The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Deities in human form act as painkillers
- german scholar’s photos of cults

In all cultures and in all times have there been the chosen few who have, from time to time, been “possessed” by deities. In their trance-like state, these intermediaries between human and divine beings are possessed with magical powers of divination and healing that allows them to offer immediate solutions to problems that bother and weigh down devotees. They act as both shrinks and doctors.

Cornelia Mallebrein has for the past 13 years sought out these “living gods” in the remote habitats of tribals in Orissa and the villages of Karnataka, the Chhattisgarh region of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. There, this German scholar recorded with her camera and handycam the celebratory moments when the energy of the deity flows into an individual and the latter is regarded as the deity incarnate by village people. These cults have been assimilated into the Hindu fold. Mallebrein blew up some of the photographs she had taken for an exhibition now on at Ashutosh Hall, behind the Indian Museum. It will travel to other Indian cities.

Mallebrein says from childhood she has been drawn to India, although she cannot explain why. She began reading the Bhagvat Gita even before her teens and learnt Sanskrit later. Till 1989, she studied classical Indology. At that time, she had visited Calcutta once.

Then, she decided to shift to folk and tribal traditions in rural India that will vanish. She had already visited Ladakh and Tibet. But the hilly terrain of Orissa, where she survived cerebral malaria and hepatitis and has the “stomach of a cow now”, proved to be a great challenge for her. She has 25,000 slides in her possession now, and being conversant in Oriya, she has recorded her conversations with the villagers on audio tape. Mallebrein claims no other researcher has ever reached this region before.

The exhibition is divided into four sections highlighting 11 characteristic topics from the regions where she travelled. The first chapter is about the deity in the form of a “self-created stone” that bestows the power of providing fertility and healing to the human medium. The second part, deals with the sword as the symbol of Shakti in Madhya Pradesh, and the Panda, who becomes Kali just by holding it. “The power of the mask” of Tulanadu, in Karnataka, is about the Bhuta tradition there. A bedizened performer wears the mask charged with the formless spirit called Bhuta. Then the “divine play” begins on earth. The importance of natural products is highlighted in the fourth part, “The power of nature”.

The second chapter is about the metalworkers who mould the bronzes and the tribal and non-tribal traditions of Bastar. The third chapter is about a small village in Karnataka, where on the day that the shepherd god Mallanna is worshipped, his worshippers behave like his equestrian and canine companions. The shamans of the Lanjia Sora tribal community of Orissa feature in the fourth chapter. After the show, Mallebrein will gift the photos to their subjects.

Mallebrein says recording the conversations of the villagers and interpreting them was not an easy task, because these are not people trained to articulate themselves. So each nugget of information was a form of reality. Some of the photographs she has taken are of a very good quality. Notable among them are the ritual of Mallana where huge quantities of turmeric powder are thrown on the devotees, the picture of the Bhuta cult and of the Lanjia Sora shamans.

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