Tullal Through the Eyes of its Practitioners

What can the living practitioners of an art tell us that history books cannot? Helena Reddington offers a glimpse into how Tullal and its origins are understood by present-day artists.

Helena Reddington

Tullal is a satirical performance tradition from Kerala attributed to the poet Kunchan Nambyar (1700-1770). He first developed the art form under the patronage of local rulers, and subsequently, the kings of the early modern state of Travancore. The poetry, written in Malayalam, weaves Hindu religious narratives with humour, satire, and sociopolitical critique.

The term ‘tullal’ literally means ‘to jump or leap about’, denoting the lively and dynamic movement of the performer. It is performed by solo artists combining elements of classical dance with Malayalam poetry, which is sung to music. The artists are supported by a mridangam drummer and a singer who plays the cymbals. Kunchan Nambyar’s 18th-century poetry continues to be used for Tullal performances to this day.

As one of the most important classical Malayali poets, Nambyar’s contributions to Malayalam literature are well known. However, although there has been substantial academic analysis on Nambyar’s Tullal poems by Malayali scholars, there has not been any research conducted on the living performance tradition. Speaking to practitioners of Tuḷḷal and observing their performances helps understand Tullal not just as a historical literary tradition, but as a contemporary performance culture, thereby enriching our understanding of the form.

Over forty Tullal poems are attributed to Nambiar. These can be divided into three subgenres, each distinguished by the performer’s costume and style of rendering: Ottan Tullal (ഓട്ടൻ തുള്ളൽ), Parayan Tullal (പറയൻ തുള്ളൽ), and Sitankan Tullal (ശീതങ്കൻ തുള്ളൽ). However, there is no clear consensus on just how these names came to be used for the genres.

Academic studies, such as those of the Malayali scholar Evoor Parameshwaran 1, suggest that these names could have originally been characters from Padayaṇi (പടയണി), a folk tradition of Kerala. G. Girijadevi 2 has found evidence in Nambyar’s poetry which indicates that the poet adopted the characters used in the Padayani tradition. As part of the Padayani tradition, devotees aim to appease the angry goddess Bhadrakali by making her laugh though comedy and jokes. In fact, satirical sketches based on contemporary issues continue to be a part of this tradition to this day.

However, my fieldwork with Tullal artists in 2017 brought up an intriguing alternative interpretation which is unexplored in the academic literature on the tradition. In one of our meetings, Kalamandalam Janardhanan, a Tullal artist with over six decades of experience, was able to share invaluable insights about the possible etymology and origins of the subgenres.

Ottan Tullal. Image credit: bobinson [CC BY 2.0]

Ottan Tullal is by far the most popular style, known for its fast-paced tempo and dynamic audience interaction. It is commonly understood that ‘Ottan,’ derives from the Malayalam verb ‘to run.’ However, Kalamandalam Janardhanan explained to me that ‘the Ottan’ actually refers to the mediator whose duty was to run and quickly convey the message of the king to the people.

Parayan Tullal is the most rarely performed style of the three. It is known for its slow-paced tempo as well as its philosophical and devotional themes. ‘Parayan’ can be derived from the Malayalam verb ‘to tell.’ Taking this a step further, however, Kalamandalam Janardhanan explained that ‘Parayan’ can be interpreted as ‘the person who only tells what is necessary.’ Interestingly, both interpretations of these subgenres seem to revolve around the common notion of communication and conveying certain ideas both quickly and concisely. It is perhaps possible to connect the meaning of these names to Nambyar’s conscious choice of using the local Malayalam language as opposed to the classical language in his Tullal poetry. Kalamandalam Janardhanan also added that ‘Parayan’ could be a reference to the Dalit community of Kerala known as the Parayan caste, which throws new light on the social critique found in Nambyār’s poetry and the way in which the poet addresses the issue of caste.

Sitankan Tullal by Kurichithanam Jayakumar, son of Kalamandalam Janardhanan. Image credit: Helena Reddington

Lastly, he explained that Sitankan Tullal actually refers to the Pulayar community of Kerala. Therefore, ‘Sitankan Tullal,’ which uses an intermediate tempo, can be understood as ‘the dance of the Pulayars.’ Again, there seems to be an interesting parallel between the etymology of the names Parayan and Sitankan Tullal, as both could potentially be references to the Dalit communities of Kerala. This is particularly intriguing given the evidence that Nambyar did appropriate elements from both ‘folk’ and temple performance traditions in the development of Tullal. Given Tullal’s hybrid origins that mix upper and lower caste traditions, it is very possible that these names do not have any singular meaning, but encompass multiple and many-layered meanings.

There is much we can learn from the insight and expertise of Tullal performers for a better understanding of Kunchan Nambyar’s 18th-century poetry as well as its diverse origins and influences. It is my hope that this brief anecdote of my conversations with the Tullal artist Kalamandalam Janardhanan points to the value of drawing from the knowledge of contemporary Tullal artists who have sustained this living performance tradition.  

References

  • Parameshwaran, Eavoor. Nampyāruṃ tuḷḷalsāhityavuṃ [Nambyar and Tullal Literature]. Kottayam: National Bookstall, 1969.   
  • Girijadevi, G. Nampiyāruṭe śilpaśāla [Nambyar’s Craft]. Kottayam: Sahityapravarttaka Sahakaranasangham, 2014.

About the Author: Helena Reddington is a PhD candidate in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University, Canada. She is currently writing her dissertation on the Tullal performance genre. She can be contacted at helena.reddington@mail.mcgill.ca

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