PSi#21 Fluid States - Labor and Performance in Wayanad, Kerala, by Devika N India Correspondent

Labor and Performance in Wayanad, Kerala

by Devika N

31 March 2015

PSi#21 Fluid States - India: Rethinking Labor and the Creative Economy - Global Performance Perspectives

PDF available here.

An important aspect of the PSi conference in New Delhi concerned the pedagogical future of performance studies. With this in mind, conference curator Rustom Bharucha inserted brief interventions by JNU students in the plenary session on what performance studies means to them within the context of their own ongoing research.  

The following intervention on labour in the context of ritual performance practices by indigenous communities in the south-western state of Kerala in India is by Devika N., a student completing her MPhil degree from the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). 

My M.Phil research is a study of the performance practices of the Paniya and Adiya adivasi people in Wayanad in North Kerala. Adivasis are identified as indigenous people in the Indian context.  Situated in the Western Ghats, the hilly northern district of Wayanad in Kerala has a sizeable population of adivasis who provide the ideal breeding ground for ‘natural resources’ and ‘indigenous crafts and culture’, coveted by both  global entrepreneurs and local traders. What makes Wayanad stand out is the significant presence of adivasis who till today bear a history of subjugation as slaves and bonded labourers working in the agricultural fields and plantations owned by feudal landlords.


In the absence of documented archives of the Paniyas and Adiyas, and a general tendency to exoticize the practices of these communities in purely ethnographic studies, what is needed is to turn to the performance and ritual-intensive life experiences of these communities which embody the experiences of their labour whereby cultural practices become a historiography in their own right. In such an engagement, performance studies can begin to converse with contemporary labour historiographies in order to interrogate and expand the limitations of historical enquiry which exclude the lived experiences and embodied practices of marginalized people.

Two important interventions from performance studies would be the labour of a performing body and the corporeal production of space created through labouring bodies indebted to services of labour. Along with these interventions, I believe that in the Indian subcontinent, performance studies should proceed by engaging with the structural implications of disparate modes of production, particularly the feudal mode of production in performance practices.  Thereby, it becomes possible to strike a balance between theory and material social conditions that define life and lived experiences within the Indian context.

My research specifically studies the performance practices of Paniyas and Adiyas. The term Paniyan literally means a worker/ labourer and Adiyan is one who is subordinated as a slave. While foregrounding the adivasi question, what is most often overlooked is the categorical significance of ritual and performance practices for these communities. Here, an interesting and an important question to keep in mind is: Do the energetic excesses of ritual practices complicate the problematic of labour at all?

To explain my theoretical framework, I shall briefly describe some of their oral narrative and performance practices. The ritual and labour songs of the Paniyas narrate the poignant story of their mythical ancestors who were enslaved by landlords. According to the narrative, the deity of the dominant land-owning castes hunted them down from the deepest caves when they tried to flee from oppression. It becomes important to analyse how the construction of the fear of the upper-caste gods sustains structures of exploitation. In this context, Gyan Prakash’s (1990) notion of the power of things in immaterial transactions becomes useful in identifying how the control of labour is ensured through dependent ties where labour is not exchanged for material favours or transactions.

In another performance practice of the Adiyas called the Vattakali, men and women begin to move in a circle, in an exhaustive dance, as they gyrate to the intensifying beats of the thudi or the ritual drum. The haunting beats of the thudi transform the space of the kali (play) into one that collapses time and work upon the physical performing body. For a moment here, the body exhausts and perhaps temporarily releases itself from labour into an exhaustive performance where the impetus for performance seems to take precedence over the process of labour.

At this point, George Thomson’s (1974) definition of ritual as practice separated from the labour-process is worth probing. If, objectively, ritual, through mimesis, organizes the vocal and bodily movements of collective labour to withdraw from the processes of labour, it would rather simplistically assume that ritual practices are entirely emancipatory.  I think that this position should be further nuanced. Here, the subjective aspect of ritual practices only refers to free labour. Further complicating this notion, the purpose of this research is to expand and interrogate the relationship between performance practices and differentiated services of labour which are not free labour.

Within the context of the performance and ritual practices of the Adiyas and Paniyas, it is the state of ‘non-freedom’ in bonded systems of labour that needs to be highlighted. For instance, until three decades ago, the Adiyan community was subjected to an exploitative practice called Kambalam where their performance practice was used to extract surplus production by intensifying their labour through dance and song. Thus, hierarchies of exploitation get heightened in certain acts of performance whereas certain other political and ritual performances practices within the community evoke the aspiration for a transformed and egalitarian society. Here, I feel that performance studies in the context of my research would help to study these dynamics in all their complexities, whereby, on the one hand, there is intensification of labour, and on the other hand, aspirations of hope and subversion.


Copyright –  Devika N (2015) “Labor and Performance in Wayanad, Kerala”, PSi #21 Fluid States: Performances of UnKnowing LOG, ed. Marin Blazevic, Bree Hadley and Nina Gojic, Performance Studies international (PSi), 1 January 2015-31 December 2015, available

Tags: Class Labor Economy and Performance  Community and Performance  Daily Life Daily Rituals and Performance   Performance Studies in Asia  Performance Studies in Languages Other Than English  

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