Journal article / Pottan Teyyam and Relationalities between Animal, Gender, and Disability

Vimal C., Akhila. ‘Performing Disfiguration: Staging of Relationalities in Pottan Teyyam’. Performance Research 23, no. 8 (2018): 108-14. Published online: 11 March 2019

Abstract (edited): The paper will focus on Pottan Teyyam, a ritual healing performance practice in Kerala to analyse the complexities of what I call ‘performing disfiguration’. Pottan is one of the major figurations in the repertoire of extremely popular Teyyam practices.

The performance is rich in its use of music, spectacle, and movements, and its significance lies in the fact that during its span a lower caste/untouchable transforms into a god, often in a state of possession. The existing scholarship on Pottan Teyyam is focused on the binary of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ which forms the central focus of the caste system that gets criticised in the performance of Teyyam.

These perspectives have been gleaned through a focus on the analysis of myth and tottam (songs), with a stress on the transformation of a lower caste performer into a divine figure.

This paper foregrounds disfiguration in performance as it stages the problematic situation of caste by reading the performance on the basis of relationalities between animal, gender, and disability.

The word Pottan literally means ‘dumb’ or ‘mute’, and the performance links both negative senses of the word – a disability that indicates foolishness. Over the course of the performance, a single performer’s body gets transformed into three different characters: Pulamarutan enacts an animal trait, Pulapottan performs disability and Pulachamundi brings out the ‘primitive’ nature of a lower caste woman.

During these distinct embodiments, one can see the complex process of disfiguration manifested in the performance. The performer uses different mukhappala (masks) indicating the character and their lower caste identity. The mukhappala thus indicates the scarring undergone by the character.

How does this scarring work in, what is otherwise seen as, a divine figure within the social realm? How can ‘performing’ disfiguration help us understand the complex interlinking of caste and disability? Further, how does disfiguration help reflect on deep-rooted stigmas with regards to caste, gender, disability?

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Reposted from Kerala Scholars eGoup

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