It may just be a coincidence and not a multi-deity intervention on a planetary scale that the Kannada movie kantara sparked a fierce fire of reverence for the forest gods in India, just as another important conversation about indigenity, colonialism, and cultural survival took place recently among Native American scholars in the United States.
Vine Deloria’s book God is Red, a searing critique of religious colonialism that also contains the seeds of what may well be a rising vision of global indigenous spiritual renewal, was the subject of a symposium recently at the University from Harvard to mark 50 years of its publication.
While the importance of Deloria’s work to younger generations of Native American students and scholars is clear, what could also help alleviate the deeply polarized situation around religion and politics in South Asia is a commitment deeper between experts in South Asian studies and experiences, practices and beliefs. (in that order), of people who resisted the centuries-old agenda of eradicating their traditional ancestral cultures by imperial monotheists, colonial “civilizers,” or their successors, postcolonial Indian “reformers.”
A respectful study of other indigenous traditions and the experiences of deities and an honest reassessment of the terrain of identity politics in Indian and South Asian studies are all necessary to do this, and the considerable popularity of kantara gives us a timely example to begin this process.
The reception of kantara has two different stories at play around it. One is the identity controversy; whether local ‘mulnivasi’ traditions are ‘culturally appropriated’ by ‘Hindu’ or ‘Brahmanic’ forces. This problem has also arisen in other contexts – recently with the film Ponniyin Selvan 1for example, with some actors and scholars insisting that Raja Raja Chola could not be called a Hindu.
Such controversies usually follow a pattern. If you say something is “Hindu”, the academic consensus will insist that it is a Hindu nationalist fantasy because Hinduism did not exist until the 19th century. If you say it is not, the so-called rightists and nationalists will call for the total abolition of the humanities.
Common sense will of course suggest that one can be more than one thing, and yet the politics of labels and definitions will not allow this at all.
It is here that the experience of kantara becomes more relevant than any simple label. At the borders of nature, culture, art and what could even be called reason, kantaraThe characters of show us a world that we clearly yearn to see again. This world is not simply “the paranormal” or “horror”, two imported categories, but something more primordial and intense – the one we were when our elders and our ancestors still lived with us, and what ‘they saw, they insisted they saw.
I have had the privilege (and perhaps the fear) of having witnessed moments such as those described in kantara during my own childhood four or five decades ago. The world of traditional arts was still alive in Andhra Pradesh despite the loss of the old forms of patronage of temples and kings, and my mother’s work in supporting the lives of theater artists then showed me a world that few urban English-speaking students have seen.
And there was the other dimension of kantara story, what one might call, for lack of a better word, a “possession” or a trance.
This too, we have seen, but we could not dare to speak of it on its own terms. It was a time when, despite parents’ best goals of turning their children into rational Nehruvian subjects equipped for modern labor, the old “primitive” sensibilities were still present. It was strange, but not uncommon, to see otherwise normal people become gods, serpents, ancestors.
And clearly, kantara represented that experience for its viewers now, and unlike the usual pedantic or exploitative tones in which indigenous religions are portrayed in modern cinema, with respect and sympathy. The glowing praise of the last minutes of kantaraI guess it’s not just because of the stunning fight scenes, but also because of its depiction of how brutal or strong the devas are supposed to still live among us.
In a certain kind of old “social” movies, supplications to God often took the form of pleading songs and syrupy miracles (much like Krishna’s bestowal of divine insight on Tuffy the dog in Hum Aapke Hain Koun). In kantarahowever, the world of the gods operates fully on its own terms, choosing people and actions with a force as powerful as the forest and its boars.
And even, kantaraThe treatment of his deities and their attitude towards us humans is deeply sensitive. The final performance, so to speak, is so filled with gestures of emotion, friendship and vaatsalya (motherly love), and unexplained and inexplicable images of reunion, dancing, joy and even dissolution, that the spectator is delighted and stunned. beyond any usual cinematic experience.
It is here that we could turn again to the powerful words of Vine Deloria, and the worlds of its ancient traditions. As we learn more about healers who received visions and gifts from spirits and animals in his latest book, The world we lived inwe are compelled to confront how limited our presently dominant ways of knowing the world are, whether of reason, science, or religious faith.
The world today seems polarized not just between left and right or religion and science, but really between those who advance the narratives about us (the propagandists and identity peddlers) and those who can just get us moving.
kantaraGods or artists, if your modern mind prefers that label instead, did just that. Despite centuries of secularism and millennia of monotheism, the ancient gods and their humble but awe-inspiring forms, boars, elephants, birds, turtles, are still there with us in our hearts, as we are in theirs.
The writer is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco