April 28, 2009

Foreign Affairs: Photography Abroad

Print More

Currently on view at the Johnson Museum, Daniel Nadler’s ’54 photographs of Theyyam Rituals of Kerala offer an extraordinary view into the local religious traditions of the south Indian state of Kerala. These performances, in which a male performer is used a vehicle for the spirit of a god, were captured by chance by Nadler while he and his wife travelled through India in 2004. Nadler states that he hopes that his “photographs convey the fervor of the attendees, intently involved with the representation of their god.” While Nadler’s desire for these photographs to communicate the intensity of the experience for the attendees of the performance is certainly one aspect of their composition, the preparations and following of the male performer undergoing this transformation are also articulated throughout.
The most aesthetically striking photograph of the exhibition, “Portrait of Vayanattu Kulavan,” greets viewers when they are entering the exhibition space. The close-up of the intricately painted face of the male performer, who has become a reincarnation of the god Vayanattu Kulavan after intense preparations of face-painting and elaborate costuming, was taken after the main dance was performed during the ceremony. This god’s reincarnation is particularly appropriate for a ceremony in which performers who are from a low caste are transformed into beings who are allowed to commune with priests and those of a higher social order. Vayanattu Kulavan was a low-caste hunter found hunting in Shiva’s sacred grove. As punishment, he was blinded and banished from Shiva’s sight. The exhibition remarks, “A number of theyyam myth gods of lower castes concern similar defiance against higher caste domination.” Other photographs in the exhibit show other performers who have become different deities communing with devotees and giving advice, an honor not usually afforded to performers.
Other photographs demonstrate not only the technical aspects of these rituals, which can last for several days with multiple reincarnations of the deity occurring, but also shed light on the way in which these gods became so important to this particular region. A prominent figure in the photographs is the reincarnation of the deity Vellatam of Muthappan, another hunter who is believed to bring luck in fishing and protection from illnesses and dangers at sea. In the state of Kerula, there are many fishing communities who would undoubtedly see this god as an important protector of their livelihood.
The largest portion of these photographs, however, is devoted to Nadler’s experience of the theyyam of Thee Chamundi. The theyyam is actually the apex of the reincarnation celebrations, with the smaller, less elaborate ceremonies of the torram or velattam taking place beforehand. Nadler and his wife were given special permission to attend the theyyam. In the case of Thee Chamundi, attendees witness the dangerous feat of the performer throwing his body onto a mound of hot coals. It is believed that as the god, the performer is able to accomplish such tasks without being harmed. Chamundi is a form of the Great Mother god Devi, a female god that is still embodied by a male performer. The photographs show the process of the performer being covered in coconut paste and wrapped from head-to-toe in coconut fronds in preparation for the jump onto the coals, which occurred repeatedly between the hours of four and six in the morning. Nadler’s photographs which commemorate this astonishing task give viewers a glimpse into a world that is likely completely unfamiliar to them.
The final photograph of the series, “After Thee Chamundi” goes off to advise her devotees, members of the entourage run barefoot over the cone of embers, demonstrates Nadler’s previously stated aim to express the fervor of those in attendance. So powerful is the transformation of this man into a goddess, that the faith in invincibility is transferred to her attendants, who bravely run over the hot coals as well. Short of going to India and experiencing this custom for yourself, this exhibition is a fascinating look into the minds of the attendees as well as performers who undergo these transformations, breaking both barriers of class and gender.