Kāntāra and Universe of the Bhūtas
A review of the massively successful Kāntāra, appreciating the film’s foray into Karnataka’s lesser known Bhūta universe, along with an account of the tradition itself.

Kāntāra (2022) is a powerful and visceral cinematic experience, perhaps unlike anything we’ve seen in contemporary times. It harkens back to legends of yore, tales that animate the rich corpus of Indian literary and oral storytelling traditions. Set in a small hamlet in the midst of the lush forests of the coastal region of Dakṣiṇa Kannaḍa or South Canara, Kāntāra evokes the rustic and unabashedly authentic imagery of rural life. Tulunadu is portrayed as the playground of countless bhūtas, with the Tuluvas performing ritual worship and sacrifices, not so much with the hope of rewards, but to pay homage to the spirits and avert their displeasure. Kāntāra grounds itself in a gloriously complex and vibrant ritual universe built on the strong foundations of immense and unrelenting faith. It serves to reaffirm the importance and universality of the belief that forms the thread that weaves together almost all Hindu traditions.

Bhūta Aradhane or Bhūta Kola

Bhūta is Tulu for ‘spirit’ or ‘deity’, which is in turn derived from the Sanskrit भूत meaning ‘spirit’, and kōla which is Tulu for play, performance, or festival. Apart from annual celebrations, certain special rituals are also held at the time of commencement of agricultural activities like ploughing, sowing, harvesting etc. T.G. Aravamuthan, in Origin and Growth of Religion, says that the word bhūta refers to “the elements, to what is inanimate, to the animate, to the living, to all beings, to all that is created, to all creatures that have ceased to exist, and there are dead, to fathers, to demons and to gods.”  The centuries-old ritual performance or kōla involves music, dance, recital, and elaborate costume. Recitals or songs written in Old Tulu, called pāḍdanas, still sung in the same manner today recount the origins and exploits of the various bhūtas, either in their human or ethereal form, and tell the story of how it came to be established in the present location — the bhūtasthāna. Pāḍdanas, sung casually by women in paddy fields and more strictly in a ritual setting by bards impersonating the deities, also contain references to local events, social customs and practices, and other legends associated with places and a wealth of material of antiquarian interest.

 Each village has a bhūta for whom an annual kōla is held, each household is also associated with its own bhūta, and even some castes have their own tutelary bhūtas.  The numerous bhūtas are closely related to and also embody the wild, dangerous, and fertile aspects of divine power — originating as apotheosized local heroes or the spirits of wild animals dwelling in forests — which eventually came to be grounded in the larger umbrella of the Hindu pantheon centuries ago through their association with the gaṇas and bhūtas of Lord Śiva or Īśvara or absorbed into the tenets of Śakti worship or mahātmya traditions.

Bhūta kōla or daiva nema is the periodical ritual which is centred around the propitiation of a certain deity to render offerings and ask for favourable seasonal conditions and a plentiful yield of crops. The ceremony mainly involves two central participants, the vaidya and the patri, wherein the purpose of the vaidya is to rhythmically beat the dakke (drum), and sing and dance, in order to completely attune the priest-mediums or oracles1 to sublimate his/her personality and permit for full possession by the spirit being invoked. When invoked in the prescribed manner, accompanied by all the ritual offerings and other arrangements, the patri or mānye or māni moves into ecstasy and gets “possessed” by the concerned divinity. Priest-mediums, belonging to the Nalike, Parava, Pambada or certain other prescribed castes conduct the ritual, with the patrons often being local landlords. Though some variations are seen in different districts, the core of bhūta worship remains the same. The festivals and shrines constitute an important component of the social landscape and the celebrations bring together various castes and communities for involvement and division of labour. At the ritual sites, social caste norms are temporarily cast aside, and “low” and “high” caste members alike pray to mediators belonging to “scheduled” castes (if we are to follow the Indian State’s classification) and partake in the offerings made for bhūtas which often include blood and animal sacrifice. Blood is dripped onto the ground to reinforce the life force of the human body and bring the fertility of the land, to regenerate the extraordinary powers and bounty of the forests. On a subliminal level, the rituals are also the meeting ground of sorts for the entire village, a forum for airing their problems and seeking redressal from the oracle or divine counsellor. Often, disputes that do not reach a resolution are transferred to “more powerful” spirits, and in this manner the arena functions as a spirit-based justice system, a legal regime founded on social belief in its legitimacy and efficacy. Thus, the bhūta religion influences the organization of the community based on the concept of Dharma, and creates a framework for a moral and social order, besides functioning as a unifying force.

A Note on ‘Possession’

Anthropologists who have undertaken an extensive study of the Tulu traditions, such as Peter J. Claus have admitted that Western ethnographic studies are unable to understand or interpret ritual possession from the native perspective. It is hence sought to be placed in a cause-and-effect paradigm, categorized as an “altered state of consciousness” — as a medical or psychiatric condition that requires treatment — a stance that is problematic at its very outset. This is strikingly different from the native view on the subject. In the ritual setting, possession by the spirit is regarded as normal, legitimate and even desirable by the believers. Possession, common to multiple South Indian “folk” ritual traditions, is interpreted in a culture-specific symbolism wherein the individual is thought to be integrated into the moral community and belief system. Claus concludes through his investigation that possession “conjoins the individual with his/her society’s moral order”, and the phenomenon provides a “symbolic medium through which the individual (or group) re-adjusts himself to the appropriate order”. There have been multiple accounts of those destined to be priest-mediums experiencing hallucinations, seizures, or other “abnormal” mental states until they answered their “calling” (a couple of them that stood out to me are recounted in the images below). In a world that legitimises only Western medicine and shuns the traditional view, it is astonishing, and to me personally, world-view altering, to rethink the manner in which psychiatric illness is dealt with, when these phenomena are taken into consideration. In Kāntāra, recurring throughout the film are inklings of forces, powers, even Gods that inhabit the earthly plane, causing occurrences that the rational mind cannot explain, which reach a crescendo at the climactic scene in which Shiva is possessed by the vengeful spirit Guliga — leaving the viewer spellbound and shattering all preconceived notions of spirits and their powers.

Accounts of priest-mediums; from Report on Bhuta Cult in South Canara District by P. Padmanabha

Pañji Dēvate or Pañjurli

Pañjurli is the bhūta seen throughout the film, the boar spirit that inhabits the main character Shiva’s vivid dreams — the deity that was impersonated by his father before him in rituals and one that Shiva feels inextricably connected with despite his best efforts to ignore his calling. In Tulu Nadu, hordes of boars often invaded and destroyed the cultivated lands, so farmers presumably began worshipping and giving offerings to Pañjurli, the spirit in the form of a pañji (boar), under the impression that this would appease him and thus keep the wild animals away from their fields. The film repeatedly depicts the blurring of the lines between the corporeal and the spirit realms through the blending of the imagery of the boar spirit, Pañjurli and the wild boars hunted as game in order to control the population and protect their crops. This belief was later incorporated into the fabric of Hinduism through the story of Goddess Pārvati keeping a mischievous, destructive pet boar that enraged Śiva so much that he killed it, and when Pārvati was upset, he brought the boar back to life as a spirit and sent it to earth in order to preserve righteousness and truth.

Man versus State

The tussle between man and nature, religion and the secular State, and the conflict between age-old settlements and State officials are seen as dominant tropes in the film, resolved only upon reconciliation of the villagers with the Forest Officer, who initially, is the central antagonist. In the department’s restriction of traditional, sustainable foraging of forest resources by the people that live and have lived adjacent to the land for generations, there is the recognition of the oppressive, restrictive regime of the post-colonial state that does not fully understand the relationship between the indigenous people and the land they inhabit, and views the concepts of ritual and belief as irrational and superstitious. Elements of the ancient are shown as eternal, very much extant entities in our midst, which, when juxtaposed with and challenged by the fleeting powers of local politicians, governments and its agents, or courts, are humbled before the all-encompassing, transcendental powers of the demigods. The moment in the film where the villagers present wild game to the forest official before partaking in it themselves, saying it is their “dharma” to do so is emblematic of the villagers’ humble naïveté, and the nature of their interactions between the secular state, with all its contradictions.

Creative Vision in a Ritual Cosmos

We’ve come a long way since colonial writers Reverend Robert Caldwell, A.C. Burnell, Monier Williams, R. C. Temple, other representatives of the Basel Mission etc. wrote extensively of the “devil or demon worship”, or “demonolatry” seen in Tulunadu and expressed their fear, distaste and displeasure in the hopes of converting the locals to Christ. Anthropological and ethnographic studies and the literature on the subject continue to carry bias and undertones of condescension, apart from being unable to adequately explain the culture to/from the occidental perspective that is often adopted. In this aspect, the film is extraordinary, for it depicts a fictional legend of villagers in conflict with the insatiable greed of a local landlord, yet underlying the premise is the veritably non-fictional religious belief system of the Canara people. It is remarkable, not just for the accuracy and authenticity of its depiction of Tuluva culture, particularly Bhūta worship, but also for the creativity with which a compelling story is woven around its traditions and ethos without losing sight of the true spirit of the culture and the people. It is elucidative and captivating in its portrayal, without any apparent distortion or force-fitting of tropes — either to suit certain agendas or to somehow spuriously amplify production or monetary value. In this, the entire creative process of rooting film and media in truly authentic cultural narratives and aesthetics has proven itself to not just be appealing to audiences world over, but also immensely profitable undertakings for filmmakers. Audiences are certainly capable of discerning the authentic from the inauthentic, the forced from the organic, and the makers of the film were gratefully, humble enough to respect both the traditions being depicted and the intelligence of even the not so well-informed. To the non-Kannada viewer, given the immense attention to detail seen in the film, it seemed to be a carefully considered, deliberately crafted, exceedingly passionate exercise in the depiction of the Southern Kanara people, and a delightful glimpse into an otherwise lesser known world. There will always be detractors that refuse to believe in the occult powers of the impersonator in trance, as with so many other “supernatural” phenomena upon which traditions and stories are often based. However, the movie sets a decisive and unapologetic tone when it comes to rewriting its own narratives about local traditions, a far cry from the patronizing tone of missionaries and Indologists, and does not shy away from an honest depiction of practices that even Hindus themselves tend to categorize as “superstition” (despite a large chunk of even its “modern” ritual and religious practices actually being contingent upon it). In fact, the overwhelmingly reverent attitude towards the bhūtasthala or bhūtasthāna and the bhūtas themselves, along with the overtly tangible faith in the entire epistemological framework were depicted without the least bit of dilution or trepidation. For this aspect itself, the movie was a refreshing delight, as well as for its wholehearted embrace of indigenous traditions, for never adopting a sermonising or belittling tone when it comes to practices often labelled as “irrational” or “blind” or “superstitious”, and for not regurgitating old, stale colonial tropes that have been thrown at Hindus ad nauseum for decades now by media, print and the State alike. Film and other visual media have therefore rightfully become some of the most powerful tools available to us today as a civilization, if cultural heritage and the narratives surrounding it are ever to be reclaimed, with Kāntāra being, hopefully, the pioneer in ushering in a whole new era of cinema.

Notes:

This is not a comprehensive or extensive account of Bhūta Kola by any means. Any generalizations employed are not meant to be reductive of any ritual or tradition, but are for the sake of succinctness and avoiding excessive detail that may detract from the attention of the reader. Some facts also vary from account to account; I apologise in advance for any inconsistencies, as clearly, I place reliance on scholarly literature on the subject.

1. Known as patri in the Kannada-speaking areas; in the Tulu-speaking areas, there are two categories of impersonatos or oracles: the first, called manyas, consists of men belonging to Baṇṭ (baṇṭeru, vokkelaklu), Billava, Gatti, Gowda and other such castes, while the second category which hears no specific name, consists of men belonging to Pambada, Panar, Parava and Nalke castes. In view of their occult powers these functionaries are held in high esteem amongst their fellow castemen as well as in the society as a whole. Furthermore, they lead a life of restraint and of interdictions, which also helps them to secure a higher status. The offices of the priest and the impersonator usually run in particular families from generation to generation, however, the hereditary principle is observed with utmost strictness, since in the selection of an impersonator, the Bhūta or the daiva also participates in a way and makes known its divine will by transmigrating to the right person amongst the eligible candidates upon performance of a particular ritual meant for this purpose.

Report on Bhuta Cult in South Canara District P. Padmanabha
– Singh, K. S.. People of India: (3 pts.). Karnataka. India, Anthropological Survey of India, 1992
– Rai, V. (2017). Oral Traditions in South India, Essays on Tulu Oral Epics. Harrassowitz Verlag , Germany
– South Asian Systems of Healing. (1984). Netherlands: E.J. Brill
– The Devil Worship of The Tuluvas from the papers of Late A. C. Burnell; edited by Dr. Denis Fernandes; Prof. A V Navada
– Dusche, M., Butas and Daivas as Justices in Tulu Nadu: Implications for the Philosophy of Law.
– Suzuki, M., 2008. Bhūta and Daiva: changing cosmology of rituals and narratives in Karnataka. Senri ethnological studies, 71, pp.51-85.
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