‘What they don’t tell you is you never forget an elephant’.

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An elephant never forgets. But as Bill Murray jokes, you don’t forget an elephant. Tripunithura then, is full of memories.

Ritual, blurring into performance, can knit a community together, and that community can, to an extent, include the elephant.

This, at least, is the vivid picture of the past described by the Varma family (Anujan, Prasana, Prashant). This family has lived with and alongside elephants since childhood. While acknowledging the exploitation of the animals, they tell us a story of a relationship that has been eroded, where familial ties with the elephant have been replaced by commercial transactions, to the detriment of animal welfare.

The elephant ritual at the temple in Tripunithura, itself central to the community, is not merely a festival occurrence. On a daily basis, a single elephant circumnavigates the temple – and this also happens during and aside from the festival line-up of elephants (we observed it at 4.30 am, singly circling the shrine). This means that there is permanently at least one elephant in the neighbourhood, and previously, the temple elephants would reside there, or nearby, all year round, many sleeping in the temple grounds (this happened up to the 1960s). In wealthy times, there were many elephants; in lean times, their numbers dwindled. They were chosen, not for their height, or for facebook followers (as now), but for docility. Rather than have fodder brought to the temple, they would walk from house to house, gathering a little at each, and spending time with the families. This walking, and as elephant rituals increased, walking between temples, helped keep the elephants fit, and bonded them with the community. Of course, the changes in road conditions and traffic make this undesirable.

Elephants used to be part of the triumvirate of owner, mahout and animal, each possessing respect, if not equal status. The familial network of elephant ownership was sustained by the intermarriage of Nambudiri (Malayali Brahmins, the temple owners), with the land-owning, matrilineal Nairs. We were told a story of a Cochin king, who, on recognising the family mahout in a visit to a prison, demanded that he be released, since the elephant was now alone. The mahouts would stay with their elephants as a lifelong commitment, often handing over the elephant’s care to sons who had trained under them. Although the relationship was based on dominance, it was also based on a deep bond, with the mahout often sleeping next to the elephant, and spending most of his time alongside the animal. We heard of a mahout, Gopalan Nair, whose relationship with the elephant was so strong that in his old age, he was able to walk partly supported by the elephant’s tusk; on his deathbed, he asked that the elephant be taken away, as otherwise he would be unlikely to obey another mahout.

Another narrative tells of a mahout whose elephant trusted him so completely, that when the mahout lay down to sleep by the road, the elephant lay down and slept beside him, to the confusion of passers-by (this is not what elephants normally do!)

Prasana Varma emphasised the sense of community around the temple, the likelihood of knowing nearly everyone at the festival. As a child, she not only remembered the continuous presence of elephants in the back garden, or visiting the house, but also being happily left in the temple all night, to sleep on the floor in front of the Kathakali performers, or to hang around the grounds, near the elephants themselves. The elephants are remembered as family members.

Of course, this may be a romantic picture and even to advocate for learning from the best aspects of the past can result in accusations of endorsing animal cruelty. Yet all of the family take care not to deny the problems of keeping a wild animal within a domestic setting, and indeed they are passionate about the need for change from the current situation (and listening, too, to elephant biologist nephew, Sreedhar). However, when the relationship between human and animal is so closely interwoven, there is less need for cruelty and distrust, and less suffering all round, than in present circumstances.

These days, elephants are brought to the festival in trucks from across the state. The mahout’s profession has become much more short-term, so that the elephant might have a constant change of mahout, with consequent stress and more aggressive methods of training. The use of chains when walking, while understandable as a safety precaution, has itself caused all kinds of health problems. As mentioned in a previous post, standards of care have fallen, including poor feeding that results in impaction. The keeping of elephants has become commercial, and profitable. Mahout rivalry is similar to that of the Kathakali performers, or the drummers, mirroring similar concerns about profit and status. The elephant ritual, while it is still a ritual here, rather than simply a display (as at Thrissur), has become less embedded in the community. The status of the mahout is low, and little concern is shown for the men (or very occasionally women) who share the elephant’s experience in so many respects; there is a high level of substance abuse among them. When logging was banned, a number of elephants and mahouts migrated from the North to Kerala, in search of work, often forced to beg by the roadside. The logging ban, however necessary, also has negative effects on animal fitness, and on the mahout’s ability to earn money all year round.

While there is recognition that change needs to happen, there is also a need to capture the knowledge of such families as well as that of the mahouts, because they have lived so closely to these animals, without fear, and with a high degree of exchange between them. They, above all, understand what is at stake for the elephant in his treatment at the hands of human beings. At the same time, there is a sense of loss: ‘What I get from the elephant is something very special,’ says Prasana. ‘I can’t put my finger on it. I get a lot from the elephant… but it doesn’t from me.’




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.