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The Kuravanji or Kuratti, a nomadic tribal fortune-teller, is a familiar figure in South Indian towns and a fixture in the Bharata Natyam dance repertoire. It is less well known that she is an important figure in South Indian literature in several languages and the central character in the Tamil Kuravanji Natakam, a dance drama genre that was all the rage in the kingdoms of the peninsula in the 18th and 19th centuries. A high-born young woman falls in love with a god or king; her girlfriends summon the Kuratti, who reads her palm, describes the ways of the hill people, and predicts her union with the beloved. The Kuratti is reunited with her bird-catcher husband.
While the famed Kutralak kuravanji celebrates Kutralam temple in the Western Ghats, the multilingual Kuravanjis of Thanjavur were danced by devadasis at the Maratha court and the Brihadisvara temple. In this illustrated talk, using her original translations of several Kuravanji dramas, Indira Peterson will illuminate the history and semiotics of the genre and the fascination of the wandering fortune-teller for courts and larger publics. The strong, eloquent fortune-teller mediates to her elite interlocutors local and global histories, livelihoods and geographies, singing of her cosmopolitan travels in many lands. Blending ancient themes with keen contemporary ethnographic observation, Kuravanji dramas comment on gender and social relations, as well as on relations among settled and migrant populations and groups of diverse languages and ethnicities in a world of fragmented polities and expanding horizons.
Dr. Peterson will be in conversation with Shoba Narayan.
Indira Viswanathan Peterson
Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson is Professor (Emeritus) of Asian Studies, Mount Holyoke College, U.S.A. She held the David B. Truman Professorship at Mount Holyoke, has been Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, and Fortieth Anniversary Professor at the Five College Consortium of Western Massachusetts. She has a B.A. (honours) in English Literature from Bombay University, and A.M. and Ph.D. degrees in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard University.
Dr. Peterson specializes in Sanskrit and Tamil literature, South India’s multilingual culture, especially in Maratha Thanjavur, South Indian history, religion (Shaivism), folklore and performing arts (classical dance and Karnatak music), and European-South Asian culture contact. She has published widely on all of these subjects. She has held a number of research fellowships, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the German Government’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Major publications include: Poems to Shiva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints (1989); Design and Rhetoric in a Sanskrit Court Epic: The Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi (2003); Arjuna and the Hunter (Bharavi, translated from the Sanskrit, Murty Classical Library of India 2016); and, with George Michell, The Great Temple at Thanjavur: A Thousand Years. 1010 – 2010 (2010). Two co-edited books are: with Martha A. Selby, Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of space and place in South India (2007); and with Davesh Soneji, Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in modern South India (2008). Dr. Peterson was the editor of Indian literature for The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces (Expanded 6th Edition, 1995), and The Norton Anthology of World Literature (2001).
Indira Peterson has recently completed Tanjore Renaissance: King Serfoji and the Making of Modern South India, a biography of the royal polymath and innovator Serfoji II. In progress are Drama, the Court, and the Public in Early Modern India, a monograph on the multilingual dance dramas of the Thanjavur Maratha court, and An Enlightenment Library in Early Nineteenth-century India: The Personal Collection of King Serfoji II of Tanjore (1798-1832).
Shoba Narayan is the author of four books and a columnist with Hindustan Times Brunch magazine. She writes about food, travel, fashion, art and culture for many national and international publications. She is the overseas correspondent for Radio New Zealand. She has taught at IIM-Bangalore and the Indian Institute of Science. Besides writing, she watches birds, quaffs wine, and enjoys gadgets. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.