Posts Tagged ‘malabar gods’

Review: Tarabout, Gilles.

Malabar Gods, Nation-Building and World Culture: On Perception of the Local and the Global. In: Fuller, C.J. & Assayag, J. 2005. Globalizing India. Anthem Press. p. 185-209.

©Tessa Valo, 2007

As the title of the book suggests, it sets as its topic the widely discussed process of “globalization” – associated with widening and speeding up of the global interconnectedness and intertanglement of the global and local – and the way how globalization, resp. the effects of the globalization processes interact with particular societies and cultures and how these processes are experienced by ordinary people, i.e. it puts weight on the perception from below. When discussing globalization we have to have several crucial points in our mind: for the first it is the fact that though there is a great portion of people whom we can consider really “cosmopolitan”, the vast majority of the world’s population is bound to the local community and culture, thus the fact that the “global interconnectedness is extremely uneven” (2005:1) and for the second that there exists no either-global-or-local but always both-global-and-local; global and local are mutually affected, constituted, reinforced and influenced. What is in other words crucial is the fact that what we associate with the notion of the “global” (i.e. statehood, monetary economies, citizenship, modern mass media etc.) is always actually realized at the local level and is “embedded in the locally constituted life-worlds and power relations” (Eriksen 2003: 4). The essay written by Gilles Tarabout analyzes precisely this interplay of the local and global in the religious domain. Gilles Tarabout focuses on the transformation of a local religious cult known as Teyyam in the state of Kerala (for detailed description of the Teyyam ritual see Ashley 1979) into a regional, national and global cultural performance and analyzes the ways in which different segments of society used to imagine and imagine the relationship between the local and the global in relation to this ritual practice. In opposition to Appadurai (2005) Tarabout puts emphasis on historical continuities rather than on what Appadurai calls rupture and on the dialogical quality of the relation between the local and the global, where local people are considered as the true actors and agents playing active roles in creation of the representations of the global world. Tarabout focuses on the discussions of Teyyam, primarily a village cult of popular local deities, at different levels of society, which relate in some way or another to the idea of globalizing and the construction of the local in opposition to the global or universal. Thus he analyzes the different discourses related to the Teyyam cult which are unfolding around the particular segments of society, in the concrete around colonial administrators, Christian evangelists, reformist Hindu saints, local caste elites, Marxists, nationalists, folklorists, anthropologists and dramatists[1]. Each of these discourses having its own specific way how to conceptualize the Teyyam ritual and its place in the structure of the society, be it at the local or global level, and attributing the Teyyam different roles in the identity games. Teyyam can be now found in two forms, which are continually intersecting and mutually influencing; for the first we can find Teyyam-as-a-cult in the Malabar villages and Teyyam-as-a-stage-demonstration in the Malabar villages and everywhere else. Though it is tempting to associate the first one simply with the realm of the local and the second one with the realm of the global – as we have already pointed out – it is necessary not to fall into the trap of the fallacy of reification of these two realms and acknowledge the great variety of interrelations that come into play in constituting these two spheres. Though we will not repeat all of the examples given by Tarabout, we will now have a closer look at one, which can be thought of as representative for Tarabouts – in a great part implicit – thinking about the global and the local. He gives us an example of meeting of the Teyyam cult with the Christian missionaries which he conceptualizes as representatives of the global and presents us and account written about Teyyam by V. William, a student of the United Theological College, in 1944, where he explicitly writes that Teyyam “is the only survival of the most primitive animistic belief in religion which Hinduism does not desire to see any more … these animistic primitive cults act as a break to the forward movement of culture or civilization or religion which become static and stagnant” (Tarabout 2005:189). Tarabout puts further emphasis on Williams criticism of these cults who were considered as “superstitious, a cynical exploitation of poor ignorant people, devoid of any morality and ethics … and an obstacle to civilization, to the very notion of progress” (Tarabout 2005:189) and points out that Williams took support for his claims also from the local – Hindu – thinkers (e.g. Kunhikannan) who understood the cults in much the same way inspired by Christianity and ideas of modernity. Here we clearly see that Williams functions as a representative for the global – the Christian, the modern etc. whereas Kunhikannan functions as a representative of the local, because of his undeniable descent, even though he shares the same ideas inspired by modernity and is thus no less global (if we still want to hold this – as we see rather fruitless – distinction). The question which comes up here and which is not discussed by Tarabout is whether in this situation of great diversity of relationships between the global and local, that have according to his study more or less clear and consistent continuities which can be traced back through time[2], the implicit thinking in categories of the global and the local and looking for the representations of these in diverse situations is still meaningful. Tarabout is thus looking for the representations of the local and consequently also of the global, while necessarily implicitly thinking in the categories of the local and the global – which remain undefined and hidden to the reader – and finally denying the sufficiency and continually impugning the distinction between the local and global by emphasizing the interrelatedness, mutual interaction, cultural hybridization and dialogical character of the relationship between these two realms. In other words, he is saying that in reality the relationships are complex and cannot be reduced to the categories of global and local, while using analytical distinction of global and local when investigating and looking for examples of this supposed complexity and finally – probably ab invito – questioning the meaningfulness of this analytical distinction itself. The concepts of global and local and the way the author operates with them thus remain under-theorized and mainly hidden to the reader who is left with the common sense notions of globalization and a brief note on Appadurai as a theoretical source. And what is more, all this does not stop the author from talking about “representations of the global values” in the “individual experience at the village level” (Tarabout 2005:186), where we again do not know what is meant by global values and what does the word global stand for. The global thus becomes almost a mystique quality attributed to outside observers, commentators and others. The above mentioned just stresses the acute need of rethinking of the concepts of the global and local (though there have been many attempts, this area is still widely open to new theorizing, one example for all Ritzer 2003). It could be perhaps in this case better to talk about “transnational flows” rather than about globalization/global/local. For we have to have in mind that “whether it is ideas or substances that flow, or both, they have origins and destinations, and the flows are instigated by people” (Eriksen 2003:4) But, in favor of the author, it must be said that the examples he gives are more than interesting and fruitful and each of them calls for more attention.


Appadurai, Arjun. 2005. Modernity at Large. University of Minnesota Press.

Ashley, Wayne. 1979. The Teyyam Kettu of Northern Kerala. The Drama Review: TDR. 23(2): 99-112.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (ed.). 2003. Globalisation. Pluto Press.

Fuller, C.J. & Assayag, J. 2005. Globalizing India. Anthem Press.

Juergensmeyer, M. (ed.). 2003. Global Religions. Oxford University Press.

Kurtz, Lester R. 2007. Gods in the Global Village. Pine Forge Press.

Ritzer, George. 2003. Rethinking Globalization: Glocalization/Grobalization and Something/Nothing. Sociological Theory. 21(3):193-209.

Tarabout, Gilles. Malabar Gods, Nation-Building and World Culture: On Perception of the Local and the Global. In: Fuller, C.J. & Assayag, J. 2005. Globalizing India. Anthem Press. p. 185-209.

[1] In this critical summary we will go neither into repeating the examples given by the author or the description of the Teyyam ritual itself, not only because of the limited space we have but also because the underlying conceptual problem which this essay poses is considered more interesting.

[2] This is in his account highly questionable and resembles in his diction more a tracing back in time of the grand distinction between the modern West and backward Third World.

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