Folk healing and the negotiation of shifting social identities in Tamil Nadu, India

by Gabriele Alex

Working Papers WP 09-05
June 2009
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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This paper is concerned with a special branch of folk medicine in Tamil Nadu, India, which is practiced by the Narikuravar, a formerly peripatetic hunter community settled all over South India.
This paper starts with a description of the Narikuravar folk healing practices and epistemologies and discusses processes of professionalization and commercialisation. The second part of this paper asks how the Narikuravar healers gain authority and popularity in the growing health industry market in Tamil Nadu, and what makes their medicine so special in the eyes of their clients. The argument put forward here, is that the power of the Narikuravar healer is related to the position and image of the Narikuravar community within the wider society. Narikuravar are associated with ‘nature’ as opposed to the surrounding peasant caste groups which stand for ‘culture’; and they are often regarded as still living in the ‘Indian past’, as opposed to ‘Indian modernity’. In the Kuravanci, a folk literary genre which was very popular in Tamil Nadu from the seventeenth until the nineteenth century, the image of the Narikuravar as a fortune-teller and folk healer is elaborated upon, but notions of their traditional life style and magic healing powers are also found in later representations of the Narikuravars, for example in the 1972 movie Kuratthi Magan. Narikuravar medicine is located within various pairs of oppositions, such as Indian/West (English), traditional/modern and folk/classical medicine. These images and representations are today exploited by the Narikuravar themselves as commercial tools in their representations of themselves in the context of market strategies, but they are also used for the negotiation of identity within the wider social and political sphere, for example in the efforts of the Narikuravar Tamil association to gain the recognition of a Scheduled Tribe. In other words, they accept and welcome these representations of “natural” and “traditional” healing powers and transform them into a resource that can be sold in specific encounters with clients from other communities or used in articulating their identity in the diversity management of the modern nation state.

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