While the film succeeded in portraying the historically radical religions that revolted against the hegemonic Brahminism, the danger of constructing all religiosity as merely ‘Hindu’ is ever present in Indian society.

A picture from the film Kantara with a man performing Bhootakola wearing yellow paint on his face and wearing a head adornmentScreengrab
Voices Opinion Sunday, December 04, 2022 - 12:26
Written by  Sowjanya Tamalapakula

The film Kantara directed by Rishab Shetty is a blockbuster at the box-office in almost all languages it has been dubbed into. The movie’s plot has two significant elements pitched at two different levels. One part of the story consists of the struggles of a community of forest dwellers in protecting their land from the dora, the landlord, and from the state that is operating through the forest department. The other part is about the spirituality and religion of outcastes, in this case the worship of the gods Panjurli and Guliga, powerful spirits that speak through the dance art form of Bhootha Kola. This religious element plays a vital role in the story in protecting the lands of the forest dwellers from the dora.

The opening scene of the film is set in 1847, a 100 years before the formation of India. This period refers to the power of the autocrats over both the forest and agricultural lands. However the ‘good’ king who was in search of peace ends up meeting the god Panjurli – worshipped in the form of a stone – in the middle of the forest. When he attempts to take the god along with him to the palace, Panjurli’s spirit speaks through the member of an Adivasi community and demands that the king grant the Adivasis right over the land around their habitat. Panjurli also warns the king that he is always associated with the more ferocious spirit of the god Guliga, who doesn’t tolerate any injustice.

In the 1970s, the king’s inheritor who emerges as a landlord wants to ‘take back’ the land his ancestors allegedly donated to the Adivasi community. However, Panjurli again speaks through the Bhootha Kola artist and warns the landlord to drop his vicious intentions. The Bhootha Kola performer disappears mystically into the darkness of the forest to prove his divinity. The inheritor dies on the steps leading to the courtroom before he can fight his case in the court of law as foretold by Panjurli.

The only son of the Bhootha Kola artist, Shiva, is the protagonist, whose life story is set in the contemporary period. Shiva is a carefree youth who is enticed by the dora with liquor. Though the duty of performing Bhootha Kola is bestowed upon his family, Shiva is scared to inherit this profession for the fear that he might mystically disappear like his father. Shiva’s first cousin Guruva takes up the duty of performing Kola in lieu of Shiva.

While the youth of the community rely extensively on the dora for everything, including protecting themselves from forest officer Muralidhar, Shiva’s mother is sceptical about the ways of the dora. Leela, Shiva’s childhood friend and love interest, finds a job as a forest department guard with the help of the dora. However, the dora manipulates both the government and the Adivasi community to transfer much of the Adivasi lands in his name. While the strength of the Adivasis is inadequate to fight the feudal power of the dora or the modern state, it is Guliga, the powerful spirit of the totemistic religion, that becomes the nemesis.

The significant women characters are Shiva’s mother, who is always doubtful about the dora’s intentions behind providing liquor to the youth, particularly to her son. She keeps warning Shiva not to kill the wild boar as it is worshipped as Panjurli. Another important character is Leela, an educated Adivasi woman keen on making a career as a forest guard. However, she is criticised by the people of her community for working with the forest department that sends them notices against ‘illegal occupation’ of government lands. Leela is presented as a powerful female character. She begins to ride Shiva’s bike after his arrest, metaphorically indicating how she takes over the familial responsibilities. Shiva’s mother criticises him bitterly when he manhandles Leela.

Who does the forest belong to?

The film depicts the philosophy of the political struggle for land rights in India. When the plot of the movie enters contemporary times in a linear narrative, Shiva is introduced riding oxen in Kambala, a traditional race among south Indian agrarian communities. The dora Devendra is introduced witnessing the game with a great deal of excitement. Mahadeva, an old Adivasi man also watching the race, says in a philosophical tone, “While the buffaloes are running in the race without caring for their own life, ironically the ‘owner’ gets the medal,” emphasising on how the armchair dora enjoys the profits while the lowered castes toil in the fields like slaves.

Since the plot covers a wide time span from pre-independent India to today, there is a great deal of enigma related to the land ownership. Philosophically, land belongs to no one but to nature or ‘god’, depending on whatever philosophical structure one refers to. This is reflected in Shiva’s father’s words: “The problem with people is that they want to take back even something they donated. If they understand where it actually came from and who it should actually belong to, there will be no problem in this world.” Similarly, in an encounter with forest officer Muralidhar, Shiva says, “This forest belongs to us before the birth of your ‘government’. In fact, your government should take permission from us to enter the forest.”

The philosophical question here is whether the forest belongs to the state or to the forest dwellers who are traditionally associated with it. To talk cogently, land belongs to no one but to nature. In the film, and in reality, the owner of the land is the monarch in pre-independent India while the ownership is later transferred to the democratic state. The question here is, who donated or provided ownership over the land to the king or to the modern state? Both the institutions of power curb the rights and access of the Adivasis, who are historically dependents/protectors of the forest from times before the autocrat or the modern state was formed. So, the antagonist in this context is both the dora and the modern state that is represented through the character of Muralidhar. As the land ownership is sanctioned to the Adivasis by ‘nature’ or ‘god’, it is now the duty of the ‘god’ to protect their rights. This philosophy is conveyed through the unflinching belief of the Adivasis in Panjurli. The same divine power protects the Adivasis both from the dora and the state.

The spirituality and religion of outcastes

The divinity is presented through the traditional music and art form of Bhootha Kola in the film. The fascinating part of the religiosity is that the god Panjurli is not a ‘Vedic Hindu’ god, with Muralidhar asserting “my belief is different from yours.” Muralidhar does not even hesitate to disrupt the Bhootha Kola as it is believed to be the religion of lowered castes/outcastes, one that has no relation to the Vedic religion that the dominant castes practise. Both for the dora and for Muralidhar, Panjurli is a demigod worshipped by the forest dwellers. Though the dora sponsors Bhootha Kola performances in order to seek the approval of the Adivasis, he doesn’t believe in Panjurli or Guliga, the gods of the outcastes.

Even in the narration of the story of the ‘good’ king who was in search of peace, Panjurli is referred to as a mere pestle used for grinding spices. Dora Devendra practises the Brahminic religion and upholds untouchability. He washes his hands after touching Shiva and gets his house ritualistically purified by a group of Brahmins after Shiva enters his house. Thus, the film makes a clear demarcation between Brahminical Hinduism and the religiosity of the outcastes. The term ‘Hindu’ is a colonial invention as it created a ‘constitutive other’ to the religions of the book, combining even unique animistic, totemistic religions with Vedic Brahminism. These outcaste religions like the worship of female goddesses such as Yellamma in Telangana and Maharashtra, or worship of Naga/snake by lowered caste society in Bengal or Andhra Pradesh represent the historical conflict between Vedic Brahminism and the religions formed as revolts against the hegemony of Vedic Brahminism.

For instance, the Naga tribe that worshipped the snake goddess Manasa is allegedly considered an adversary to Shaivism (Coomaraswamy and Nivedita, 1914). In Mahabharata, the sarpayaga (Vedic/Brahminic ritual) is conducted by Janamejaya in order to wipe out the population of Nagas (Menon, 2011). In sarpayaga/sarpa satra, all Nagas are burnt alive in the ritualistic fire. Thus, Naga worship is defined as a counter to the Vedic religion of Brahmins. The conflict between revolutionary religions and Vedic religion is evident throughout history (Coomaraswamy and Nivedita, 1914).

Appropriation of local traditions

Ambedkar argues in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India that various alternative forms of religiosity, mainly Buddhism, was a revolution that drew lowered castes and outcastes into its fold (Ambedkar, 1987). However, the Vedic religion fought relentlessly to appropriate certain ideals such as non-violence and vegetarianism from these counter/revolting religions in order to re-entice people into their fold. Thus, powerful local traditions are appropriated by the Brahminic religion through the construction of oral narratives that bring connections between the Hindu scriptures and the gods/goddesses of the lowered castes or outcastes. The oral narratives that contrive connections between Renuka – who was beheaded by her son Parashurama – and Yellamma, worshipped by outcastes, helped to create a common ‘Hindu’ religiosity and retain the Brahmin dominance over the religions. Brahminical Hinduism actively and continuously engages in ‘creating history’ to appropriate the powerful spiritualities of the outcastes.

The film needs to be understood in the light of this demarcation between Brahminical Hinduism and counter religions. The conflict between the hegemonic Vedic religion and the other religions is not a new phenomenon. Local leaders or goddesses of the outcastes/Adivasis such as Chanchita are appropriated as the incarnation of the Brahminic goddess Lakshmi, i.e., Chenchu Lakshmi. All the female power is equated to the power of Parvathi, the goddess of Vedic religion (Coomaraswamy and Nivedita, 1914). This appropriation of local traditions or counter-religious trends into the fold of Vedic religiosity is as ancient as the Puranas and epics, but it is relentlessly perpetuated in contemporary times as well. This perpetuation of re-appropriation of counter religions is known as counter-revolution of the Vedic religiosity, according to Ambedkar (Ambedkar, 1987).

Even rival religious trends like Shaivism and Vaishnavism subsumed each other and continued to coexist harmoniously in the name of ‘Hinduism’. This appropriation of opponent religions reinstates the hegemony of the Brahmins and dominant castes both in religion and society. There is also a danger of viewing Panjurli as the incarnation of Vishnu (Varaha avatar). In fact, every avatar shows how the Brahminic religion soaked up the counter/coexisting religions. Ironically, even revolutionary religious leaders like Buddha are contrived as one of the avatars of Vishnu.

Even today, both the makers and viewers of Kantara may categorise Panjurli as an incarnation of Vishnu. It is also made possible by the descriptions of Varaha avatar and Narasimha avatar in the Bhagavatam. Appropriation of local traditions by the Vedic religion is as old as the Vedas itself. It dates back to the times of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads and epics. One of the examples is how the scriptures that belong to the later Vedic period, i.e., 1000 to 600 BCE, itself appropriated vegetarianism and the principles of non-violence propagated by Buddha and Mahaveera.

Similarly, the conflict between Shaivism and Vaishnavism is portrayed through the stories of Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu being slain by Vishnu in his forms of Varaha (pig) and Narasimha (half-human and half-lion) respectively. The two are killed for merely worshipping Shiva. But today, dominant caste Hindus, lowered castes, and outcastes worship these two figures of Shiva and Vishnu as the two faces of ‘Hinduism’. Thus, the two historical adversaries coexist harmoniously. Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu are mentioned in texts like the Bhagavatham, the Puranas, and even some Buddhist texts. These stories substantiate the violence perpetrated on aboriginal groups by the ‘outsider’.

Moreover, no Veda was initially written and preserved in the form of a text. These are oral renderings, disseminated only among Brahmin men. Likewise, even the written scriptures were not written at once. There were additions done to epics in different periods. Thus, we have hundreds of Ramayanas – Kamba Ramayana, Valmiki Ramayana, Molla Ramayana, Thai Ramayana, Marathi Ramayana to name a few. The story of the Naga king inviting Buddha and accepting Buddhist principles are mentioned in Buddhist texts (Lowell W Bloss, 1973).

Nagas being burnt alive is mentioned in the Mahabharata. Narasimha is worshipped among outcastes. He married Chenchita, a woman belonging to the Chenchu community. In later renderings, Chenchita became Chenchu Lakshmi. In contemporary society, pigs and snakes are not worshipped by Brahmins in the way they worship the cow. Brahmins even do pujas for sarpadosha to escape the fear of being bitten by a snake. However, Brahmin priests play a pivotal role even in the traditions that have no scriptural base. For example, Bonalu (worship of Yellamma) and Bathukamma (worship of nature) are not mentioned in any scripture. 

In Gogu Shyamala’s story But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask For Her Land? (Gogu, 2012), a Brahmin priest says that he has never read about the goddess Ooradamma worshipped by Telangana’s Sabbanda communities (communities that indulge in productive labour). He has knowledge about Lakshmi, Parvathi, and Saraswati but not Ooradamma. However, the Brahmin priest appears amid these traditions as well. This is made possible by the flexibility that Brahmins infused into the scriptures by holding the power to interpret and reinterpret their scriptures. One such interpretation is that all female power originates from Parvathi, Shiva’s wife. Moreover, the outcaste and lowered castes often seek validation from Brahminism to be treated as ‘Hindus’. Even lowered castes uphold the stories of Jamadagni and Parashurama beheading their goddess Yellamma. In fact, this story is another example of how the ‘outsiders’ perpetrated violence on the aboriginal autonomous women leaders from the matriarchal cultures.

The god Panjurli can easily be appropriated with the Varaha avatar of the Brahminic god Vishnu. In fact, the narration of the Varaha avatar is nothing but the appropriation of the gods from the totemistic religions like worship of Panjurli, the spirit of the wild boar that is believed to protect the land of the forest-dwellers. It is similar to the Brahminic Hindu appropriation of Venkateswara (erstwhile god of the tribal groups in Andhra) as another incarnation of Vishnu even though there is no scriptural base to Venkateswara. This appropriation of traditions and manipulation of history takes place due to the sole authority of Brahmins to interpret the scriptures. 

Kantara takes up the challenge of whether it is possible to derive the rhetoric of revolution from religiosity. While the film succeeded in portraying the historically radical religions that revolted against the hegemonic Brahminism, the danger of constructing all religiosity (animistic or totemistic) as merely ‘Hindu’ is ever present in Indian society. However, the outcastes rely on the revolutionary religions to construct the rhetoric of resistance to caste oppression in Kantara. They invoke revolutionary gods Panjurli and Guliga to fight the feudal power of the landlord and the bureaucracy of the enigmatic modern state. Unlike Rama who sanctions the dominance of Brahmins, Krishna, who upholds the hegemony of Kshatriyas, (Chakravarti, 2003, Rege, 2013) Panjurli and Guliga fights against the feudal landlord to protect the rights of the forest-dwellers. 

References:

  • Ambedkar, BR, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India” in Vasant Moon (ed.) Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings and Speeches Vol. 3 Bombay: Education Department, Govt. of Maharashtra, 1987.

  • Bloss, Lowell W, “The Buddha and the Nāga: A Study in Buddhist Folk Religiosity.” History of Religions, vol. 13, no. 1, 1973, pp. 36–53. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1061950. Accessed Nov. 30, 2022.

  • Chakravarti, Uma. Gendering Caste: Through Feminist Lens, Calcutta: Stree, 2003

  • Coomaraswamy K, Ananda, Sister Nivedita, Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists. London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1914.

  • Gogu, S, Father May Be An Elephant, Mother Only A Small Basket, But..., New Delhi: Navanaya, 2012.

  • Menon, Ramesh. The Complete Mahabharata. India: Rupa Publications, 2011.

  • Rega, Sharmila. Against the Madness of Manu: B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings and Brahminical Patriarchy. New Delhi: Navayana, 2013. 

Dr Sowjanya Tamalapakula teaches at TISS, Hyderabad. Views expressed here are the author’s own.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.