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Oh Terrifying Mother

Oh Terrifying Mother

Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali

Sarah Caldwell, Oxford India Paperbacks (2001, third impression 2004), 320 pages, ISBN 019565796-9


This is a truly excellent and exciting book. Sarah Caldwell is an American ethnographer who travelled in Kerala, in the south of India, in 1991-2 to undertake her fieldwork. She chose to study the ritual theatre of mutiyettu - an elaborate sacred drama, which stages a fearsome contest between the Goddess Kali and the demon Darika. Over six hours, their story is sung by an orchestra of singers and percussionists as the Goddess confronts and pursues him, climaxing in his decapitation. This is not mere theatre - it is held to be an actual appearance of the Goddess, as She possesses the actor concerned. Caldwell goes into great detail, concerning the variety of meanings and psychological dynamics compressed into this ritual structure, and the conflicts and pressures it reflects and negotiates for both men and women within Keralese rural society.

But this book is much more than another anthropological text with exotic details listed, classified, and perhaps, explained away. Sarah Caldwell is part of an emerging trend within anthropology - that of the involved participant, detailing his or her own experiences and reactions to the culture and religious icons studied. This trend moves away from "pure" but uninvolved position of (allegedly) objective scholarship, with authors not afraid to detail instead how the area of study have impacted upon - and upset - them personally . Emotional upheaval, life changes, intuitions, synchronicity and personal religious experience all become part of the text. I actually feel that to convey one's experiences in this manner, in a way that still does service to the area of study, is actually a much more difficult achievement than remaining "detached". Caldwell succeeds brilliantly here, with a mix of insight, first class scholarship and academic analysis. Entries from her journal, fieldwork notes and letters home are given in small chunks in a separate font, when they illustrate and are relevant to the particular topic under discussion. Thus, her feelings and frustrations on having to observe Keralese conventions of womanly behaviour form an illustrative part of a chapter of "Female Frustrations" and give the subject an immediacy and degree of empathy that would otherwise be lacking. These personal annotations unfold chronologically over the course of the book and detail the radical changes in her own life which accompanied her study of the Goddess. This is no way weakens the book - if anything one is left with a stronger and richer picture of the phenomena discussed. As Caldwell says "The experiences chronicled ... and their intense emotional tenor were inseparable from the phenomenological reality of mutiyettu".

The book is structured in seven chapters. The opening chapter gives background detail on the area of Kerala and the history of both the people and their theatrical art form while Chapter 2 discusses the structure and experience of the ritual itself. The chapter following shows how the fertile agriculture of the region and its changing seasons are tied in with both the lives of the people and the symbolism of the Goddess. There's a wealth of information and detail on every page here which gives us a rich picture of Keralese life - from encounters with low level corruption, to slang uses of language linking agricultural produce with human fertility. With the seasons, we encounter a key idea within the Goddesses' cult - a dialectic between heat and coolness. In a sense, the mutiyettu performance is an evocation of heat, the time of drought expressed through the rage of the Goddess and her violence, which is transformed into the cleansing and cooling power of the monsoon rains.

These chapters lay the foundation for what follows - a detailed psycho-sexual breakdown of the Goddesses symbolism. The dialectic between heat and coolness refracts into ideas of sexuality, with the menstruating female seen (from a male point of view) as embodying a terrifying heat. It may seem strange that a female Goddess contains such an odd and distorted picture of women's sexuality, but actually, Bhadrakali has little resonance for native women. Caldwell quotes women who view her as a somewhat distant figure, a source of fear. Mutiyettu is a male dominated art form, and as such it does not reflect female experience. Caldwell gives much detail which suggests that the symbolism embodied in the figure of the Goddess is about male fears and fantasies of the female rather than living women - the seductive "terrifying mother" with her forceful pointed breasts and rapacious terrifying sexuality. As the author says, a lot of this will not flatter the people of Kerala - as is made clear in this and the subsequent chapter, much of the projected fear and ambivalence around female sexuality may have its origins in sexual frustration, guilt over incestuous feelings and actual abusive childhood experiences. I'm very conscious here that I'm not doing justice to the sophistication of her argument. I've frequently found psychoanalytical readings of deities a little unconvincing, but the material here is so complex and detailed, that it really persuades. The author's deep involvement with Keralese society adds much force to her argument. And while a lot of the material is saddening and disturbing, I appreciate the honesty of her approach. I've encountered too much writing (frequently under the heading of "Tantra") which is nothing more than wish-fulfilment and projection onto another people's sexuality.

Chapter 5 deals with women's lives. As stated above, a lot of the frustrations that women in Kerala experience are articulated, and a lot of detail is given about abusive sexual relationships, and the stifling social circumstances that create them. Caldwell also accesses the real, domestic world of women - one of calm and female companionship, far from the fetishised image of the female body as expressed in mutiyettu. In addition, she holds out the hope that the women of Kerala might reclaim the Goddess for themselves, as a symbol of empowerment. She states "The goddess in Kerala is no feminist… But symbols are not static archetypes… The fierce Goddess provides a rich store of indigenous symbols to India women with which they can work out some of the real anger and imagine themselves in new ways". Sarah Caldwell has certainly found the goddess to be a transformative force in her own life as this book shows. Her deep involvement and understanding led to radical changes in her own life and new self-understandings, as wells as work of real academic depth. The penultimate chapter is on the transforming power of theatre, and the book closes with an open ending considering the issues thrown up by the book and her ethnographic approach. This chapter concludes with a poem about the Goddess by Keralese poet, Kattamanhitta Ramakrishna, his open ended multi-layered portrait capturing the spirit of the book.

Often quick and easy writing about deities can narrow them down, to simple easy summaries or easily explained compilations of symbolism. Here we have the opposite - a rich and vivid portrait that brings up so many facets they almost can't be contained in one image. One gets the sense of the multitude of meanings expressed through the Goddess spilling out into every area of life. Perhaps this is what it means to have a real encounter with the divine? An essential read for anyone interested in Tantra, Goddess traditions and the religions of India. - Danny Lowe