Historical knowledge

A musical tradition and a degraded low caste profession

As the feudal, caste-based organisation of labour in rural India has given way to capitalist market forces and wage labour relations, traditional low caste professions are beginning to disappear. One of these professions is the inherited, highly stigmatized office of funeral drummer and graveyard attendant, called vettiyan. In Tharangampadi – or Tranquebar - only one person from the Paraiyar caste is still serving as vettiyan, and he dreams about a better future for his son. This article examines the gradual disappearance of the vettiyan profession in Tharangampadi and the neighbouring villages in relation to the general changes in the economic, social, and symbolic status of the low castes.  It looks into the ambiguous symbolic meanings of drums and drumming, and compares the vettiyan profession to that of other drummers and musicians from the Paraiyar caste. The article focuses on the subtle cultural encounters between people, who belong to the same caste and share almost similar cultural backgrounds, but still define each other as ‘others’. It argues that the few remaining vettiyans are used by their Paraiyar caste fellows as symbolic repositories of the negative degrading connotations of untouchability and impurity that are still associated with their existence and which they vehemently strive to escape.

Lillelund, Caroline. (2009). “The last Vettiyan: A musical tradition and a degraded low caste profession”, in Esther Fihl and A.R. Venkatachalapathy (eds.), Cultural Encounters in Tranquebar: Past and Present. Special issue of Review of Development and Change, vol. XIV, no. 1-2.

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