From Under the Tamarind Tree: Hereditary Performance and Sectarian Identity in South India
The temple of Alvar Tirunagari in the deep south of India is a unique archive of hereditary performance traditions in India. Whereas the seismic shift in patronage that occurred in the post-Independence period ensured the rapid erosion of temple-centered performance cultures, the insularity of Alvar Tirunagari ensured the preservation of multiple hereditary performance traditions—liturgical recitation, gestural interpretation, and ritual singing are just three examples—into the present century. But the performers of Alvar Tirunagari have not been untouched because of the shift in patronage, from local, elite landowners to State supported funding. Many performers have left temple service for more lucrative employment, while others supplement their meager temple income with white-collar jobs in major cities. In this paper I take up the example of Araiyar Cēvai, just one of Alvar Tirunagari’s several performance traditions, to explore the ways in which members from both within and from outside the hereditary families have sought to reshape it for a contemporary, urban audience.
Dr. Archana Venkatesan is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Literature and in Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis. She completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004. She has worked mainly on Andal, the female Alvar poet-saint, and published an award-winning translation of her poetry with OUP in 2010 (The Secret Garland: Antal's Tiruppavai and Nacciyar Tirumoli). She is currently working, with Prof. Francis X. Clooney (Harvard), on a translation of the Tiruvaymoli, one of the most important collections of Tamil devotional poetry.