Kerala and its Fine Art of Killing

I have always wondered why an average Malayali, genial and peace loving, is prone to resort to wanton violence without much provocation. He may be reasonably educated, cultured, at least to a certain extent, god-fearing and outwardly considerate to fellow human beings. But suddenly we see him in all fury, spewing ‘fire and brimstone,’ going on a rampage in the streets attacking all and sundry, armed with sticks and stones, machetes and sometimes even home-made pellet bombs.

Such violence, intense and widespread, was witnessed in Kerala, almost throughout the state, in the first week of the year 2019 in a manner that made the world take note of the demonic transformation of the so called God’s Own Country. Some of the nations even issued directives to their nationals to be wary of travelling to Kerala. According to them Destination Kerala is an Unsafe Destination.

It is immaterial here to fix responsibility for the rampage as political parties, communal and social organizations, as also the social network platforms, are all equally responsible. Even if we overcome this erratic phase and restore a semblance of normalcy, the dormant urge to violence in the average Malayali may not disappear forever. It may remain in a subdued form in his sub-conscious state, only to sprout again in a vicious outburst at a later stage.

The mayhem in the streets is only one aspect of the underlying streak of violence in the Malayali psyche. Kannur and other northern districts of Kerala had some years ago earned the unsavoury sobriquet of ‘killing fields’ because of the spate of political killings that took place then.  It does not mean that all other districts in the state are free from such violence. Far from it! Killings take place everywhere from time to time. Some may have political motivation, some may be for monetary gain, some committed in the process of forced sexual gratification and some on account of sudden outburst of road rage. Whatever the cause the brutality of the act remains constant.

Why such a pre-disposition to violence in the Malayali? I do believe it is a part of the Malayali tradition, culture and upbringing. Perhaps there is a method to co-relate the DNA of the Malayali to the violent streak that surfaces off and on. Whatever it be, there is a definite co-relation between the violent Malayali and the culture, the arts, the education, the literature and the legends that helped to shape his personality.

Take the case of Kannur and other northern districts. Northern Malabar cannot ever be dissociated from ‘Vadakkan Pattukal’ (Northern Ballads), the highly popular songs in an oral tradition said to be dating from the eighteenth century. Aromal Chekavar, Thacholi Othenan, Unniyarcha, Kannappanunni and Chanthu are among the many  colourful characters in the ballads which usually deal with fighting heroes and heroines and their intense family feuds and consequent vendetta killings. In the ballads every killer hero is idolized and every killing eulogized. Malayalis in North Malabar grow up listening to or reading such legendary exploits of these action heroes. No wonder the vendetta killings continue even now, though the feuds are not between families but between political parties and groupings.

Coming down south, the situation does not change but the art form does. The Art Face of Kerala throughout the world is definitely Kathakali, a classical theatre evolved by Kottarakkara Thampuran and distinguished by the elaborately colourful make-up, costumes and facemasks of the actors. Most of the stories that make up the Kathakali repertoire are based on Hindu epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana. But what distinguishes Kathakali is the way in which the story is presented on stage through mime, especially elaborate hand gestures or mudras.

Of the over two score popular Attakathas of Kathakali, a substantial number deals with violence, to be precise, slaying on stage. Even among the four Attakathas written by Kottayam Thampuran,  three are on killings: Baka Vadham, Kirmeera Vadham and Kalakeya Vadham. The only exception is his Kalyanasougandhikam.

Narakasura Vadham by Karthika Thirunal Maharaja, Kamsa Vadham by Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran, Keechaka Vadham by Irayimman Thampi, Lavanasura Vadham by Amrita Sasthrikal, Duryodhana Vadham by Aryan Narayanan Moossath and Thadaka Vadham by V Krishnan Thampi are among the popular Kathakali plays in which the killings are elaborately portrayed.

There are of course quite a number of immensely popular Kathakali plays that are devoid of any violence at all. They include Kalyana Sougandhikam by Kottayam Thampuran, Nala Charitam by Unnayi Warrier, Karthaveerya Vijayam by Puthiyikal Thampan, Uttara Swayamvaram by Irayimman Thampi and Subhadraharanam by Karthika Thirunal Maharaja.

But the point is that in those Kathakali plays dealing with violence and killings, violence is portrayed graphically, even revoltingly. Ninam, meaning blood, is a character like Pacha, Kathi, Kari, Minukku etc, but a character that is most revolting and frightening in Kathakali. Soorpanakha in Kottarakkara Thampuran’s Khara Vadham, Simhika in Kottayam Thampuran’s Kirmeera Vadham, Nakrathundi in Karthika Thirunal’s Narakasura Vadham` are frightening female characters that appear on stage dripping all over with blood. Pride of place in this category goes to Roudra Bheeman in Aryan Narayanan Moossath’s Duryodhana Vadham in which the slaying of Dussasana is the abhorrently attractive highlight. After killing Dussasana, Bheeman takes out his bloody entrails, wraps them around his neck and, in frenzied rage, drinks his blood. He then summons Draupadi and profusely smears her hair with the dead man’s blood. Though the scene is revolting to the core, superb acting by the artiste playing the role of Roudra Bheeman is invariably admired by all Kathakali aficionados.

Even the making of the stage effects for this scene is sordid enough. The small intestine is traditionally made from the soft kernel of tender coconuts. The kernel is carefully cut in such a way that when removed it will become a single long curly piece. It is then dried, treated with natural adhesives and dyes to give it the appearance of blood soaked entrails. The impact of the stage effects is such that no one who witnessed Roudra Bheeman in action on stage will ever forget the sanguine and savage enactment.

When epic and ballad, theatre and cinema thus extol violence and killings, will they not send the wrong kind of signals to the wrong guys?

This does not mean that the violence we saw in recent days is condoned or justified in any way. It only means that violence is so deeply ingrained in the Malayali as it is part of our culture, tradition and beliefs. Strong governmental action and peace efforts by the good hearted may bring about a temporary abatement of violence, but it will only be, like an eclipse, a temporary phenomenon.

There will definitely be a recrudescence of violence in future, perhaps at a time we least expect it, giving the people uneasy days and nights and giving the state a very bad name. There is no way we can shirk it off or wipe it away. There is, indeed, no escape, and we may have to endure it when it comes.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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Comment Compliments to the author for such a self analysis of his native state population. Very few people have that kind of perspective and simply deny any wrong doing by their language group or State. I request him not to overly concerned about the recent violence witnessed in Kerala which is not much different from what happens occasionally in other parts of India, for example groups demanding reservations or farmers protesting for loan waivers etc.

P. Rao
12-Jan-2019 04:34 AM