Theorising the Politics of Yakshi in Malayalam Cinema

Theorising the Politics of Yakshi in Malayalam Cinema

Chitra V. S. (Mahatma Gandhi College, University of Kerala, India)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3511-0.ch005


The fear of the monstrous feminine, yakshi, may be read as an element of collective political fear, threatening the stability and functioning of established systems of power and normalcy. Films attempted a curious balancing of tradition with modernity. The film representations of female ghosts mark a transformation of Kerala's cultural psyche in its relation with the supernatural. One of the common characteristics of yakshi legends and their film representations in Malayalam is that class/caste identity of the woman plays a significant role in the experiences narrated. The myth of yakshi—a cultural fantasy still popular in Kerala, forming an integral part of Malayalam film industry from 1964 to 2017—is analysed through the subaltern theory popularised by Gayathri Spivak and various other theorists together with the psychological theories of the conscious evolved by Freud and Jung. The refashioning of the image from the voluptuous and monstrous one to a more realistic and relatable image proclaims the politics and the social context of fear evoked through this terrible concept.
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The origin of the concept of yakshi in the folklore of Kerala can trace its roots back to the idea of Mother Goddess especially the Kali cult. Determining the cultural context of yakshi takes us to diversions of the same mythical concept, Aryan, Dravidian, Jain and Sanskrit. In the Aryanised version, yakshi is not monstrous but the archetype of beauty and serenity. They are the female counterparts of Yaksha, worshippers of Shiva and Kubera’s treasure guards. While Yaksha and Yakshi in the Aryanised version is of the benevolent kind, in Southern folklore version, it is not so. They differ both in texture and matter from the rest of Yakshi portrayals and often depicted as residents of Ezhilampaala and Karimpana. One of the renowned Malayalam writers C.V Raman Pillai has constructed a version of the yakshi named as Kalliyangaattu Neeli in his novel Marthandavarma (76). The same character takes up a different name, Panjavangattu Neeli in Southern folksongs and folklore. C.V Raman Pillai constructs a pseudo mythical folktale based on moral concerns, where he emphasises the triumph of righteous.

Horror element in folklores has enjoyed continued popularity for centuries and is very likely to go on thriving for a long time to come. Possible reasons for the prevalence of these kinds of stories are, however, much more contested. At the heart of horror, folklore lays a double paradox. In essence, we take fright at something non-existent and we derive pleasure from descriptions and representations that classified as repulsive. Several scholars, among them Kendall Walton and Noel Carroll have suggested that the first of these two phenomena can be accounted for by our capacity for make-believe or imagination. The second aspect of the paradox is closely associated with Aristotle's or Hume's discussions on tragic pleasure. While the former's solution was the idea of catharsis, the latter proposed that our aesthetic appreciation of the text outweighs negative emotions.

The prehistoric men in India considered being pagans who worshipped nature and its powers. Kerala, in this case, isn't an exception were the tree goddess became deities and later the qualities and ability of the tree goddess got assimilated into the concept of the mother goddess. As for the Dravidians, they worship mother goddess as their war gods while the Aryans worship the male gods for the same. The counterpart of the Dravidian goddess in Kerala is Kaali, the Mother Goddess. While Kaali replaced the mother goddesses, the dualism of nature got transferred into it. The Mother Goddess became the epitome of extreme revengefulness, ferociousness and monstrosity. At the same time, serene calm and pure. Paala, Alaric and Kaanjiram are important trees worshipped during that period in Kerala. Bhadrakaali conceived as an unmarried, virgin girl who is beautiful, exciting and dangerous. Her fury arises from her virgin state and similar to Yakshi’s, it is her desires and anger that makes her thirsty for male life- fluids. Even before the genesis of Kaali cult, other deities like Maruthaand Pillatheeni existed.

The socio-political changes in the society ended up in regionalisation of local deities leading to transformations, historically. Social changes brought about the unification of gods like Vasoori Devatha(Goddess of disease), the Mariyamman goddess of Tamil Nadu, who belonged to the lower strata of the society—thereby elevating Kaali to the status of major Goddess of power and strength. Depromotion of local deities into cruel yakshi was another associated phenomenon during this process of deification. Thus yakshi became a dual entity, namely Sundarayakshi and Rakthayakshi. These ‘Yakshi- deities’ demand submission and surrender from people of all walks of life and castes. In Kerala, it's believed that bloodthirsty yakshi with her unquenchable sexual cravings traps men and could only be tamed with the help of Kaali the Mother Goddess as per Aryanised version of the cult.

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