Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Aniruddhan Vasudevan

Thu, May 23, 2019
Graduate Student Spotlight: Aniruddhan Vasudevan

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Aniruddhan Vasudevan, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

Broadly speaking, your research began with trying to understand kinship networks within a community of transgender women in Chennai, India known as Thirunangai. How did you come to focus your research on this particular community?

When I started my dissertation research, I was interested broadly in queer kinship, friendship, and solidarity, and how more hegemonic and institutionalized forms of kinship like caste and familial relations might impact queer and trans lives. As a step in that inquiry, I set out to work with my friend Sankari, a thirunangai transgender woman and activist, to understand certain aspects of thirunangai social life: how thirunangai kinship worked; how it draws upon the terminology, rituals, and affective aspects of what we now understand as hijra kinship; how thirunangai kinship also maps on to the hijra guru/chela (teacher-disciple) relationship configuration another one of mother/ daughter/ mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law sets of relationships; how different thirunangai parivars or family units in the Chennai area interacted with one another; how thirunangais saw their connections to their families of birth, considering a number of them had ongoing relationships with them; etc. But, at that point in my research, my desire to understand these dynamics was part of a larger project of understanding how kinship worked in (and for) LGBTQ communities in Chennai. There were some important critiques of caste from within queer and trans communities, which drew attention to how caste and caste privilege got elided in the LGBTQ framework, even as caste and class elites seemed to assume leadership roles and drive the agendas and priorities of a nationally articulated LGBTQ movement. It was in the context of these critiques that I wanted to understand how queer kinship and forms of care worked. But as I started my work with members of the thirunangai community, especially those who live in north Chennai, my attention was drawn to the importance of goddess Angalamman and her worship to this life-world. A life-world within the larger thirunangai life-world.

Over time, your focus shifted to a group of Thirunangais who are deeply committed to the worship of a particular goddess, Angalamman or Angala Parameswari Amma. Can you tell us about the place of the goddess and this practice of worship?

Angalamman is a regional female deity worshipped in various parts of the Tamil- and Telugu-speaking regions. The narratives about her, key rituals and worship practices, and mythologies seem to be diverse across the region, but she is broadly understood as one among the Amman goddesses, who are believed to be sisters to each other. The Tamil word Amman refers to mother goddesses, powerful female deities with dominion over a range of concerns: marriage, fertility, illness and wellbeing, childbirth, maternal health, pox diseases, freedom from evil spirits or demonic entities, counter sorcery, etc. She is primarily worshipped by the various non-brahmin caste groups: erstwhile warrior clans, land-owning agrarian castes, landless peasants, mercantile groups, fisherfolk, and others. Brahmins too worship her, but as a goddess who accepts vegetarian offerings. Otherwise, Angalamman is known to be a deity who accepts meat offerings and animal sacrifices, and that is how most other communities conduct their worship of her. So she is not a deity exclusive to the thirunangai community. Thirunangais share this domain of worship of Angalamman with several other communities in the region.

Worship and ritual practices are certainly important features of thirunangais’ attachment to goddess Angalamman. But what caught my attention at first, and very powerfully, was the way in which some thirunangais articulated what Angalamman meant to them. Many of these thirunangais were also maruladis, i.e., they also entered states of trance to embody the goddess. The Tamil word maruladi combines marul (trance) and aadi (the one who dances or moves). They would not speak of their lives as thirunangais without referencing the goddess and their attachment to her. They seemed to suggest that the very fact of being a thirunangai had something to do with this particular deity, and I wanted to understand these articulations. Even among thirunangai-maruladis, these articulations – about what the connection is between Angalamman and thirunangais – turned out to be very diverse. For instance, Thangam Amma, an elder, believes that thirunangais are forms of the goddess herself and that is why they are particularly special for the goddess and they serve as effective mediums and channels for her. But there are maruladis like Ragini Amma who go further and say that the goddess herself is a thirunangai and offer interesting mythological narratives to substantiate that claim. And then we have Mala who believes that being a thirunangai is a particularly potent embodiment for serving the goddess because it is free from the worldly ties, demands, and judgments of a reproductive economy that applies to most cis-gendered women and men. In addition to these, my thirunangai interlocutors also offered a great range of perspectives on the theme of being-becoming thirunangai; they articulate identity in ways that partakes both of essentialism and constructionism in very creative ways. So we find thirunangais theorizing on their own identity and with an amazing plurality of perspectives, all of which became important for me to understand, because they did not express their attachment to Anglamman (not only) as a personal spiritual connection, but as one they shared with others and which had deep implications for how they are to function in the world. There are ethical entailments to this attachment to the goddess.

In your research you have described the attachment to Angalamman as one which governs ideas and practices of how to live an ethical life in a world that is ambivalent towards them. Can you talk more about these ideas and practices?

There are various sources of the ethical in the thirunangai world. There is the kinship structure and its norms and expectations of conduct among elders and younger members, among peers, etc. There is the world of activism that has grown over the past two decades, which has cultivated its own ideas about justice, ethics, etc. Thirunangai activists also draw upon various strands of anti-caste critique to articulate egalitarianism and resistance to oppressive and exploitative hierarchies. What I try to show in my dissertation is that the intense and performative attachment to Anglamman that the thirunangai-maruladis articulate is also a significant locus of ethical life. Since it grounds for them their understanding of what it means to be a thirunangai (which has got something to do with facilitating the goddess’ work in the world), it also provides a framing for how they should live and act in the world, what it means to be the conduit for good and healing, what it means to be held in the ambivalent gaze of people who might vacillate between forms of transphobia and some kind of reverence because of their sacred status, how to respond in times of crisis, and more. In other words, the special connection with Angalamman that thirunangai-maruladis express -- through trance embodiment, ritual work of healing, devotional practices, narrativization, corporeal markers, etc. -- does not merely serve to accord them a culturally legible place in that world. That worlding is an active practice which includes forms of ethical self-cultivation, action, and reflection. This comes through in both clear and subtle ways. For instance, one of my discussions is about the energetic intensity in the way thirunangais intervene when someone is in crisis. It could be a thirunangai who is in some distress, or it could be anyone who reaches out to them for help in a time of crisis. In such instances, thirunangais seem to value a mode of showing up for others which brackets off any concern for their own well-being, even if the forces they take on in the process could be detrimental to them (the police, the media, other members of their own community, etc.). Thirunangai-maruladis, i.e. those who are particularly devoted to the goddess, see this impulse for selfless action as a divine one but also as one that needs to be controlled and marshalled carefully.

How are you conducting your research and how has the community responded to your work?

I spent thirteen months in Chennai in 2016-2017 living and working with thirunangai-maruladis. I was able to participate in two important annual festivals for the goddess, one in February and the other in July-August. Documenting everyday practices of piety as well as more specific rituals and pilgrimages was very useful to get at the kind of labor and commitment that went into it. I was able to interact on a daily basis with thirunangais who were connected to Angalamman worship at various levels. There were the maruladis who were known to channel the goddess in states of trance, who are seen as central to this life-world. But there are others who are also important: those thirunangais who serve as ritual apprentices or helpers, elders who wish to participate in whatever capacity they can, people who come seeking the maruladis’ ritual intervention in their life troubles, neighbors and intimate others who gather around and pitch in, and many more.

When I zoned in my focus on the place of Angalamman worship in thirunangai life, it seemed to make immense sense to my interlocutors. It happened organically and right in the middle of my ongoing conversations with them, so they felt I was doing the right thing. Many said they were happy they get to talk to me about an aspect of their lives that gave them much joy and meaning, which they said was a welcome change from their usual conversations with researchers and journalists about discrimination and disenfranchisement. They were in no way minimizing the need to address the latter; many of them were also activists themselves. But there was a certain joy in talking about their work towards the goddess. My positionality seemed interesting to them. I am from a middle-class Brahmin family (upper caste) and a gay man. My caste identity was very visible and very much a subject of conversations, and most of my interlocutors framed it as a difference that mattered because it meant that I would be used to very different forms of worship. Questions of caste and class privilege, access, possibilities, dreams and aspirations came up every day and in illuminating ways. My queerness, too, was at once a locus of intimacy as well as distance, and I try to write about it meaningfully in my dissertation.

I had known my friend Sankari for a decade through our work together in LGBTQ activism and community organizing in the city, but I had not known that she was also an expert in helping with Angalamman rituals. Various maruladis sought her out to assist them in their work. So, she and I, we suddenly found ourselves, as friends, finding out about other things that mattered to us: religion and spirituality. What is remarkable is that, none of the thirunangai-maruladis with whom I worked expressed this life of piety in terms of a Hindu identity that articulated with the hegemonic and oppressive Hindu majoritarian sentiment ascendant in India today. Many of them also participate in activism for transgender rights, and they do not find the need to imbue that work with a religious color in any way. So while they hold certain deeply felt views that connect being thirunangai with the goddess, they also appear to relativize their knowledge in a field of plurality. This has not been the case everywhere in India. So it offers me ways to understand how people might engage variously with religion, spirituality, and secularity.


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