Manu Devadevan

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year

Historian Manu Devadevan’s primary focus of research into the Manteswamy tradition of Karnataka is a critical examination of how a tradition hailing from a sixteenth century saint (Manteswamy), and kept alive by the Neelagaras (traditional singers of the Manteswamy epic), has been historically constructed and represented. Mr Devadevan’s observations around the publication of H.S. Shivaprakash’s 1991 Kannada play, Manteswamy Kathaprasanga, and its hugely successful stage production, are also key to the research. However, for his own study, he draws attention to the fact that it was not the play’s theatrical success that made it a major cultural event, but its role in bringing to the forefront a sixteenth century saint, Manteswamy, who was, till then, unknown to the intelligentsia of Karnataka. Manteswamy soon came to be heralded as one of the greatest cultural heroes of Karnataka and a ‘Dalit’ revolutionary who rebelled against the oppressive socio-religious forces of his time by establishing a tradition of his own. “As a result,” Mr Devadevan remarks, “the Neelagaras soon became an exciting subject of study and an entire body of writing, interpreting and commenting on the Manteswamy tradition, came into being.”

Although the story of rebellion and its perpetual re-enactment have been written about, Mr Devadevan claims that no attempts have been made to historicise the life and times of Manteswamy.  Shivaprakash’s play was followed by other works on the Manteswamy tradition. However, what is intriguing is that most of these articles are by literary critics; no historian, anthropologist or cultural theorist seems to have engaged with the tradition in any capacity. Mr Devadevan also points out that in terms of methodology most studies on the Manteswamy tradition unproblematically apply the Marxist model of class struggle and inevitable revolution. Therefore, the extant studies are, more often than not, historically untenable and methodologically naïve.

Mr Devadevan’s study has three key objectives. First, it seeks to critically investigate the body of writing that has been generated around the tradition by using primary sources and empirical data to question its historical and methodological premises. Secondly, the research will attempt to provide a historical account of the origins of the tradition in the sixteenth century by eschewing connections drawn between the Manteswamy tradition and the twelfth century vachana movement. Thirdly, the study will argue that the contemporary performative practices of the Neelagaras cannot be accommodated within the sweeping idea of a ritual re-enactment of rebellion. Mr Devadevan’s research will comprise a sustained engagement with texts––inscriptions, sacred texts of various ascetic traditions, oral epics and secondary literature. Extensive fieldwork in Mandya, Mysore and Chamarajnagar districts of south Karnataka, where 34 Neelagara teams perform the Manteswamy narratives, will feed the research into texts. Apart from the Manteswamy epic, which is their magnum opus, the Neelagaras also sing several other epics like Madappa, Bala Nagamma, Chamundi, Basavanna and Neelaveni. The performance of these narratives will help Mr Devadevan contextualise the performance of the Manteswamy epic in the cultural life of the Neelagaras. He also intends to look for points of conjunction and disjuncture between various renditions of the Manteswamy narrative. The study, therefore, will address the spaces and contexts of the performances, its audience, patrons, textual variations and the contingent meanings that textual variations produce. Mr Devadevan’s project engages with the concerns articulated through a thematic like ‘the construction of traditions’ as it also looks at the contemporary practice of the tradition through the Neelagaras. To constitute a dialogue with the existing works, the study will be undertaken in Kannada. The research will lead to the production of a manuscript on the Manteswamy tradition.