Thursday, August 27, 2015

WHAT DO THESE GODS NOT NOTICE AS THEY LOOK DOWN?



The first two instalments of this blog about the Legend of Ponnivala story were long and somewhat scholarly essays. They were intended to provide a foundation for what lies ahead. They may not interest many readers. From now on I will focus on particular scenes in this story and also try to be briefer and more colloquial in my style. I hope many readers will find my comments interesting

This opening scene of The Legend of Ponnivala story is important for what is NOT seen by the great gods Siva and Parvati as they look down at the earth. Siva starts the conversation by saying “Look at that beautiful forest down there.” Then Parvati responds to his comment. Her words lay out a key concept that will set the entire story in motion. I must quote her in full:
Yes, but I do not see any ploughed fields. There are no crops being grown. I want to see this beautiful area become bountiful. I want to see the land cleared and filled with lush crops. I want to create nine farmer brothers who know how to use a plough. Let them till the sweet earth so that in every season the fields will be green and lush and the storerooms and warehouses of the area can be refilled with fine produce.”

It is this key Hindu goddess Parvati whose vision initiates a shift in land usage in this area, a transformation I have already mentioned as very important to this story (in my earlier Blog post #2). Parvati speaks from the perspective of a powerful ruler, someone interested in stimulating the production of crops that can fill numerous warehouses and storerooms. The landscape this goddess wants to see is commercial, at least in the sense that it should be able to feed many. Its bounty should be so great (so lush) that the resulting harvest can easily be shared (having an excess that can be skimmed off). That excess will (though not explicitly expressed as such by the goddess) then be ready for tribute payments, tax-style transfers deliverable to powerful overlords. They, in turn, will be able to use this new income to support temple construction, armies, road building and much more. In sum, the amenities available as the result of creating an advanced, plough-and-irrigate economy will, in its’ turn, create an opportunity for an increase in social power and also an expansion of hierarchical relationships. It is not surprising that a divinity whose name stands to benefit from increased temple building activity, would express support for this kind of ecological shift. She is speaking about a landscape-wide change. We will see, in a future post, how she also (subsequently) advises her newly-created farmer-devotees to undertake regular temple-focused activities.

But I have not yet clarified what the goddess Parvati DID NOT SEE when she initially looked down at the earth. Although we do not know exactly which forest Siva and Parvati were gazing at, the area they see from above is obviously local to the story, somewhere along the great Kaveri river. What we do learn, a little later, is that this area is not without proud human residents already. Very near where the goddess wants to create plough-wielding farmers we learn that there are already resident artisans. Furthermore, these men clearly have a number of skills, although using ploughs in a landscape-wide way is likely not one of them. These men know about fine metalworking, stone carving and carpentry, at the very minimum. They are certainly not primitive beings. Parvati is about to do something that will quite naturally instigate rivalries and disputes between any f newly arrived farmers and these better established ancient local residents. Therefofre,in a very real sense Parvati can be seen as the instigator who is responsible for the extended human strife that will soon ensue. Why couldn’t Siva, Parvati’s husband, be the one to come up with the idea of creating human farmers who do their work with ploughs? Likely because it is traditionally the Hindu goddesses, not their brothers or husbands, who express the deepest interest in human families and also in ecological matters. Furthermore, the goddesses are usually the ones to “stir up” village trouble, especially problems like disease, drought and famine. This happens, in particular, when they are not worshipped regularly. Siva, by contrast, is more interested in grand, cosmic-scale matters. As already stated earlier, then, the Ponnivala story does not run counter to much that already been written about Hindu beliefs. However, but it does throw fresh light on many specific traditions and cultural issues that lie underneath the broad umbrella of that larger socio-religious system.

Signing off for now,
Blogger” Brenda Beck

The Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada

Read Part 4 ==>
<== Read Part 2

Have you experienced The Legend of Ponnivala on TV or in print? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

To find out more about The Legend of Ponnivala -- the legend, the series, the books, and the fascinating history behind the project, visit www.ponnivala.com.

Monday, August 24, 2015

WHO IS SINGING THIS STORY?



This second instalment of my new blog also features a pretty straight forward question. Who sings the Ponnivala story? But the topic is important for those who do not know the origins of this legend already. This is a traditional oral epic with no written version that is anything like as extensive as is the full epic I tape recorded over 44 hours during a live set of village performances in 1965. There were two bards involved, one a senior singer of sixty plus years and the other an experienced assistant, about forty five years of age, who also knew the story well. The performance lasted for roughly two and a half hours a night for a full eighteen nights!

The important thing to remember is that this story is based on a strong oral tradition that persists in the area to this day. This epic is something like what Homer might have sung, a tale driven by images of past heroes and heroines whose exploits and skill sets are bigger than life. The epic is also imbued with references to gods and goddesses, as well as being decorated with “magical” details. Nonetheless, The Legend of Ponnivala is not a fairytale. This story is a kind of cultural declaration by the Tamil-speaking people of the Kongu region of their unique cultural (and historical) identity. It provides a foundation stone that underlies current practices at many local temples dedicated to its heroes. Their well-known names are everywhere: celebrated on tea stall banners and proudly borrowed for use as lorry-truck logos. This epic’s heroes and heroines are also given new life each year in annual local festivals of many kinds.

Because this is an oral tradition it is culturally “fresh.” Though not at odds with India’s broad and deep literary heritage, the Legend of Ponnivala does look at these wider traditions from a different angle. It is a view from the margins, from the hills, from an upland area that provides a significantly new perspective on many, many matters. I have continued to write about and to promote this story for some fifty years.... because I believe its’ uniqueness matters. Many South Indians, both living in India and living abroad, are far too quick to brush off oral tradition as something secondary. Publishers tend to respond in the same way. If a story has written roots then it must be honoured and remembered. If not it must be inferior, minor and insignificant when one is trying to understand or to teach an “overview.” Some people argue that it is not relevant to one’s grasp of the “big” picture. I beg to differ. This story, I feel, can be likened to a Dead Sea Scroll. It is a view from the margins that truly heightens our core understanding of the broader cultural tradition it was designed to comment on. As such, I contend that The Legend of Ponnivala deserves much more attention that it has received to date.

There is one more issue I would like to speak about up front before proceeding with this Ponnivala blog post series. Many, many people believe that The Legend of Ponnivala is a caste-based story, and that it is designed to heighten the glory of one group at the expense of several others. I agree that there are many people in Tamilnadu today who express personal pride because of their presumed “family” connection to this story. There are also those who oppose its telling because they feel the same tale puts their own family ancestors down, insulting them in some way or other. I believe the people on both sides of this controversy need to re-examine the tale they think they ”know” so well by looking deeply at the oral version I recount here. In my view this legend is not, at its’ core, about caste at all. Rather, it describes very broad differences in life styles and in various means of production. Two of those life styles, that of the artisan-trader, and that of the hunter, are both very, very ancient. The other life style is that of the ploughing and tank-irrigating farmer who needs to maintain large, treeless spaces in order to plant and harvest effectively.

That new plough-and-irrigate way-of-life was imposed on the Kongu area gradually, by powerful kingdoms lying outside its geographic area. That social and economic transformation took place gradually but relentlessly in the Kongu area between the tenth and the twelfth centuries AD has continued to expand, in spurts, ever since. The Legend of Ponnivala, in my view, is about that economic transformation and the local social upheaval it caused. The artisans have many skills: stonework, metal and iron work, building construction knowledge, and in addition, they are carpenters and potters. Nowhere are any of this occupational skills referred to as groupings having separate marriage circles or separate eating rules. The hunters, a third important group, are even less differentiated. Indeed, they are all alike and are distinguished simply by the fact that they live in the deep forest. They are fierce fighters one and all!

This same lack of caste, as a theme, is also clearly seen at temple festivals for the story heroes in the Kongu area today. Wherever I have observed crowds listening to a bard-singer of the story there is no predominance of farmer-landowners in the audience, or indeed of any other social group. And if I was forced to generalize I would argue that this story is significantly more popular, at present, among non-landowning laborers. Those who make an annual pilgrimage to the key temple to the heroes, located in the hamlet of Virappur, are notably people from the service communities of the area: non-Brahman priests, barbers, potters, merchants, weavers and landless labourers. The powerful and the wealthy families of the Kongu region have, in general, turned away from this story heritage towards much more “pan-Indian” kinds of festival celebration. It is (a selection of) people drawn from the largely powerless social masses who predictably “remember,” and continue to celebrate, this area’s ancient oral story heritage.

Signing off for now,
Blogger” Brenda Beck
The Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada


<== Read Part 1

Have you experienced The Legend of Ponnivala on TV or in print? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

To find out more about The Legend of Ponnivala -- the legend, the series, the books, and the fascinating history behind the project, visit www.ponnivala.com.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS THIS?



I am about to start a new blog featuring themes and insights I have culled from working with The Legend of Ponnivala Video series. This set of short essays will cover everything about the story I find interesting, starting with its ecology and extending to issues of social justice, shifting technologies, economic rivalries, local politics, power relationships, recorded history, geography and even touching on the roles of various gods and goddesses whose concerns intertwine with this story. I will start by giving blog readers access, one blog post at a time, to a sequence of thirty short video clips. Each will be one minute or less in duration and all have been drawn directly from (just) Episode One of the Legend of Ponnivala animated series. If (and only if) MY BLOG FOLLOWERS express enough interest, I promise to extend this commentary further by referencing additional excepts. I can easily draw on hundreds of these which lie scattered through the story’s remaining twenty five episodes. PLEASE VOLUNTEER YOUR THOUGHTS! The more discussion generated the more likely that I will carry this initiative forward and decide to discuss the later episodes of this great legend, as well!

My plan is to initiate each clip discussion with a simple question. The first question is a rather obvious one: Where does the story take place? Ponnivala’s epic tale comes from an interior area of the state of Tamilnadu, India. The action takes place near the banks of the Kaveri River, an upland area known as the Kongu region which the story’s singers like to call “Ponnivala-nadu.” Ponni is a poetic Tamil term used to describe this great watercourse by referencing one of the words for “gold.” In deference to these local poets I long ago decided to name my animated version of this story “The Legend of Ponnivala.” That name represents my personal effort to capture the many images present in the bards’ songs, refrains they have embedded in this tale’s traditional musical telling. The term Ponnivala is mainly embedded in story poems that use “The Land of The Golden River” as their core theme.

This is a story from medieval times. All the events described occur before the arrival of British Raj. Do not be surprised, therefore, that no foreigners are described in this story, even through it is “epic” in its basic breadth. Furthermore, although this legend features just three generations of one powerful local family the heroic adventures described appear to span about six centuries of actual history. Judging from scattered clues, little details embedded here-and-there within the tale, this story describes the period roughly lying between 1,000 and 1,600 AD.

From the scene shown in the first “still” (which is drawn from a repeated opening sequence seen before each episode starts) the tale’s location appears to be rather “idyllic.” But remember, this legend takes place in an upland area, at a time when this region had not yet been colonized by plough-using farmers. Wild animals were plentiful and pollution was not an issue. The mountains in the background are still there. The Kongu region is ringed on all sides by high hills and is basically a large and fertile “hanging” plain fed by a great river that flows southward out of the mountains of Southern Karnataka. Furthermore, the river Kaveri is still beautiful (in spots), even today. And this river still serves as a source of life for all who live along its moist and fertile banks. As The Legend of Ponnivala unfolds you will discover that (at its core) it is a tale about how this picture of an Indian “Eden” slowly changes. We will soon see large-scale irrigation-tank farming methods taking over and beginning to dominate the area’s earlier, more pastoral life style. Though this transformation happens slowly, it is relentless. Furthermore, that change clearly accompanies a gradual, but steady shift in the political and economic significance of this (once remote) “Kongu” area.

Signing off for now,
Blogger” Brenda Beck

The Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada

Have you experienced The Legend of Ponnivala on TV or in print? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

To find out more about The Legend of Ponnivala -- the legend, the series, the books, and the fascinating history behind the project, visit www.ponnivala.com.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Each A Keystone Story


In this final segment of my Vatnsdaela Saga and The Legend of Ponnivala comparison I want to stress the important role both stories play as “keystones” in their respective cultures. Both celebrate foundation-forming events that oral tradition has come to associate with one specific geographic region. Both celebrate the increasing independence of that region from a distant and powerful monarch or king, the very political powerhouse initially involved in its creation. Both are stories about the beginnings of agriculture in a previously wild (unfarmed) area. Furthermore, both stories express local pride in a specific ancestry and in a variety of cultural details that describe the area’s unique social identity. Furthermore, each story fosters a special sense of social belonging that the residents of its core region still feel to this today. As is commonly the case for a keystone legend, folk art and local customs mark the conscious preservation of that tale in many ways. As one moves through the story landscape, in either case, one can see, hear and sometimes viscerally experience reminders of its legendary characters. These reminders are naturally expressed in various features of the local landscape and also are captured by their local geographic names. These same traits often find further celebration through folk art and in other artistic ways. Image one shows a key expression the Vatnsdaela Saga is currently finding in a huge embroidered folk banner/tapestry that is right now being created (July, 2014) by a large team of students at the Icelandic Textile Center in Blondos, Iceland. Image two shows a piece of a similar mural found on a temple wall by the author of this blog in 1965, right in the middle of the area where the Ponnivala story is most celebrated and remembered. South Indian temple murals come and go as strong sun and heavy rains usually destroy them within years of their making. However there are many other expressions of Ponnivala story interest as well. I will include just a few, below.


This next set of images shows two other ways in which the Ponnivala story is commemorated. The first picture captures a fleeting moment in a folk drama, a staged performance presented in a local temple compound. Parts of the legend are here being re-enacted by local bards for an enthralled audience. Such performances are rare these days, due to heavy competition from Bollywood the cinema, local television networks and a strong DVD industry. Nonetheless, people still enjoy watching these folk dramas which depict these popular and well-known local heroes’ role in shaping regional history. The second image shows a village drummer who is also a singer. His popular folk musical performances help keep the memory of this great story alive.


This next image sequence shows how, in both Iceland and in South India, various local commercial interest have incorporated story motifs and names into their own promotional strategies. First we see the fa├žade of the Viking Hotel in Reykjavik where a Viking presence is celebrated in several visual ways. In the second image we see the same, on a smaller scale. Here a tourist lodge has been named after Ponnivala’s main heroes and then advertised on the cab of a motorized rickshaw which the driver is proud to show off. Many other local companies in Ihe Indian case, for sure, and likely in Iceland as well, use similar labels and epithets in an effort to keep the memory of ancient story heroes alive.



The final image sequence in this blog series shows a fanciful Reykjavik roof top with the Viking dragon as its feature motif. In the Indian parallel we see a trucking firm that has named itself after the Ponnivala heroes, Ponnar and Shankar. In sum, the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Legend of Ponnivala are not just stories that have come down to us from the past. Both legends still play an active role in the formation of a regional identity. Both stories are an essential vehicle used to convey and express local residents’ sense of ownership of a long, long tradition of cultural pride!

~ Brenda E. F. Beck

Friday, November 28, 2014

Elder and Younger Brothers



The contrast between a pair of elder and younger brothers is a key theme that can be found widely in the world’s folklore. In is no surprise, therefore, to find this concept imbedded in both the Vatnsdaela Saga and the Ponnivala legend. Nonetheless, certain very noticeable similarities provide for a striking comparison. In both stories two key brothers often appear and act together as a set, even though they differ in significant ways, personality-wise. In both stories, too, this prominent brother pair are heroes who appear only in the third generation, or indeed even later if one counts the cursory mention of several additional ancestors in the Vatnsdaela case. In both tales, as well, the elder brother is the more passive, thoughtful and compassionate while the younger is the more aggressive, faster to anger and always quick to sense an insult. Note that in the image shown here that Thorstein (the elder one, in the blue cape) holds a sword but it is still in its sheath. Standing right beside him is Jokul (the younger one, in the red cape). Not only is his sword unsheathed but it is covered with blood! In the second image we see the two Ponnivala brothers (Ponnar the elder, in blue pants and Shankar the younger, in red pants). Shankar is in the lead and his arm positions are more energized, clearly showing that his elder brother (with lowered arms) is the “follower.”


There is not as much visual detail available to me for the Vatnsdaela Saga as there is in the Ponnivala case. But the principle concept, a key contrast between these two Icelandic heroes is nonetheless well developed by the story teller. Looking at the Ponnivala case in more detail I will just share a few (out of many) telling scenarios. First we see Shankar accusing his brother of being timid. He wants to go on a raiding expedition, but his elder brother is holding back, saying that their parents warned them both about taking this kind of warlike initiative. Shankar’s argument wins the day and Ponnar follows him on an expedition only his younger brother has planned. In the second scene we see the two brothers standing before their mother discussing their potential marriage. Neither brother wants to marry but their mother is insisting. Shankar makes the main argument while his brother Ponnar, standing close by, simply complies. The two end up marrying but resist is subtle but clever ways, all of which are invented by Shankar.



In this scene the two brothers have been stranded on a mountaintop by the Chola king. Shankar is complaining to his brother about his lack of willingness to challenge the Chola monarch. He blames Ponnar for their dreadful dilemma. Ponnar remains passive, implicitly accepting his brother’s criticism. In the second image the two brothers are seen playing dice in their palace gaming room. This game is a key predictor of terrifying events that follow soon after each gambling contest. Hence once again Shankar is the keener player, the man who throws the dice more forcefully. (Lord Vishnu even has to tie him down with an invisible chain at one point). Meanwhile his brother Ponnar keeps him company but always behaves as the secondary player. 

The core relationship between a set of two key heroic brothers is consistent across both story worlds. The elder is always the more contemplative and passive while his younger counterpart is portrayed as the “real” aggressor, a man to be feared and at times, even terrifying. Furthermore the more aggressive character in a heroic twosome is commonly the greater folk hero. Certainly Shankar is favored by legend over Ponnar. Jessie James the bank and train robber had a brother, but he was the real dare devil who killed many men and became the popular folk hero of many legends. Folklore often glorifies bravery and even bullying. But in the background there will usually be a complementary character (most likely a sibling) who balances out the unpredictability of that lead character by exhibiting significantly more restraint and calm-headedness.

~ Brenda E.F. Beck