Gender in Folk narratives

Posted on March 8, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Gender in Folk narratives with special reference to Tuuva society,

in the west coast region of Karnataka, India

design: shivaram pailoor

(This paper was presented  in Wurzburg University, Germany  in 2005 and will be published in a volume this year. This paper is on women performers ,with special reference to Tulu culture.)

Gender differences are produced through the division of labour found in every society. But once formed, they are reproduced and maintained through gender images appearing in cultural practices such as folklore, art and religion, even after the original division of labour has changed. Gender differences may thus be used to legitimate the unequal distribution of power, wealth and other resources in a society. They are conditioned by historical, economic and social developments and influenced by environmental factors. The role of folklore in the reproduction of gender images is greater in folk societies than in modern societies.

‘Folk societies’ are distinguished from ‘modern society’, mainly on account of the folk societies’ oral traditions. A social structure with communal production and with common sharing is the distinctive feature of ‘folk societies’. Folk narratives, rituals, performances, belief systems are some markers of a shared folk tradition.

The approaches used in anthropology and literature studies to analyze the representation of gender and gender images, cannot be applied indiscriminately to folklore. The perspective and methodology of feminism in different disciplines, like literature, anthropology and folklore are different.[1] In Folklore, the focus is on variation and its reasons related to different social contexts. The visibility, invisibility and marginalisation of women can be understood with the variations in oral tradition, in time and space. Multiple kinds of documentation give empirical data for the identification and analysis of the changing roles of women in a given society.

The special conditions for the production and reception of folklore should be taken into consideration. Folklore is produced, performed and used in situations where performers and audience are in direct contact with each other. In the folklore process[2], there are factors which facilitate and enhance the reception of the messages. These factors are even more pronounced in folk performances, in particular rituals and ceremonies, where the emotional involvement of the participants is greater than in everyday life. In folk societies, women occupy three realms, namely home, workplace and ritual space. Sometimes home and work place are the same.

In the TuỊuva culture as well, a folk culture from the southwest-coast of Karnataka, women participate in all the three realms, that is to say home, workplace and ritual space. The interrelated tensions between these three realms are responsible for the shaping of differently structured folk narratives. At home, women bear children and take care of the family. They are the producers and performers of folktales in Tulu known as ‘ajjikate’ or grandmother tales. ‘Ajjikates’ were identity symbols of women at home. ‘Ajjikates’ confined to the realm of ‘home’, explain the predominant role of women in the production and narration of folktales, thereby giving women authority as tradition bearers at home. Men normally could not possess the repertoire of this folktale tradition and women were in the ‘center’ at home, not just for cooking and cleaning but for producing and transmitting ‘folktales’, an important genre of oral tradition. Women were recognized and respected for their repertoire of folktales, a respect which men lacked.

The idea or message conveyed in folktales is often feminine in content. Tales begin like this: “Once upon a time, there was a grand old lady …” or “There was an old woman in a village…”. In many of these tales, the dreams and aspirations of the family are fulfilled by the youngest daughter. Quite often this youngest daughter is not only the heroine of the tale, she also manages to achieve the realization of set goals all on her own.

There are several other motifs that mark the power of women in folktales: A man fails in accomplishing the goal, but a woman — his wife, sister or daughter — succeeds in doing so. In many tales, a woman appears as a symbol or representative of intellectual power. Often the minister’s daughter is such a character. She plans the strategies and takes upon herself all the risks involved in achieving a particular goal. Finally, she emerges victorious.

TuỊuva women working in the paddy fields sing work songs, like kabita (lively shorter work songs) and sandis (folk epics).[3] Traditionally, only women carry out two important activities of paddy cultivation, namely the pulling out and transplanting of the paddy seedlings. This is a reproductive process, wherein paddy crops and folk narrative songs are produced together. Women participate as a community in the paddy cultivation. This gives them confidence and results in a feeling of ‘group identity’. The kabitas or narratives they sing together while transplanting paddy seedlings represent TuỊuva women in their various activities and aspirations. They all share the important idea that ‘women are always together in a group’[4]. For better understanding, see pictures 1-3 (Rai, Pictures, Picture 1-3).

The popular kabita ‘ōbēlē’[5] deals with the working situation in paddy fields. The word ‘bēlē’ in TuỊu means ‘work’. A landlord seeks the help of a traditional labourer to get women to work in the fields. He goes to fetch the women labourers. At the end of the narrative the wife of the landlord becomes pregnant and the concluding part appreciates the girl child. The wishes of women are heard as a message like this: ‘Let new crops come up with the seedlings we have transplanted. Let the wife of our landlord become pregnant.’ The themes of having plentiful children and crops are manifestations of the same ideology.

An interesting kabita ‘yē dā balla magā dūji kemmairā’[6], describes a magnificent bull, the different parts of its body, its gestures and its various actions. At the end of this kabita, there is a reference to this Dūji Kemmaira (magnificent bull), its waiting for the cows in hiding, and also to the appearance of calves. Though not in the text, in the actual singing context the women, at this juncture, catch hold of each other in fun and enjoyment. On enquiry I was told that they were mimicking the action of the tiger catching the cattle. This section conspicuously comes immediately after the mention of calves in relation to the admiration of the bull. Thus considering the text and its context, the kabita can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the desire for mating and motherhood on the part of women.

There are many kabitas which just list the ornaments of women; except the words denoting the ornaments, the whole of such a text employs repetitive words in kabitas like, e.g. poṇṇu rāmasvāmi magalālụ; tērụḍụ tēreḍḍenō; elyālụ elya bāle etc.[7] Such kabitas are open-ended and they can be extended or contracted to any extent by adding or deleting the number of ornaments, depending upon the situation. The reference to various ornaments, in kabitas of this sort sung by women, is meaningful to them. TuỊuva women normally love to have gold ornaments of different varieties, but cannot actualise their wishes because of their economic condition. Such kabitas fulfil their wish for gold ornaments.

There are other kabitas whose structure is very similar, but in which place names substitute for ornaments. The desire to go to the temple festivals of different places is the theme of another type of kabita. Here also the desire of women to go to different temple festivals is expressed in a repetitive style.

Kabitas are sung in the fields by women and mainly reflect women’s aspirations, their desire for dress and ornaments, their wish to go to temple festivals, and their sexual desires. Some other kabitas reflect women’s relationship with birds and plants. A kabita ‘rāvō rāvu koroṅgō rāvandēnụ dānụbē’[8] denotes the wish of women, to fly like birds. Here, a bird, koroṅgu, a fieldbird, is a symbol of flying from one’s normal place. This gives an indication of women to come out of their homes and to have freedom like a bird.

Going for work, travelling together to participate in a village festival, the wish to get married, a desire for dress and ornament and the symbolic representation of women’s urge to be emancipated are some of the themes of these kabitas. The theme of ‘going out’ for temple festivals is one kind of liberation for women in villages. It gives them freedom to chat freely with fellow women, to relax and also to comment on men’s activities. Going out for work is another such outlet for women in villages, who are normally confined to their homes under the control of men. Working in paddy fields gives women liberation from the controlled atmosphere of home and a chance to open up for association and sharing with other women of the villages and thereby to get a sense of community.

While pulling out the paddy seedlings for transplantation, women sing sandis (folk epics), which often stress the tragic aspects of the heroine’s life.[9] Although such epics are recited in other contexts, too, the role of women as the producers of folk epics comes out most clearly within the space constituted by their workplace, i.e. the paddy fields.

In contradistinction to the kabita work songs, folk epics, such as danas and sandis, are sung in ritual contexts as well, for instance the bhūta festivals. The narratives about the origin and dissemination of a bhūta (local deity) are sung by a woman, while a male member of her family is the impersonator and performer of the deity in these ritual performances. Prior to the theatrical performance, when the actor is being made up and dressed, a female family member of the male performer, perhaps his mother, wife, sister or daughter, sings portions of the folk epics so as to create the right atmosphere for the performance. She also prepares the costumes on the spot. The processes of singing and preparing costumes take place simultaneously. Again, this is a reproductive process, wherein epics and costumes, which are essential for the ambience and success of the ritual, are produced by women. But from the audience’s point of view, the roles of women in such rituals appear insignificant. Women are not visible and their role is seen as marginal in the theatrical bhūta performance, where the male performer stands in the centre and most of the rituals and performances focus on him. His visual and aural glorification drowns out the voice of the female singer. Although hidden from the public view, women are the tradition bearers of the folk epic and have an equal share in the performance.

Research on folklore in the TuỊuva region during the past three decades has contributed to a better understanding of the identity of women in relation to the transmission, production and performance of folk narratives. Documentation of TuỊu folk epics, folktales and kabitas from women singers/performers has also created a greater awareness among the womenfolk themselves with regard to their own resources and has kindled their interest in the preservation of their tradition. For instance, Kargi Muṇḍāldi, the TuỊu folk epic singer with whom Peter J. Claus worked, has now been recognized as a resource person for folk literary criticism.[10] Giḍigere Rāmakke Mugērti, a resourceful folk epic singer, became well-known after her Siri epic had been documented and published by A. V. Navada (Navada 1999). She has been nominated as a member of the TuỊu Academy by the Government of Karnataka.[11]

Only recently, documentation of bhūta performances has also focussed on the role of women in these performances. Such a comprehensive, “thick” documentation goes beyond the conventional emphasis on male performers and, instead, features women as producers of folk epics and artefacts connected to such rituals. The focus of cameras on such female singers has not merely a technical aspect, but also an ideological one. The importance of the role of women in bhūta ritual performances becomes visible only in the total documentation of such performances. This was illustrated during my fieldwork in 1989 when the Finnish-Indian folklore training program occurred in a place where a festival was organized for the female deity Ullāldi. Professor Bente Alver from Bergen, Norway, and I were jointly leading the fieldwork team. The festival rituals started at eight o’clock in the evening. The male performer danced throughout the night. In the morning, there were only a few people to watch the conclusion of the ceremony. When he fainted at this stage, it was his mother who took care of him — a fact that is corroborated by our footage. Thus our visual documentation was able to add a new insight to our understanding of bhūta ritual performances, namely that women do play a role in performances which normally are considered to be the prerogative of males.


Here I will briefly discuss the impact of modernity and the role of women in folklore with particular reference to TuỊuva society. The practice of telling a folktale at home has vanished to a large extent. The reasons are manifold: The disintegration of joint families, whereby grandmothers no longer have direct access to their grandchildren, and formal school education, where the burden of extensive curricula has come to occupy the time and mind of children. The role of women in work places, such as paddy fields, has also been affected negatively since there has been a drop in paddy cultivation in TuỊuva society. But even then, women are still indispensable when it comes to the pulling out and transplanting of paddy seedlings, as no modern machine can replace them.[12] Modernity has had conflicting effects on ritual performances, such as the bhūta festivals. Money plays a major role in the sustenance and growth of bhūta festivals in the TuỊuva region. The number of performances in a year has increased enormously over the last twenty years. Indirectly, this has helped to improve the economic position of the families of the performers.

Media coverage of ritual performances has influenced both the content and form of the traditional performances. These have been revitalized to suit the tastes of a ‘modern’ audience, i.e. there is more emphasis on the theatrical, spectacular, ceremonial and ‘showy’ aspects of the ritual, flashy costumes, playing of film-music before and in between the ritual performances, and less emphasis on direct and personalised verbal exchanges with the deities concerning family and village affairs. The coverage of ritual events in local newspapers and the electronic media has provided an identity to the traditional performers, especially the women. Local TuỊu language TV channels like Namma Kula in Mangalore City telecast various folk narratives and performances, thereby enhancing the identity of artists and providing them publicity outside their own immediate performance area. Whereas this is concerned with mainly voice recordings and their broadcasting, things are different with live performances involving the exposure of the artist’s or possessed individual’s body in public rituals. In this area, a vulgarisation of folk performances can be observed.

Performances have been taken out of the traditional contexts to cater to the needs of a modern audience, as if they were commodities for sale, such as putting bits and pieces of ritual performances on a theatre stage. With other rituals, such as female possession in Siri festivals, the impact of changed attitudes of the audience is even more adverse, to the point of making the rituals and the women involved objects of ridicule.

Siri festivals

In Siri festival performances women get possessed en masse. In the mass possession space, women get transferred and transformed from the mundane realm into the mythical characters of the Siri epic. In this epic, Siri is the central protagonist. She is also an identity symbol of women. She protests and revolts against male dominance and becomes a mythical icon of feminine power. During the Siri festival, women belonging to various castes, regions and cultures join together as a community and take on the same group identity. All these women transcend their home and workplaces to constitute a larger family of women aspiring emancipation from the spaces of home and work. They become members of a mythical family who get possessed in a ritualistic space where they sing the lines of the folk epic and enact the mythical roles. The tensions created in their home and work spaces get released in this sacred space.[13] But these women have to go back again to the other spaces of home and work. The conflict and links that exist between these three realms is a matter for investigation of women’s role in performance. Harmony can be achieved through the mental management of these three realms together. A woman’s appearance in the ritual space, which is public, is considered as an obligation and as a condition for proper existence in the other two spaces. For better understanding, see pictures 4-6 (Rai, Pictures, Picture 4-6).

But this kind of Siri festival should be looked into from the perspective of changing audiences as well as their changing tastes and beliefs. The traditional audience had faith in the system and the arrangement between the performers and audience was a harmonious one. In contrast, the modern audience is critical and judges the entire ceremony from a more secular and rational point of view. Some family members of Siri women object to what they call a public show where ‘their women’ get possessed and behave in an ‘abnormal’ manner in a public place in front of a not so ritual-committed and supportive audience. Modern audiences, who are exposed to many media performances and who do not share the belief system that underlies these possession cults, behave in an impolite and sometimes vulgar manner. On the other hand, male relatives feel that the participation of female family members places them and their families in an awkward situation. This new trend has led women to opt out of the public possession performances and restrict their participation to hand-offerings to the main deity of the place. But even then these kinds of mass possession rituals continue to have the support from the organizers of such festivals who want to maintain their authority and continue their religious obligations through this public event. In addition, the performers and their family members continue to believe in these possession rituals, because they say that ‘they cool down the heat of their vertex’.

I interviewed about 50 Siri women between 1990 and 1995, mainly in the Belthangadi region of Coastal Karnataka, both in ritual contexts and at their homes (Rai, Pictures, Picture 7).[14] These women work in coffee estates, in paddy fields and also as daily wage labourers. At home, they are under pressure from male members of the family, especially the husband, and sometimes the mother or mother-in-law; they wish for a change in their life wherein they can get an identity of their own. At the work place, too, women are often treated as inferior to men and even now their wages are lower than those of male labourers. They do not have power, privileges or an identity of their own, either at their home or at their places of work. It is in the sacred space provided by the Siri rituals that they can acquire an individual identity as well as a group identity. By moving from the secular to the sacred world, where male members of their family and men in their workplace consider them as icons of deities and pay them due respect, such women obtain a kind of security that extends into their normal life. Against this background, recent developments are a drawback for many women. When they become objects of ridicule for ‘modern audiences’ and withdraw from the public possession rituals, they are deprived of an important means to develop their own identity.

These women were performing in the Siri festivals within a time span of ten to thirty years. Interviews of these Siri women were conducted at their home, at the workplace, mainly the paddy fields and during the intervals in the Siri festival. The personal interviews at their home, individually, in the absence of their family members, particularly the men, revealed many varied reasons for their participation in the Siri ritual and performance. Physical illness, harassment by husband and mother-in-law, not having children, death of children, misbehaviour of husbands due to excessive consumption of alcohol and husbands not caring for the wishes of their wives are some factors which made the women seek an outlet to escape the pressure in the family and bondage at home. When a woman is inducted into a Siri cult group, then it is almost like a permanent membership. Such Siri women believe in the system and practice of the cult. Many of them during the interview mentioned to me the problem of feeling heat on their vertex (head) and said that by participating in the Siri festival they felt coolness on their head. It is a kind of cultural purgation for them. One factor which adds to this is that affiliation to a Siri group gives Siri women a kind of freedom, emancipation from the bondage at home. Coming out of the home realm, and fellowship with women having similar restrictions at home, forms a group or community of women, leading to a ‘group identity’. This kind of emancipation may be temporary but it has effects in the home also. This is an important factor to understand the relationship between these three realms, viz., home, workplace and ritual space. I was told by some Siri women during the interview that, after they became ‘Siri women’, the harassment by their husbands at home diminished. Women as ‘Siri’ are normally respected beyond the ritual spaces, even at their homes and in their villages.


Reproductive processes with women in the central roles as producers, like transplanting the paddy crops and producing the field songs, preparing the costumes and singing the epic (bhūta festivals) are discussed in this paper. With this background, I would like to emphasize that women do participate actively in the production of songs, performances and rituals. But the audience does not validate their role, because the women are less visible. In the case of the public performances, such as the bhūta festival, the focus is on the male performer who enjoys greater visibility and status. This raises the question whether there is a division of (artistic and reproductive) labour at work here, where singing and making artefacts are delegated to the women and impersonation, which requires the exposition of the body, to men.

With reference to the Siri cult, the recent developments and problems addressed above might have to do with changing attitudes vis-à-vis the visual display of a woman’s body in a public space, often a suffering body whose mimics and movements do not accord with conventions of normal ‘decent’ female behaviour. The context is one of affliction and healing of the individual person, not of communal, public and theatrical display of the local bhūta deities.

Women from the Bhūta performing families reciting danas at public festival rituals are, again, different from the Siri women, because they are in their ‘normal’ state of mind and in control of their body. The male performers who wear the costume and makeup of deities behave in a stylised, choreographed way and do not exhibit their own, ‘private’ personality. Women as skilled singers of pāḍdanas whose recitation may be broadcasted over the radio are considered folk artists. They will sing the Siri epic outside the context of the Siri festival, in an unpossessed state. The portions of the epic as recited in a possessed state during the rituals would never be recorded for broadcasting, although the singers may be the same persons. Therefore, women may gain more recognition as performers, e.g. in the ‘modern’ context of radio broadcasting, and at the same time may face more difficulties in another context, such as the Siri rituals.

The roles of women in social space and ritual space may be in conflict or complement each other. The complexities of such roles and their interrelation can be understood when we analyze the documentation of the different spaces separately as well as in relation to each other.

So the interrelations among the three realms which I have introduced in the beginning of my paper – home, workplace and ritual space, are substantiated with the illustration of women in TuỊuva culture. Opening up of more space for women in all three of these realms can only give more freedom and identity for them, which we scholars theorize as ‘emancipation’.

In the light of empirical research regarding the role of women in folk narratives, I feel that the concept of ‘emancipation’ should be redefined by distinguishing between the point of view of the performer and that of the audience. Differences in gender and class of the audience, too, contribute to constructing the meaning of ‘emancipation’ of women. Emancipation as a social reformative activity always enjoys the hegemonic power of the promoters. Emancipation from within should be understood both from the experience of participation in performances and from the documentation of the ‘mental texts’ of the women performers.[15] Rather than considering ‘emancipation’ as a social activity of the outsider, I would like to stress here the transformation of mind and body of the performing women as a way to emancipation. To me a continuous dialogue between these ideas will be most revealing in our exploration of a new set of methodologies to investigate the nature of women’s emancipation and how the performance of folk narratives and rituals contributes to bringing it about.


Brückner, Heidrun. 2009. On an Auspicious Day, at Dawn….Studies in Tulu Culture and Oral Literature. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Claus, Peter J. “The Siri Myth and Ritual: A Mass Possession Cult of South India”. Ethnology 14,1: 47-58.

Claus, Peter J. 1989. “Behind the text: performance and ideology in a Tulu oral tradition”. In: Oral Epics in India. Ed. by Stuart H. Blackburn et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, 55-74.

Claus, Peter J. 1991. “Kin Songs”. In: Gender, Genre, and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions. Ed. by Arjun Appadurai et al. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 136-177.

Claus, Peter J. 1999. “Ritual Transforms a Myth”.  Online-publication: (2007/11/21).

Claus, Peter J. 2000. “The Concept of ‘Mental Text’”. In: The National Folklore Support Centre Newsletter, Special edition on Folklore Syncretism.

Honko, Lauri. 1998a. The Siri epic as performed by Gopala Naika. 2 Vol. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Honko, Lauri. 1998b. Textualising the Siri epic. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia.

Honko, Lauri. 1991. The Folklore Process, Folklore Fellows’ Summer School Programme (Turku, FFSS 1991).

Navada, A.V. (Ed.). 1999. Siri pāḍdana. Giikere Rāmakka Muggērti kaṭṭida. Hampi: Kannada University.

Rai, B.A. Viveka. 1993. “The Genres of Tulu folk-poetry: An introduction”. In: Flags of Fame. Studies in South Asian Folk Culture. Ed. by H. Brückner et al. Delhi: Manohar, 269-282.

Rai, B.A. Viveka & Rajashree. 1997. Tuu Kabitagau. Mangalore : Mangalore University.

Rai, B.A. Viveka. 1985. Tuu Janapada Sāhitya. Bangalore : Kannada Sahitya Parishat.

‘Folklore and Feminism’: Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 100. Nr. 398; Oct.-Dec. 1987

[1] (See: ‘Folklore and Feminism’: Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 100. Nr. 398;

Oct.-Dec. 1987)

[2] (Honko, Lauri: The Folklore Process, Folklore Fellows’ Summer School

Programme (Turku, FFSS 1991).

[3] For further explanation of these terms compare Claus, this volume, footnote 2 and passim and Rai 1993.

[4] For reference to Video 1 see Rai, Video, Video 1

[5] For reference to Kabita 1, see Rai, Audio, Audio 1

[6] For reference to Kabita 2, see Rai, Audio, Audio 2

[7] For reference to Kabita 3-5, see Rai, Audio, Audio 3-5

[8] For reference to Kabita 6, see Rai, Audio, Audio 6

[9] E.g. Claus 1991.

[10] Compare Claus, this volume.

[11] A lengthy version of the Siri epic as performed by Gopala Naika has been published in Tuḷu and English by Lauri Honko in collaboration with Ch. Gowda, A. Honko and V. Rai (see Honko 1998a). It was published along with a volume by L. Honko on „Textualising the Siri Epic“ (Honko 1998b). On the Siri complex cp. also Claus 1975 and 1999.

[12] There are rare occasions where you see women using mobile phones in the paddy fields, the only modern items I could detect in a paddy field.

[13] For reference to Video 2 see Rai, Video, Video 2

[14] Honko, Lauri: Textualising the Siri Epic. 1998.

[15] For the concept of „mental text“ see Claus 1989 and 2000 and Honko 1998b.


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