Mirrors of the Soul Performative Egalitarianisms and Genealogies of the Human in Colonial-era Travancore, 1854-1927

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Vivek V. Narayan


Scenes of avarna castes (slave and intermediate castes) pondering their reflections recur throughout the history of anti-caste struggle in the princely state of Travancore in colonial-era south India. These scenes represent what I will call performative egalitarianisms, which are repetitive enactments in the performance of everyday lives that embody claims to equality against the dehumanizing caste codes of colonial Travancore. In this paper, I will describe three scenes that represent distinct yet intertwined routes for the flows of egalitarian discourses in colonial Kerala. The concept of equality emerged in Travancore, first, via Enlightenment values of the British Protestant missionaries, or soulful Enlightenment; second, as non-dualistic equality of Narayana Guru, or repurposed Advaita; and third, through the discourses and practices of a Tamil religious cult called Ayya Vazhi, or radical Siddha Saiva. In viewing the flows of egalitarian discourse through the lens of performance, I demonstrate the method of intellectual histories in the repertoire which allows us to investigate how particular conceptual frameworks and discursive modes are transmitted, transformed, and embodied by people for whom these ideas are, quite literally, a matter of life and death. The intentional, productive, and empowering relationship between universals such as equality or humanity and the particular claims of anti-caste struggle in Kerala leads to a politics of practice that I describe as repurposing universals. The centrality of the notion of the human in the anti-caste politics of colonial-era Travancore leads me to refer to these flows of egalitarian discourses and the political struggles that they empowered as genealogies of the human. In sum, I analyze the genealogies of the human in colonial-era Travancore by focussing on three scenes exemplifying performative egalitarianisms: soulful Enlightenment, repurposed Advaita, and radical Siddha Saiva.

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Narayan, V. (2020). Mirrors of the Soul. CASTE / A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, 1(1), 125-154. https://doi.org/10.26812/caste.v1i1.96
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