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A survey of the vibrant yet understudied traditions of masked performance playing a distinct role in South India’s visual culture and psychology


Throughout South India, masks are related to the presence of divine beings and, as such, induce transformation in the awareness of both performers and audience. Masked performance may also be powerfully linked to rituals of healing, which aim at freeing the self from states of blockage, isolation, and possession. Masking thus implies meta-psychological perspectives on the notions of self, face, and maturation and on the internal economy of the mind in cultures far removed from standard Western psychological paradigms. Despite being among the most colorful and visually compelling in the world, South Indian masks have never been studied as a set of related ritual and performance phenomena.Masked and Ritual and Performance in South India is the first scholarly volume to address the many traditions of masked performance in southern India. After several introductory essays on the phenomenon of masking in general, including the outline of a new analytic model for mask performance by D. Shulman, individual chapters of the volume address particular traditions, such as Hiranya Natakam and Kataikkuttu (Tamil Nadu), Teyyam, Krsnattam, and Mutiyettu (Kerala), and Sinhala exorcism rituals. Essays by Edwin Gerow and Wendy Doniger draw connections with classical Sanskrit materials on masking and disguise. Each of the chapters blends empirical data and theoretical insights; an integrative postlude by Don Handelman proposes a highly original typology of ritual forms that braid together frames and contents, as in many of the traditions studied here. Taken together, the essays offer an initial grammar of South Indian masking as the culture-specific formation of visible surfaces in which primary issues of identity, self-knowledge, and perception are brought into play.

David Shulman is Professor of Indian Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.Deborah Thiagarajan is a historian of Indian art and the founder and director of Dakshina Chitra and the Madras Craft Foundation./di