Over the past fifty years Pepita Seth has devoted her life to the exploration of the closed worlds of the Guruvayur Temple and Theyyam Rituals in Kerala. She has undertaken her work with remarkable dedication and stamina in extraordinarily demanding circumstances, whether living with Theyyam community or photographing rituals of the Theyyam and of the Guruvayur Temple. Her achievement is all the more remarkable that as a woman she has penetrated these patriarchal and secret worlds. She has meticulously recorded these hidden universes and through her accessible writing and brilliant photography opened them to a broader public – in India as well as internationally.
What first excited your interest in visiting India and Kerala in particular?
In 1968, following my mother’s death I made the chance discovery of her grandfather’s diary, a treasure trove that contained detailed descriptions of the 1857 march from Calcutta to Lucknow and the city’s subsequent siege and relief. Although Leonard Howard Lloyd Irby was only 21, he was a soldier in the 90th Light Infantry and had already seen action in the Crimean War. At that stage India played no part in my life, in fact had my great-grandfather left a diary about marching across Australia I would probably have gone there. While the diary certainly ignited an interest in India I had no interest in pursuing colonial history. The turning point was seeing elephants on the Grand Trunk Road, something that caused everyone on the rickety bus to insist that it stopped for me to take a closer look. Yet while the initial lure was elephants the real bait, which took me to South India, was being told that elephants in Kerala were used for temple festivals.
Did you have experience in photography before starting your work in India?
Regrettably I have had no photographic training – which has resulted in the occasional meltdown caused by not knowing which setting to use. I had initially worked, and been trained, in the cutting rooms, working on documentaries and later feature films. Since I thought in terms of film I soon considered doing a documentary on the role played by elephants in worship. As a result I realised I would have to provide potential backers with visual evidence. Hence photographs were taken. Of course the film was never made but, having seen numerous temple festivals and sensed the existence of a wider and deeper universe, I began graduating to an interest in the wider world of traditional Kerala. Simultaneously I met people who took me seriously, based, I believe, on their pride in their culture.
In a profile by Priya Malhotra she praises your work as managing to ‘see the country with local eyes’.
Fortunately, although it took me a while to realise this, when my schooling finished that was it, my parents saw no purpose in any higher education. The greater but invisible gift was that as a so-called ‘lonely’ child I interacted with those who worked on my parent’s farm. In those days, (basically the mid-1950s onwards) post-war England was a spent force; there were no tractors, instead horses were used, which in Suffolk was a breed that later came close to extinction: Suffolk Punches. My parents were not only busy but subscribed to the philosophy that ‘children should be seen but not heard’. As a result I trailed along behind the farm workers, listening to their stories of ancient myths, the local folklore and the presence of unseen forces, all while acquiring a respect for nature. Although this way of life has now all but vanished I have never lost a deep awareness of its existence and beliefs. As a result when I reached rural Kerala I sensed not only familiar elements in my surroundings but that I had come to a world I already ‘knew’. This is not to say I wasn’t wildly adrift and confused by much of what I saw since so much was an unknown mystery that I really had to struggle to comprehend. Yet there is no doubt that Suffolk had laid the foundation that enabled me to open my ‘country eyes’ in Kerala.
How do you think you are able to ‘see with country eyes’ and why is this important to your work?
The direct answer is: just doing it. People not infrequently ask me ‘how can you live like that?’ Of course ‘that’ is never spelt out but the inference is clear, ‘that’ is inferior and not like ‘us’. It depends on how you see things and look at them. Yet although, like all societies everywhere, traditional, rural Kerala, possesses its rules I operated on the theory that one could easily live like ‘that’ since the whole of Kerala was happily doing so without a care in the world. I do admit that a sense of humour helps, since it releases potential tension. I think that in essence people responded due to a similarity, a connection between me and them that was based on trust and my respect for their traditions. I once saw the owners of a shrine lower an invisible portcullis at an alarming rate when a group of tourists appeared – even as someone told me to continue my ‘work’.
How did you first gain access to the Guruvayur temple?
Although I was initially unthinkingly swept in with friends who were diehard devotees it was the temple’s Thanthri, the head of the priestly family in charge of all rituals, poojas and religious matters, who declared I had the right of entry.
What was your first impression of Guruvayur Kesavan (Kerala’s temple elephant)?
He was a lot more than ‘just’ an elephant; he ‘knew’.
In 2012 you were awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian Government, how did this impact your life and work?
Initially exhaustion since the system is to ‘felicitate’ the recipient which on some days meant going to up to four different events to meet people. However it also meant I was claimed by Kerala since it was never mentioned that I was not even Indian. But the best accolade was the 7-year old son of a Theyyam practitioner who I overheard explaining to a local boy more than twice his age that his ammuma, his grandmother, had had an award.
How has Kerala changed over the decades?
Massively. In essence the old bogies, the urban world is now deemed to be more attractive than the rural one, the abundance of money and a lack of understanding about the rituals and the richness of Kerala’s extraordinary traditional culture. Within the temples the rituals remain but at the same time there is the urge to demolish and modernise. For the performing traditions it is particularly hard. Theyyam is a classic example: people come totally unaware of what they see, what it means, even as entrepreneurs seek to exploit.
How did you feel when you learned that you were to be awarded the RAS Burton Medal?
Completely stunned. Overwhelmed. Feelings that remain!
What are you currently working on?
It is really ‘what am I still working on’! I lived with the Theyyam practitioners for 15 years and am now completing a book – ‘In God’s Mirror: The Theyyams of Malabar’ – which will be out by the end of the year.
Thank you Pepita!
Readers may also be interested to see two recently published pieces highlighting the Society’s collections. The RAS Library featured as ‘Library of the Week’ on Library Hub Discover (https://libraryservices.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2022/06/royal-asiatic-society-of-great-britain-and-ireland/), while an article highlighting the Society’s Jain collections was published in the recent edition of Jaina Studies (June 2022): https://www.soas.ac.uk/jainastudies/newsletter/file158743.pdf
Please see our latest member profile on Professor Peter Frankopan here: https://royalasiaticsociety.org/member-profile/