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Ethnography of a Tradition

Tarun Chhabra

By Richard K. Wolf
Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005, pp. 313, Rs. 795.00


The Kotas are a group of indigenous people who have shared their upper Nilgiri homeland in South India, with the Todas since ancient times. They occupy seven villages and number just over 1500 persons. Until a few decades ago, the traditional groups of this area – the Todas, Kotas, Kurumbas and the Badagas had a successful system of economic interdependence. In this set up, the Kotas provided the music and the pottery for the others. They were also the blacksmiths and farmers.   Richard Wolf, an ethnomusicologist from the University of Illinois, spent two years at one Kota hamlet, Kollimel, from 1990, doing his doctoral studies. I remember him as highly motivated and learning to dance with the Kotas from the outset. This book is thus a scholarly tome that a lay reader might find somewhat difficult to absorb.   He introduces the reader to different aspects of Kota life including the general term for their hamlets: Kokaal, which has both ‘cow leg’ and ‘Kota place’ as etymologies. The latter asserts them as a unique tribal community and the former integrates them within a sacred Indian world. He goes on to mention that the title of this book is derived from the belief that in ancient times, a divine black cow indicated with the hoof, just where each of the seven villages were to be located. Even today, the descendants of the original inhabitants continue to reside at those spots.   He states the ongoing efforts of Kota musicians to ensure the musical and cultural ideal of perfect unison. The following chapters detail the different spatiotemporal forms and the associated music that occur: 1) Anchoring – the origin story mentioned above is an example along with others. 2) Centripetence – moving physically and morally to the centre. The God ceremonies held at all hamlets are exemplified. 3) Centrifugality – moving outwards from the village, during a funeral ceremony. 4) Inter-locking – formally joining the complementary components: village, kinship, affinal, or musically, say drum parts.   Some of these indicate changing times for the Kotas. For example, they have now built modern structures for their temples. Therefore, the traditional temple rethatching ritual that occurred during the God ceremony has been replaced by a symbolic ritual of throwing thatch atop the roof of each temple. This upward thatch throwing is highlighted by the shawm (koll) players who interrupt the temple-opening tune with a piercing tremolo on the highest note. Thus, he says, the Kotas use many God ...

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