By Deeksha Sivakumar
Pulivesham (“Tiger Disguise”), a well-known dancing ritual in Southern India, resurfaced in the news forcing me to question what we name ‘religious ritual’ and what we tend to call ‘folk’ or ‘popular’ practices. What is even more surprising is all three versions of Pulivesham appear in different issues of the same newspaper The Hindu from different dates. On the one hand, Pulivesham has been documented by some Telegu folklorists in an article from 2009 to be part of a folk and Hindu religious ceremony, commemorating the victory of good over evil for Dasara. On the other hand, a recent article also locates Pulikkali as a 200 year old Tamil-Muslim practice for Muharram in Kerala. This summer during fieldwork in Tamilnadu, I discussed and heard about Pulivesham among local scholars and regular people and found it to be called a contemporary artistic performance or a dance troupe. The latest Indian Premier League also featured Pulivesham to cheer the Deccan Chargers vs. Mumbai Indians game in Vizaganagaram. The notion that Pulivesham can simultaneously be folkloric and/or Hindu ritual, a Muslim practice, and even a popular dance form, nuances its’ identity.
Is Pulivesham a religious ritual? In similar ways some Hindu rituals also serve multiple functions, be it religious, popular or secular practice, or even entertaining performances. However, specifying Pulivesham’s identity carries importance, especially when we interpret what distinguishes religious ritual from popular practice. Pulivesham mirrors current debates in American Religious Studies where the line between popular and religious are equally blurred. Unlike Pulivesham, some popular American practices like Dragon-Con in Atlanta, do not have an obvious and specific religious history, but they often imitate or mimic religious ritual gatherings, warranting definition.
What is at stake in defining a practice as folk, popular, entertainment, or religious? While calling Pulivesham as folk dance seems plausible, it could conflate “folk” and “popular” into one category implying what’s popular is folk or vice versa. This is reminiscent of the colloquial understanding of the word folk that means “common people.” But folk in India mainly refers to practices among autochthonous groups, while popular refers to the secular practices of the urban population, and “religious” refers to specific religious rituals. When these distinctions are made, calling Pulivesham a “folk dance,” implies that it is at once popular and native to Andhra people. Pulivesham thus makes a strong social statement in transgressing from folk to popular performance.
Does identifying a practice as religious give it more or less authority? Well, that depends on one’s motivations. How practice gets defined relies on a tender balance between socio-political and religious interactions in a community. In post-Independence in India, inter-faith dialogue is recommended, especially when calling a practice “Hindu” or “Muslim” could instigate unintentional fundamentalist fervor towards a practice. Also, making a dance form of a particular folk community into a Tamil art form signifies an assertion of a cultural and regional marker. In taking a practice and stripping away its’ religious significance or the memory of it as one, Pulivesham has transformed into many avatars in its journey from folk to popular.
Lastly, what about a third rational that Pulivesham practioners intentionally and fluidly move from folk to popular in an attempt to maintain their tradition? After all, traditions aren’t static and shift between categories such as folk, popular, and religious, so as to ‘buck the tide’ and stay fashionable through history. My sense is that the resurfacing of Pulivesham stripped of its religious classifications illuminates a conscious shift of a practice by making itself popular and more accessible. It also makes practioners of Pulivesham not as passive recipients of cultural taxonomies, but rather as active shape-shifters who use identities that suit them and help them get ahead. I am not suggesting in any way that this is inauthentic, infact it seems rather logical that Pulivesham dancers and other religious practioners too would constantly choose between the identities they choose to represent and are represented by. All of this begs the question: doesn’t this then complicate the project of religious studies, if we are always between categories and not within one?