Leaves of palm

The labor that goes into the preparation of a critically edited Sanskrit text is staggering (and exceeded only by the work that went into composing it!). Masato Fujii of Kyoto University has been coming to Kerala for three decades, spending much of his time hunting down private manuscript collections and photographing them. Many of the works are unpublished and unknown to all but a small circle of practitioners and specialists. A proper critical edition might be based on dozens of manuscripts of the same work, each leaf photographed, transcribed, and laboriously compared.  I joined Professor Fujii and his colleague Mieko Kajihara for several days of manuscript photography so I could learn the ropes.  

Masato Fujii (with Mieko Kajihara in back) photographing manuscripts near Irinjalakuda, Kerala. 


A small portion of a Kerala manuscript collection: stacks of palm-leaves, incised with text on both sides and stacked like cards, are clamped between wooden covers and tied with string threaded through holes in the middle. Each "book" has been numbered in yellow by modern researchers...

Triple Threat

Among some South Indian Brahmins, the Veda encompasses not only living textual and ritual traditions but also a human agency--that is, traditions are passed down within families and extended kinship groups. That's the case in Kodunthirappully, Kerala, near the border with Tamil Nadu, home to a small Tamil-speaking population who sing liturgical songs (sāmaveda ) from the rare Jaiminīya branch. In this picture the village vādhyār  (priest and teacher) Thiruvenkatanatha Sarma rehearses with one of his students, K.S. Balasubrahmanian, who holds young Srinivasan on his lap. Three generations of the Sāmavedic human agency.

Vadhyar Thiruvenkatanatha Sharma, Balan and son study  sāmaveda . Kodunthirappully, Kerala, January 2013

Vadhyar Thiruvenkatanatha Sharma, Balan and son study sāmaveda. Kodunthirappully, Kerala, January 2013

Making up (film short)

This is a ten minute sequence from my documentary in progress, "Chakyar." Teams of high school students, under the direction of maestro Painkulam Narayanan Chakyar, don make-up at the district level arts competition in Thrissur, Kerala on December 31, 2012. They are preparing to perform short one-act plays in the Sanskrit theatrical tradition of Kerala, kudiyattam. "Making up" shows the laborious process of applying kudiyattam make-up to dozens of amateur actors in a single day. The short explores themes of subjectivity and transformation: the person is slowly subsumed into the traditional role--god, demon, hero-- as each layer of make-up is applied. 

Agni 2012

One of the primary venues for the ongoing performance of Sāmaveda is the Agnicayana, a 12-day sacrifice for the god of fire (Agni) performed by the Nambudiris of Kerala. For me, this is a chance to observe and document ritual traditions with roots in the first millennium BCE...But it's also a chance to witness the ongoing transformation of these cultural "survivals" in dynamic social contexts--the current Agnicayanas, attended by thousands of devotees, are quite different from the famous revival organized with the help of Dutch scholar in 1975. One thing that has not changed (much) is that non-Brahmins like me are not allowed inside the ritual enclosure (unless you're from a media outlet!!). So I learn as much as I can chatting by the barriers with the participants during their breaks (as here, with Tottam Krishnan Nambudiri in Kodakara 2012).

With Tottam Krishnan Nambudiri on the sidelines of the Kodakara Agnicayana, Kerala, April 2012. 

With Tottam Krishnan Nambudiri on the sidelines of the Kodakara Agnicayana, Kerala, April 2012.