'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

'Chignon' And 'Kuduma'

I recently acquired a copy of 'Tales Once Told', an interesting and laudable attempt to render into English selected episodes from the Keralan classic 'Aitihyamala' (transliterated somewhat inaccurately therein as 'Ithihyamala'). The author is Abraham Eraly, whose earlier works brought back the charm of narrative to ancient and medieval Indian history - a welcome change from (but NOT an alternative to) the austere rigor of Irfan Habib and the academic desiccation of Romila Thapar.

I won't attempt a broad critique of 'Tales Once Told' here but will only briefly examine a word I encountered therein - 'chignon'. The specific context is the 'punishment' meted out by Saktan Tampuran, King of Cochin around 1800, to a guard from the 'Thandan' subsect of the Ezhava caste for an amorous act that threatened to violate caste-taboos. The king grabbed the Thandan by the latter's chignon and .... let me leave the grisly story at that. Note: Vivekananda, by no means an exponent of the understated remark, was actually being euphemistic when he described Kerala's caste-practices as "right out of a madhouse"!

Merriam Webster says: chignon = a knot of hair that is worn at the back of the head and especially at the nape of the neck. While the word (new to me) is smooth and musical, given its French origin, it is inappropriate in this story. The Keralan caste system had assigned each community its own style of 'kuduma', a readily-identifiable-from-a distance (this was necessitated by untouchability and unapproachability restrictions) knotty coiffure (ha, another French word!). Ezhavas used to (indeed, were forced to!) shave their head except for a portion around 4-5 inches across at the very top and tie the hair there in a topknot. Ergo, what the unfortunate guard sported could not have been a chignon! Note: The title character in the acclaimed movie 'Perumthachan' (though not an Ezhava) wears an Ezhava-style top-knot.

Indeed, hardly any Hindu community in Kerala sported a proper chignon (although many in neighboring Tamil Nadu did). The Nambuthiri Brahmins and some other 'upper' castes used to shave most of the head but for a little tuft *in front* and keep it in a knot above the forehead to a side; the Nairs did not shave their heads at all and tied the whole mass of hair as a knot to a side and so on...

In the unlikely event of Prof. Eraly seeing this post and seeking references, let me mention: 'Jativyavasthitiyum Keralacharitravum', a remarkably original and idiosyncratic (I had to learn the precise spelling of this word for this post!) work by author-scholar P.K.Balakrishnan. Aside: Balakrishnan christens the 'Ezhava top-knot' the 'chakkara-kuduma' for unspecified reasons - let me leave this phrase untranslated!

Note 1: Eraly refers to the Thandan as a leader of a set of 'Thiyya guards'. This is somewhat inaccurate. The event takes place in Trichur in central Kerala. While 'Thiyya' is indeed a synonym of 'Ezhava' (well, more or less!), it is used only in North Kerala.

Note 2: In another similar instance, O.V.Vijayan, in his own English rendering of the masterpiece 'Khasak', (inappropriately) used the technical term 'phoneme' for 'aksharam'. 'Syllable' would have been a much simpler and neater fit.


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