Nalini Menon – What actually inspired you to write this book? Was it just to record the history of the Kodavas or something more?
Kaveri Ponnapa: I grew up in many different parts of the country, and later spent several years overseas. But two months of the year in my childhood were always dedicated to Kodagu, where, quite unconsciously, the landscape, seasons, customs and cuisine were imprinted on my memory. I later found that, wherever I went, I carried the hills, the wild beauty, and the stories of Kodagu within me. The place became, became, to borrow a phrase, an inseparable part of my ‘interior landscape’. Later, as I learned more about the land and people, I realised that this deep love of the land defined the Kodava ethos right through their history. Over the last 25 years, I have written several articles on Kodava wedding customs, dances and cuisine, and my Master’s Dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, was on aspects of Kodava society and culture. I was deeply struck by the beauty and wisdom of many of our traditions, particularly as a student of Anthropology.
The inspiration to write a book came when we moved to Bangalore, in 1996, and I began to spend more and more time in Kodagu, travelling to villages, attending festivals, ancestor propitiation ceremonies and meeting people in rural areas. A world I had not seen before opened up to me, and I began to make notes and records. There was also a sense of urgency to record the events that I was witnessing, as there was tremendous change sweeping through our society. Our elders were seriously concerned that much of what we were seeing, would not last another generation. It is important to stress that ours is an oral tradition, everything – laws, customs, ways of worship, history, songs and stories are all passed down orally. This made the history of the people both fascinating and frustrating to address, as there were so few records available, apart from highly slanted colonial accounts. I have drawn on many sources, both written and oral, to piece together the past of the people. In writing this book, I hoped to narrate the history, and also the story of the Kodava people, expressed in their customs, songs, dances traditions, a story told in their own voices.
NM – How long did it take you to actually sit down and write it?
KP: This is a difficult question to answer. The first stage was sorting out the piles of notes from field trips into coherent sections, and bringing some order to the material. The actual writing of the book was never a continuous process as, for various reasons, there were many interruptions in the writing that were very frustrating at the time.
In retrospect, I view these disruptions were a blessing, as they allowed a depth of perspective to emerge that I would never have had if the entire work had been written in a single burst. Speaking to scores of people, and gathering material about a culture is a very slow process that cannot be hurried. Sometimes people would revert after months, or even years, with some fragments of oral history, or the history of a clan, changing a perspectives, and it would have to be incorporated into what was already written. Some of the most important parts of the book were finished over this last year.
NM – You spent 15 years researching the subject. How did you preserve your research and what motivated you to go on?
KP: The years spent on this book extended themselves well beyond anything I had anticipated. I quickly realised that it would take more than just one visit to a place to really understand what I was seeing, so most of the events that I have written about involved multiple visits. Sometimes, a festival is held once in two years, others once in three or four years. Some years a festival or ceremony was cancelled due to a disagreement between clans, or for other reasons. So, it required a lot of patience. All my handwritten notes, some taped interviews with people (most people preferred that I wrote down, rather than taped our conversations) had to be sorted and re-written. I still write by hand, so it was a slow, but very satisfying process. I love my subject and was so deeply immersed in my material that, many times it was hard to come back into this world, so motivation was never a problem. Also, the immense pride that the men and women I met, many of them quite elderly, had in our heritage, and the faith they placed in me to present our culture accurately to other people was motivation in itself to complete the project.
NM – Sorting and sifting through so much material must have been tough. So, how did you select what you wanted to record? Did you have a rough content plan?
KP: The plan emerged from the material itself. As I went along, I saw that I would not be able to, or for that matter, would not want to record every single custom that exists in a documentary way. The book would have become unwieldy, and even incoherent. I found that there were patterns that existed in the material itself, patterns that repeated themselves across the length and breadth of Kodagu. It was very hard to leave out material that had been gathered with so much effort, but it had to be done, and much had to be saved for another time. It was thrilling to see threads of ideas coming together, and a stray story recorded in one village linking up with a much bigger concept or theory that had been expressed in the book. It was also challenging that so many journeys, so many conversations, so much cross-checking would sometimes have to be distilled into no more than a line or two. Writing also involved some guesswork, and leaps of faith. Sometimes I would have to set aside an idea, or just abandon it. Then suddenly, a few years later, a cluster of oral histories would come to support and confirm what I had guessed at. That was always very rewarding.
NM – The title of your book is unique, how and why did you choose it?
KP: The many years spent travelling around Kodagu also meant that I was witness to changes that were taking place before my eyes. Everywhere I went, the elders would point out that unless the younger generation learnt their traditions, there would be nothing left of it very soon, as an older generation died out, and the knowledge they carried died with them. Each year, I found that there were fewer and fewer people gathering at the annual celebrations, or at the ancestor propitiation ceremonies. People were reluctant to take on the role of oracles and spirit mediums in the modern world; young people were no longer keen to learn the songs and dances of the land; our traditional dress was rarely worn; even our customs and way of worship were changing, and our ways were becoming indistinguishable from those of our neighbours. So ironically, even though we are now larger in numbers that we have ever been, historically, we are actually becoming far less visible. The unique identity of the Kodava people that has been created over uncounted centuries is actually vanishing before our eyes. The title came from the frequently repeated phrase I heard from elders which translates as this: our culture and traditions are disappearing.
NM – What was your favourite part to write?
KP: It would have to be the chapter about to worship. This was one of the most powerful parts of the book, where so many strands of history, tradition, belief and also emotion come together. Some fascinating ideas and perspectives emerged. My personal involvement in local festivals was intense, and led me to the heart of the culture. It was illuminating, personally, to see how our ancestors absorbed so many diverse customs and influences, and still maintained the essence of their own beliefs and customs into the twenty-first century. I would also say that writing about the landscape, the immense beauty and sacredness it holds, gave me great pleasure.
NM – Where did you get your information and/or ideas?
KP: All the information relating to the culture, customs and traditions and oral histories rests the people themselves. I spent a great deal of time speaking to scores of elders and people in rural Kodagu, and also observing how various ceremonies were conducted. People were always extremely helpful and welcoming, and very generous with their time. Often, they would direct me to another village or person, if they were unable to answer my questions. Sometimes it was a very structured or specific exchange, but equally, a lot of valuable information came from casual conversations. The influence of the oral tradition still runs deep in the villages, and people love to gather and converse. Extended conversations are when you are likely to have the best information, stories or memories come your way. Of course, it helped immensely that I am a Kodavathi myself, as that brought down any barriers very quickly, and I could actually participate in every event, rather than just be a witness.
NM – What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing your book?
KP: The sheer concentration of village shrines, and the wealth of stories in such a small region is truly astonishing. That, and the fact that generally, people are familiar with the shrines and festivals of their particular village and most often, may never have visited ones even a few miles away. So, bringing together such a range of material in a single book will be a valuable legacy for the Kodavas themselves. The North, where some of the most interesting customs have been preserved, is still relatively unknown even to many Kodavas. The other surprise was the Kodava takkë, the Kodava language, which is on UNESCO’s list of ‘definitely endangered languages. I was learning more all the time as I conversed with people, especially the older generation, and found my cultural knowledge expanding with a deeper understanding of the language.
NM – You must have plenty of research material still lying with you. Do you have any plans to weave that into perhaps a smaller work?
KP: Putting everything into one book would have been impossible and yes, you are right, there is still a lot of material that was not used. There are many lines of thought and ideas that could not be explored, due to constraints of space. I also had to leave out many stunning images. I would love to, at some stage, think about a smaller work.
NM – Who would you say has been a major influence in your life? (Writing or otherwise)
KP: It would be a place, rather than a person: ‘pommālæ Kodagu’, meaning, ‘the golden land of Kodagu’. It compelled me to return to India, when I could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, and carried me on an unforgettable journey. Kodagu, as I have said elsewhere, snags your soul, and lays bare all your defences – the beauty of the land, the stories, the tragic history of the people, the poetic songs composed by rough warriors, to whom routine violence was a way of life and the spirit of the resolute women of the land are a part of me, and colours my everyday life and thought. There is no escaping it.
NM – The book is also a visual delight with over 340 colour plates. Tell us a bit about the pictorial journey and how the photography was conceived.
KP: This was one of the most demanding parts of the book that required innumerable trips to complete, to capture the spirit of the land. I made all the initial journeys alone, over about four years. I followed leads to various locations, and many people helped and guided me. After I had watched a festival or event, I began to shortlist the ones that had the potential historic and cultural depth to fit into the text, as well as make the most striking visual statements. This ran parallel to the writing of the text.
After several years, I had a clear idea of what the essence of the images would be. I had actually become familiar with the movement and timing of each festival, trance and ancestor propitiations, and also the key figures that played the lead roles. As you can imagine, with milling crowds, the oracles in a trance, men in a frenzy of possession, the picture you are trying to capture is gone in a flash, unless you know when and what to expect. It then became relatively easier to direct the photographer’s attention to a specific moment. Also, at all these gatherings, there are wonderful, spontaneous moments and sights that one can never predict, that need a quick eye to spot them: I am happy to say there are many such, captured in the book. It made all the difference knowing which moments were the most significant, and Sudeep Gurtu was very responsive. The place and the people captured his attention, so it was inspiring to work with him. It was also very important to get the permission of the elders before shooting, as all of the locations are sacred to us, and photography is normally not permitted. I began each journey by making the traditional appeal and offerings for the blessings and protection of ancestors and local deities before we began our work. I was welcomed everywhere, and given great support at every village.
NM – What would your target audience be for a work like this?
KP: This is a book consciously written for the general reader, anywhere in the world, anyone interested in Anthropology or world cultures. I did not want to write an academic work, although this book is underpinned with serious research. It was important to me that it was accessible to a wide readership and would engage people. The photography is an important visual documentation of our heritage, which draws people into the text. There are also a number of subjects within the pages that would form a basis for further research and academic papers.
NM – Do you feel that there is an audience for this book in India?
KP: First and foremost, the book is relevant for the Kodava people themselves. It captures the spirit of the land and the culture in an accessible style, besides presenting a rich visual documentation. It would also hold strong interest for the increasing number of visitors to Kodagu, both from other parts of India and the around the world. We have a large number of small and distinctive cultures in this country—this book would be relevant to many of them. Anyone interested in world cultures would find the book fascinating reading.
NM – What do you hope to achieve with this body of work?
KP: In a country as large as this one, small cultures tend to be overlooked or ‘lost’ quite easily. The Kodavas, one of the smallest groups, have contributed significantly to the country in many fields. They have a rich and unique culture, which deserves to be highlighted and they deserve to be recognized as the people that they are, and encouraged to preserve their distinct language and way of life. There are many such small cultures like this one across the world that add to the richness of human diversity. People speak a lot about the importance of biodiversity and the need to avoid monocultures. I think this is as important when we look at individual cultures around the world. It would be tragic if the beauty of small cultures were engulfed by uniformity.
NM – Did you have a specific vision for the cover of this book? How did it happen?
KP: Right from the start, I felt that the cover had to be one, striking image, that somehow captured the essence of the narrative. The cover was chosen from several options. For me, personally, it depicts the slightly austere, rustic Kodava character, the spare simplicity of their homes and lives, while also conveying the immense pride and dignity which each and every Kodava and Kodavathi feels in their culture and identity, summed up in the word ‘kodavāmæ’.
Interviewed by Nalini Menon, Media Consultant, Editor and Columnist. Nalini has over 20 years expertise in the print media.