AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 740

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Session 740: Altered States: Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Other Dangerous Crossings in India

Organizer: Kristin C. Bloomer, Carleton College, USA

Discussant: Wendy Doniger, University of Chicago, USA

Spirit possession is about crossing borders -- between bodies, between human and non-human agencies, between illness and healing. In this session, Wendy Doniger leads a discussion addressing spirit possession in India that also cuts across time periods, field sites, and disciplines. Nirmal Selvamony approaches possession through the concept of address embedded in "Tolkaappiyam," the oldest extant work in Tamil literature. Beginning with the argument that the universe of address is constituted by three personae -- addressor, addressee, and place -- Selvamony forwards an “ecology of possession.” Turning to an ecology of the body, Kalpana Ram examines the lives of rural Tamil women to reveal spirit possession as a minor practice within formations of Indian modernity. In attending more closely to possession practices, she argues, we can productively re-examine modern projects. William Elison takes theories of address to a post-modern moment in Mumbai by calling upon Vikas, a descendant of a line of spirit mediums who lives inside a film studio. More specifically, Vikas lives inside a village set, which is what remains of an ancestral settlement that has become surrounded and reframed by a studio. Elison argues that Vikas understands the visions he receives in the grip of spirit possession along the lines of cinematic address. Finally, Kristin Bloomer explores how the Marian possession practices of Tamil, Roman Catholic women help them negotiate socio-economic continuity and change. Such altered subjectivities -- with pre-colonial histories such as those described in "Tolkaappiyam" – may help women and men challenge (and/or appropriate) translocal, modern projects.

Possession as Address
Nirmal Selvamony, Central University of Tamil Nadu, India

This presentation will approach possession through the concept of address embedded in "Tolkaappiyam," the earliest extant work of Tamil literature. If the universe of address is constituted by the three personae, tanmai ("self"), munnilai ("the one who stands before") and patarkkai ("that which extends"), and address, a kind of relation between tanmai and munnilai, which are grounded in patarkkai, the relation itself can take different forms that will require explication with the help of the four types of tonal relation in Tamil musicology. It will be shown how these relations define the two basic praxes of our lives, convention (vazakku), and art (ceyyul) and also how possession is maximally possible in the domain of art rather than in that of convention, because art makes possible maximum consonance (the fifth tonal relation). Though the term possession usually refers to an address in which the munnilai is sacred, it should be extended (for a better understanding of the phenomenon) to the other types also in which the munnilai is not necessarily the sacred, but nature or even the human. (Incidentally, this may lead to an "ecological" understanding of possession or if you will, the ecology of possession). Accordingly, it may be profitable to interrogate it in the context of personaic interaction, especially between the hero and the heroine, and also between the heroine and her confidante (in tinai dramaturgy). In instances of sacred as well as secular modes of possession, the role of the body is significant. It will be necessary to see what function the body plays in the act of possession, especially, the socially significant somatic changes which have definitive semiotic value.

The Lessons of Possession for the Projects of Modernity: Tamil Nadu
Kalpana Ram, Macquarie University, Australia

Possession is now a "minor" practice within the formations of Indian modernity, lacking an adequate discourse of its own. Rural Tamil women are at the receiving end of varied modernising projects that are designed to make them more hygienic as mothers, more emancipated as female subjects, less irrational as carriers of fertility and as bearers of superstition. Drawing on my forthcoming book "Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession in the Lives of Tamil Women and Modern Projects of Subjectivity" (University of Hawaii Press), the paper will argue that attending more closely to the ways in which spirit possession takes on meaning and shape in the lives of women can provide a productive way of re-examining these modern projects with a fresh perspective. Possession has always been about crossing borders - between bodies, between human and non-human agencies, between illness and healing. This paper will argue it can help us cross the self-erected border between the "modern" and the "non-modern".

The Spirit Medium: Power, Possession, and Public Culture at Filmistan Studios, Mumbai
William N. Elison, Dartmouth College, USA

In the course of ethnographic fieldwork in Mumbai I encountered Vikas, who lives inside a film studio. More specifically, he lives inside the village set--what remains of an ancestral settlement that has become surrounded and reframed by the studio. The site’s appeal for my study lay in the shrines that still seat village spirits, setting spatial coordinates for its inhabitants and also for the studio workers. Vikas, descendant of a line of spirit mediums, is sensitive to the local gods’ presence. And--judging from the way he describes the transports he experiences while watching Bollywood films--I think he understands the visions he receives in the grip of spirit possession along the lines of cinematic address. In developing this connection, I consider three components of his conceptual horizon: cinema, religion, and official paperwork. Linking his experiences of all three is a certain lack of agency. Vikas readily concedes mastery over his subject position to powerful others, including witches, gods, and movie stars. Power, for him, is a quantity that is by definition remote. What at once separates him from its agents and tantalizes him with the promise of access is mediation by technologies of public representation like film and print. Many extramundane persons can be addressed through the contemplation of iconic images--Hindu deities, Hindi film stars. But there are also others who enter his life through a tissue of English-language paperwork and seem endowed with the power to secure him recognition within its privileged order--politicians; lawyers; possibly also ethnographers.

Marian Spirit Possession in Tamil Nadu: Redux
Kristin C. Bloomer, Carleton College, USA

In 2004-2006, I conducted fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, south India, among three Roman Catholic women who claimed to be possessed by Mary, the mother of Jesus. The women's lives cut across caste, class, and geographic areas. One Chennai woman, Rosalind, was possessed by a form of Mary who announced herself as "Jecintho." Another woman, lower-class and also from Chennai, started experiencing Marian possession -- and stigmata -- within a month after visiting Rosalind's prayer house. A third, Dalit woman from an inland village, like the others used her possession to heal Roman Catholics and Hindus. Four years later, in the summer of 2010, I revisited these women. Each of their lives had undergone significant changes – as had their possession practices. This paper explores these changes, which I argue were affected by relational shifts in their lives caused by migration and by state and transnational projects. On the one hand, these social changes challenged the women's successful performance of spirit possession; on the other hand, the somatic semantics of that possession simultaneously provided continuities, allowing them to appropriate and/or challenge those social changes. I will suggest that an "ecology of possession" -- a theory of address Nirmal Selvamony develops from “Tolkaappiyam,” the earliest extant work of Tamil literature – allows us to understand how classical Tamil semantics of dramaturgy may still apply to contemporary possession performance. Finally, we will consider how, amidst accelerating change, a few Tamil women are negotiating those sweeping movements which are trying to make specifically modern subjects.