IJML, vol. 6, no. 2, July 2016, pp. 44-50.

Andrews, Molly. “Opening to the Original Contributions: Counter-narratives and the Power to oppose.” Considering Counter-Narratives: Narrating Resisting Making Sense.Ed. Bamberg M and Andrews M, John Benjamins Publishing, 2004, pp.1-6.

Bona, Mary Jo. Introduction. By The Breath of Their Mouths: Narratives of Resistance in Italian America. State U of New York, 2010, pp.1-11.

Exploring the Connections between Arts and Human Rights. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2017. Report of High-Level Expert Meeting, Vienna, 29-30 May 2017.

Freeman, Mark. “Charting the narrative unconscious: Cultural memory and the challenge of Autobiography.” Considering Counter-Narratives: Narrating Resisting Making Sense.Ed. Bamberg M and Andrews M, John Benjamins Publishing, 2004, pp. 289–306.

Karichi, P.M. Personal Interview. 4 November 2016

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Kuttappan, C.J. Personal Interview. 28 May 2015.

Lindemann, Hilde Nelson. Damaged Identities Narrative Repair. Cornell U P, 2001.

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Research and Practice: Counter-Storying in the Pursuit of Social Justice.” Qualitative Social Work: Research and Practice, Vol.16, no.2, 2017, pp 189–205.

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Payyanad, Raghavan. Methodology for Folkloristics. Edited by T.V. Prakash, Centre for Advanced Studies and Research in English Language and Literature, 2013.

Sener, William Rusk. “The Human Being and Art Forms.” Design, Vol.39, no.3, 17 October

2013, pp 34-34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00119253.1937.10741380. Accessed 25 November 2020.

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Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.