Accepted paper:

Gift as devotion, gift as commodity: transaction among temple drummers in Kerala, India


Rolf Groesbeck (University of Arkansas/Little Rock)

Paper short abstract:

This paper juxtaposes a notion of "gift", among drumming students and teachers in Kerala, India, as construction of submission and devotion, with one of gift as routinized fee. I contrast prevalence of the former in private pedagogy with an uneasy coexistence of the two in a modern institution.

Paper long abstract:

This paper juxtaposes the notion of "gift" as construction of submission and devotion with one as quantifiable fee, as they relate to drumming pedagogy in Kerala, India. I discuss how guru daksina, a ritual marking the beginning of study and a ceremonial first performance, and remuneration construct the student's submission to his teacher (asan) in private contexts; in the former, one offers to his teacher objects such as a betel leaf and a muntu (garment), in addition to a variable amount of money. The student prostrates himself on the ground before the teacher, among other acts, so that the embodied performance of submission is as important as the objects offered. Remuneration consists of occasional and often grandiose gifts to the teacher; this focuses on the incompleteness of the gestures, again emphasizing the student's submission and affection. However, the system at the Kerala Kalamandalam, a state arts institution, partly undercuts this practice; here, non-Malayali students pay monthly fees to the institution, some of which go to the school's upkeep, some to the asan. The impersonal nature of this arrangement contrasts with the intimacy inherent in patterns of remuneration in private contexts, yet at the same time guru daksina continues in the institution. Thus, a post-colonial institution initiated partly to propagate Kerala arts to a global audience features an uneasy coexistence between a notion of "gift" as regular, institutionalized payment and one of construction of submission, mixed with intimacy and devotion.

panel P046
Give and take: gift exchange in South Asia