Sarita Sundar

Arts Research

Grant Period: Over one year and six months

This grant supports her to look at one of the kshetra kalas – the Poothan Thira, a ritual and performance based art form of the Mannan community in North Kerala. Using an auto-ethnographic approach, she will create biographies of ten objects deemed significant to the art form, gleaned from conversations with ten community members. The project aims to critically examine Poothan Thira, by framing it within the ‘contact zone’ of the Vela – the village festival - as a social space where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other.

The Poothan Thira rituals are traditionally performed during the Velas or Poorams, the village festivals, associated with temples of north Trichur, Palghat and the southern Malapuram districts of Kerala. Performers dress up as Poothan, the lieutenant of Shiva, and Thira the goddess Kali and dance in village centres to the accompaniment of drummers.  The practitioners belong to the relatively marginalised Mannan (Dalit) community. Usually performed once or twice a year, they are said to cleanse the village of evil spirits during the festival season. These performances were earlier a means of social recognition, consisting assemblage of various semiotic, visual and auditory elements like artifacts, music, dance, mythologies, in traditional settings.

Over time, many of these contact zones have been reconfigured. With special events and new audiences the former relationships of subordination of the community have given way to newly constructed assertions. These assertions, as expressions of individual and collective creativity, have produced new cultural and artistic interpretations, which have immense socio-cultural and political significance for the Mannan community. Using an auto-ethnographic approach, the research will involve creating biographies of objects gleaned from conversations with the community members, artists and spectators, where each member will speak about ten objects they deem significant to the art form. The attempt is to look into the material and phenomenological aspects of these seemingly ordinary objects, to spark conversations around them. Initiating a dialogue on the representation of an intangible art form such as the Poothan Thira through these objects, Sarita wishes to motivate a discourse that will accommodate the relatively ignored social realities and encourage inclusivity of the marginalised subjects, as well as objects, within museums in India.

The research will also study the meanings behind visual manifestations of the folk traditions of the Mannan community, and the ways in which they have adapted to changes and challenges in the environment, given that they have to compete for attention in a heritage space, with a wealth of other equally rich and perceptively more significant classical forms such as the Kathakali and Theyyam, which already receive more attention. Sarita aims to look at the meanings and relevance of this art form from the viewpoint of the practitioners - their agency, their attitudes to the manifestations of the form, and their interpretations of the material and intangible aspects of it. By looking at the tradition from its ability to contain knowledge as an expression of thought, formulated artistically through the use of material objects and performative culture, Sarita will engage with twenty Mannan families across North Trichur, Palghat and the south Malapuram districts of Kerala. At the end, ten object-biographies will be selected, collated, annotated and elaborated upon.

Sarita believes that it is important to ensure that the outcome of the research does not remain a theoretical text, but becomes as accessible as possible, both for the represented communities as well as audiences. Therefore, the outcome of the project will include an online digital exhibition and a photo essay. 

This grant was made possible with support from Titan Company Limited.