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Laughing in Malayalam: Satirical Retellings of Stories From the Mahābhārata in the Tuḷḷal Genre of Kerala


· Helena Reddington McGill University (Montreal, Canada)


07/28 | 16:10-16:30 UTC+2/CEST


Tuḷḷal is a satirical performance tradition from Kerala attributed to the poet Kuñcan Nambyār (1700-1770.) Nambyār is not only remembered as the creator of the Tuḷḷal performance genre and the poetry on which it is based, but perhaps more significantly, as the one of the most important classical poets of the Malayalam language. The vernacular poetry weaves Hindu religious narratives drawn from the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa epics, as well as Purāṇa literature, with humour and socio-political critique.

I examine the ways in which Tuḷḷal poetry and performance reinterpret narratives from the Mahābhārata with particular attention paid to the lesser-known and rarely preformed Nāḷāyaṇī Caritam. I explore the ways in which Nambyār’s poetry imaginatively recasts episodes from the Mahābhārata epic as if they occurred in 18th century Kerala, incorporating dimension of local color and setting, yielding insights into society and politics in the region.

Besides Tuḷḷal’s rich textual tradition, I draw from fieldwork on the living performance tradition in Kerala. In particular, I explore how Tuḷḷal performers interpret Nambyār’s 18th century poetry for contemporary audiences. The performers enact a comedic rendering of narratives from the Mahābhārata in which even venerated figures are lampooned. Moreover, they have scope to improvise and actively incorporate the audience into the narrative. In this way, Nambyār’s original poems can be elaborated and interpreted in different ways. By comparing the 18th century poetry and the modern performance tradition, I aim to explore the ways in which religious narratives from the Mahābhārata are transmitted in new and changing contexts.