An elephant in the garden

9th DecToday we were able to interview Mr Anujan Varma, one of the festival organisers, and Mr Bhaskaran Nair, who is a retired mahout.

We asked both of them about the future of elephants in the festival. Mr Varma felt it was hard to predict. Although it is illegal to capture elephants, when numbers rise, the Forest Department may itself have to capture some elephants due to  human-elephant conflict (as has happened recently in Karnataka) and these elephants may be cared for by individuals in agreements with that department (officially all captive elephants are owned by the Forestry Department). This could feasibly continue the temple supply. The popularity of the festivals might also prove politically persuasive, and for other reasons, there could be many ways of continuing.

In contrast, Mr Nair considered that the festival will not last for another fifteen years, since new guidelines for caring for elephants stipulate that they need so much land, their maintenance cannot be logistically managed.

Many other things were said about the experience of the Vrishchikotsavam – too much for this one post, but more another time.

We also asked Mr Nair, who has a long experience as a mahout, about his impression of how things are changing, and some of the questions I asked yesterday about the elephants’ experiences.

In terms of change, while some of the regulations for the elephants’ treatment are improvements, what has deteriorated is the training of the mahouts, with a shortage of those who have bonded with the elephants over time, and who take time to train these animals, too. Some mahouts now use punishment as a starting point, rather than a last resort. They take short cuts, for example they do not take time to scrub the animals all over, in running water, a process the elephant enjoys, and often sleeps through; instead they are casually scrubbed with a brush (not coconut shell or stone) in a still pond, which provides no such pleasure and leaves folds uncared for and susceptible to infection. The details of the elephants’ needs can often be lost, to the detriment of the elephants’ wellbeing.

In answer to our questions about whether the elephants respond to the music, he was quite positive, however, that they do. They do recognise it as different from other sounds, and they do respond differently from each other. His own former elephant used to sway as the drums built up to a climax. Another elephant used to sway even upon entering the temple here, but no other temples. This implies a recognition of place, though whether this was ‘dancing’ is unclear (it could be an emotional response of some sort). He also thought that some elephants are aware of being watched, and some enjoy it (though not all). Some hope to be fed, and some seem to like attention. On the other hand, when asked what the elephant thinks of the Vrishchikotsavam, he laughs and says that an elephant never chooses the festival.

These examples and other stories served to illustrate the significance of individuality and suggest that gathering the mahouts’ knowledge could be really significant for our understanding of animals, where scientific findings can often be generalized, if clearly evidenced, rather than individualised, through careful, longterm observation.

After the interviews, we met the elephant in the back garden. Of course, we did not really interview him, but we were glad to meet him. He stood quietly, while Jerri fed him some bananas.

Elephants performing, and not.

Vrischikotsavam 8th Dec 053It is illegal to capture elephants from the wild, and for this and other humane reasons, the Keralan temple festival, with its array of performing elephants, may be a dying form.

These elephants are already captive. Might they be better off without performing? Sreedhar tells us of a number of measures that have been taken to mitigate negative effects on these elephants: bringing in double the numbers to allow for rest; evaluating levels of stress in individual elephants to make the best selection each day; arranging them, not in order of height, but in terms of their relative friendliness towards each other; looking for signs of injury or physical ailment, and not forcing an elephant to process during musth or in other sub-optimal circumstances. He works together with the vet, on hand throughout the festival, to advise on the choice of the fifteen elephants that form the daily procession during the Vrishchikotsavam at the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple in Tripunithura.

We watched the various groups of people under, on and around the elephants, and thought about the various small economies that are sustained by their appearance. The mahouts, of course – these do not perform, but sit behind the elephant’s front legs, or place a restraining hand on the tusk. But also the laughing, show-off accoutrement-bearers sitting on their backs, twirling parasols. Then the makers of the parasols, head-dresses and other objects. The elephant owners, I suppose. The traffic controllers and drivers. The vendors selling nuts, toys, chilli snacks and water outside. How would this event change, without its star attractions? Without the elephants, would all these crowds come to hear the drumming?

Are the elephants performing? Is it anthropomorphic to say so? On the way back, Jerri, Anindya and I discuss whether there is also a risk of assuming that the animals understand too little. When they walk, are they aware of being looked at? What does it mean to them? How do they experience the pancharimelam (percussion ensemble)? To wonder whether an animal in chains enjoys any part of the experience seems risky, and one can’t deny that the relationship between the mahout and the creature is one of dominance. However, elephants do respond to rhythmic sounds. Is the clamour of horns, clash of cymbals and crescendo of Chenda drums unbearable? Or was that elephant deliberately flapping his ears in time? The effect on humans could go either way, and the hours of percussive sound can feel tortuous or hypnotic, possibly both. Should we assume all elephants experience them in identical ways?

Outside the temple, people crowded around a small, plastic elephant, a model of a deceased star. When one sees photographs of decorated elephants in rows, it becomes too easy to think of these creatures as objects, like so many paperweights in a novelty shop. Thinking of them, and treating them as individuals, seems part of an ethical approach to their experience.

Exhibition, 18-20th April, 2018

We are pleased to present an exhibition of our fieldwork in February as part of the annual conference of the British Association of South Asian Studies, hosted by the Exeter South Asian Centre and College of Humanities at the University of Exeter, April 18-20, 2018.

The exhibition is entitled ‘Performing the Periphery: The Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, Chennai 2018 and Maha Shivaratri, Bengaluru, 2018.’ This exhibition documents initial fieldwork to look at the politics of performance on the peripheries of growing South Indian cities. It shows the Urur-Olcott festival as social, environmental and aesthetic intervention, and the Maha Shivaratri festival as manifested in remarkably varied ritual performance within and on the periphery of a modern metropolis. The exhibition will be in the Forum building on the afternoon and evening of the 18th, then moved to the XFi corridor for the 19th and 20th. All welcome.921810218Vizha 504bbb.jpg


Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha sound recording

This soundtrack features music from the Nagoor Sufi Trio playing together with Srikanth Bhagavathar. In a ‘musico-religious conversation’, as T M Krishna puts it, Nagoor sufi music and Namasakirtanam were on the same stage.

In this recording, however, they sing a fisher song, which the residents from the local fishing village particularly appreciate.

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Inscription Stones and Writing Histories

A reflection by Jerri after visiting the inscription stones in Allalasandra, Bangalore.


The inscription stone in Allalasandra tells a story of the city that I cannot read. An old man also looking at the stone tells us that it was written by the hand of God, just as the ten commandments were also written on stone by a divine power.

How do we write history? And whose history do we read? A stone with images and script becomes the foundation for telling the story of the city. History becomes a means to give us identity and meaning in the present – we can look at a stone and feel a sense of connection to a past where people were also creating and telling stories of their lives.

What do the inscription stones of Bangalore tell us? About its past peoples, languages, cultures, battles, landscapes? Our need for stories to give meaning to our lives makes us want the stones to speak to us in the present. History is etched into them, just as our lives are inscribed on our bodies, chiseled into the fabric of who we are, and how we tell our stories to the world. Our loves, tragedies, creations, and habitual patterns are furrowed into us over time.

Touching the stone, I feel a connection to the heart of the city, and the foundation of what the city has become.

But I cannot read what it says.

Dinner at 1 Shanti Road

Networking dinner invite

Last night Anne curated a dinner gathering of artists Dimple Shah, Deepak Srinivasan, Umesh Maddanahali, Saskia Groneberg and Shabari Rao. From the project, Cathy, Jerri, Sumitra and Anne herself joined the conversation. We asked everyone the question above, and then discussed their responses, and their work in relation to the city. The conversation touched on whether or not it is useful to identify performance art as distinct from other kinds of performance; the fragmentation and forgetting of small actions; the possibility of creating new ways of experiencing, but also the possibility of documenting and giving a platform for under-represented voices.

We heard about Umesh’s Sisyphean tyre rolling, Deepak’s performance as Draupadi, Shabari’s enquiry into our relationships with our own bodies, Dimple’s gathering of diverse stories of the city, Saskia’s photographs of plants and construction sites and much more.

As might be expected, we did not confirm a neat answer to our questions, but hopefully initiated some new conversations.

The Vizha: a river to the sea

3553FA83-F341-4369-9BB5-79911150DAB8You could say that the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha began on the day when Carnatic musician TM Krishna walked into the offices of the environmental activist Vettiver collective and talked about a festival in an unexpected place. Or you could say it started 11 years ago, with Nityanand Jayaraman and the Vettiver Collective’s own Justice Rocks events. Or maybe you have to go back to when a young man, Vizha organiser K Saravanan, was persuaded by his teacher that turtle eggs mattered. What becomes clear from talking to the organisers, villagers, artists, volunteers (not mutually exclusive groups) is that the festival can mean different things to different people, because it is not a stand alone art event, but embedded in a network of aspirations, actions and campaigns along the Chennai beaches.

What surprised us most was the formal inventiveness of the music and dance performances, and the political content of songs and narratives. Not because we assumed naivety, but because we expected the politics to be in the curation of the combined events, rather than integral to each ‘number’. Instead, even within each individual piece, there  was often a deliberate meeting – even clashing – of old with new, elite with popular, Tamil with North Indian and so on. The result seemed a truly inclusive event that appears to be making some concrete differences to the two villages Urur and Olcott, by making their concerns more visible. Literally concrete. One of them is a slip road.

However, it’s important to recognise that two nights of festival and a beach cleanup does not accomplish this by itself. For one thing, Saravanan describes the  Vizha  as a sequence of events, like a river, beginning its course last August, flowing through the railway station, bus routes and fish market to reach the festival on the shore. For another, it sits alongside other, ongoing attempts to map and defend the use of the ‘commons’, the beaches that are the fishermen’s livelihood.

It was fun. Let’s not forget to say that. Sitting or standing in the warm breeze from the sea, the scent of jasmine from the girls’ hair, the taste of fried chilli and hot tea, the coloured lights and glowing costumes and the sounds of the drums… the senses overwhelmed but not exhausted. And the beautiful moment when a flock of flamingos filled the evening sky. These are moments when you feel glad to be alive. Let’s not forget that, too.