Sajitha Madathil

Arts Research and Documentation

Grant Period: Over one year

Sajitha Madathil is a Ph.D. scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a theatre activist who has a number of research fellowships, theatre, film and television productions, workshops and awards to her credit. Many of her writings and productions have examined the role of women in Malayali theatre. With this new project, Sajitha seeks to expand her research interests to study the ways in which women from Kerala have made significant interventions and inroads into classical and folk performance traditions, and the ways in which such interventions have reshaped the aesthetics of these traditional forms. 

This exciting book-length project in Malayalam will provide perspectives such as a self-reflexive, coming-of-age narrative of a generation shaped by the forces of modernity and cultural politics of post-seventies India. It is also equally valuable for its insights on the complex questions surrounding gender studies. The project will offer enormous scope for understanding the diverse ways in which the ideological and aesthetic combined to reinvent ‘tradition’ in the said period.

Sajitha terms the entry of women into Kathakali a ‘silent revolution’ spearheaded by educated female activists inspired by the International Year of Women (1975) as well as Kathakali’s ban on female performers. The obstacles faced by women interested in the form reflected patriarchal attitudes. Against this setting, Sajitha will study the Thrippunithura Women’s Kathakali group, with over a 1,000 performances to its credit, to raise a set of questions that range from the political to the aesthetic: How have they negotiated the training process? What elements have sustained them in the patriarchal world of Kerala? How have they carved out spaces for themselves as performers and artists? What are the new gender norms and practices which serve to reinvent or re-imagine traditional ideologies within a traditional art form?

The entry of women into Singaari Melam displayed close links between art and female empowerment along a different tack, where women utilised the state-run Kudumbashree Poverty Eradication Mission (est. 1988) to organise themselves into performing troupes, and subvert stereotypes. An ethnic drum ensemble, the form was traditionally performed by an all-male crew and passed down. The efforts of women’s groups like Kottayam Vanitha Singaari Melam and Kudumbashree have transformed both the art and the artistes involved. Sajitha will explore their choice of form, techniques for mastering the elements of the male-dominated form, and the significance between economic and artistic self-empowerment within state sanctioned spaces.

Mudiyattam offered an interesting ‘female’ space for studying how a Janus-faced modernity can inscribe itself into a folk tradition, hence opening it up to a democratising ideal of inclusivity. Mudiyattam, a panegyric performed by women with long, loose hair, involving top-like head spinning and rhythmic hair whirling to the accompaniment of male singers, signals a psychic and symbolic release for women within sanctioned spaces of ritual performances and folk festivals. The disappearance of traditional communities almost marked its extinction. But its reinvention at the hands of Dalit and other progressive groups has revitalised Mudiyattam. The study will examine this effect of reinvention on marginal communities, and track the attitudinal changes of elderly and new performers, and its social impact. 


This grant was made possible with support from the Bajaj Group.