It will be hard to find another woman like Bindu Shaji in Kerala. She eloped with a man of her choice, and because of that, enjoyed the best of both the worlds.
Bindu belongs to the Pulluvan caste. She sings serpent songs (sarppam pattu), and performs the serpent worship ritual ('kalamezhuthu pattu'), in temples for a living. Her caste rules prescribe that a 'pulluvan' or 'pulluvathi' cannot sing or perform 'kalamezhuthu' in temples or houses outside his/her place of birth. And after marriage, a 'pulluvathi' can sing only in the place of her husband's birth.
“In my case, my parents did not officially marry me off because I ran away with the man I loved. Since I was not ritually sent off to another family, my people don't think of me as having left,” Bindu said. Therefore, the bar on a married 'pulluvathi' singing in the place of her birth does not apply to Bindu.
The truth of her marriage cannot be denied either. Her daughter is married and her son is working. “Now, I belong to my husband's place and I am allowed to work in Karikkakom,” she said. So Bindu could be found singing serpent songs both in Veliyam, her birth place near Kottarakkara, and Karikkakom, a small village in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram.
But her luck ran out with the arrival of COVID-19. Temples were closed and the faithful, even when they felt the need to appease the snake gods, could not summon Bindu to sing for them.
There are many obscure evils that are said to be caused by the wrath of the snakes. It is to ward off these that Pulluvan songs, believed to soothe the snakes, are sung. Lore has it that the snake curled around Lord Shiva's neck was made to sway in pure delight by the music that wafted from the 'veena' played by Narada.
Though called a 'veena', the ancient-looking instrument with a hemisphere base and a slender stalk, and which is not even a fraction of the size of the modern veena, is played like a violin.
Astonished by the power of the instrument, Shiva is said to have pulled out a strand of grass from the 'karuka pullu' (Bermuda grass) garland he was wearing and created a special class of musicians, Bindu's ancestors. Though originally called 'Pullolbhavan' (grass-born), Bindu said with time this shrunk to 'Pulluvan'.
Since the last week of June, when places of worship reopened with restrictions, Bindu has just one place to go: Karikkakom Chamundi Temple. “I don't have any other work,” she said. Devotees who come to the temple approach her to sing a serpent song as offering.
Before COVID, she also travelled to Veliyam weekly, especially on Sundays, to sing at the snake grove of Veliyam Anchumoorthy Temple. Besides, she was regularly called by big Hindu families and temples to perform 'kalamezhuthu pattu', which made up the bigger part of her earnings.
'Kalamezhuthu' is a ritual art that involves the creation of large god forms, mostly the five-headed snake king, on the floor using coloured powder made of natural materials like leaves, lime and wheat powder. Bindu herself does the floor art, which in itself will take over two hours, and then she takes her 'veena' and begins to sing, gradually working up the individuals chosen as representatives of families or temples that have organised the ritual (called 'piniyals') into a trance. And these 'piniyals', in their possessed state, would sweep away the god patterns with their hair or specially-made brooms. The entire ritual spreads over five hours.
After COVID struck, 'kalamezhuthu' was forgotten. “Our hope is that in the coming festival season (from October this year to May next), we will get some bookings,” she said. But no one has approached her yet.
Before June, for more than a year, she had nothing. Her husband Shaji, who is a driver, also had no work. “Our association (Akhila Kerala Pulluvan Samithi) gave a call for help, and food packets were delivered to us,” Bindu said. She was living in a rented house and had to pay interest for a loan used to buy a car.
When Onmanorama was with her, Bindu got a call from the bank informing her that she had defaulted. “Last year, we got a moratorium for our car loan. Not this time. But with no work coming my way, how am I supposed to pay interest,” she said.
Since money was hard to come by, Bindu did one thing that was possible. After the reopening, she convinced Chamundi temple authorities to hike the charge of a song offering to Rs 20. Before COVID, it was Rs 10.
Her fee has doubled but the number of devotees asking for the offering, at this point, has more than halved.