Despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews, the film sparked a controversy as actor and director of Kantara, Rishab Shetty, commented that Bhoota Kola – a form of spirit worship depicted in the film – is part of Hinduism. This led to a rebuttal from Kannada actor and activist Chetan Ahimsa, who said that the film has appropriated Bhoota Kola, which is a part of Tulu Adivasi culture.
Kantara was initially released on 30 September in Kannada, and within a few weeks, it was dubbed in multiple languages including Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu.
To understand why equating Panjurli, a spirit worshiped in Bhoota Kola, with the Hindu God Vishnu has led to a controversy on appropriation of Adivasi culture in films that depict Hinduism, The Quint spoke to Tulu culture experts, and found that depicting Bhoota Kola as a Hindu religious practice need not necessarily be accurate, culturally.
What Did Rishab Shetty Say?
Rishab Shetty, when asked in an interview whether Panjurli – a spirit that takes the form of a wild boar – was depicted in the movie as a Hindu deity, said:
“Those Gods are all part of our tradition. Definitely, it is part of Hindu culture and Hindu rituals. Because I am a Hindu, I have belief and respect for my religion. But I will not say others are wrong. What we have said is through the element that is present in Hindu Dharma."
The viral clip of Rishab’s interview came in the wake of criticism that Panjurli is depicted as Hindu God Vishnu’s incarnation – Varaha – in the film. The song ‘Varaha Roopam,’ that plays towards the end of the film and has Sanskrit lyrics, is cited by critics to emphasis the point that Panjurli is depicted as an incarnation of Vishnu.
What Did Actor Chetan Ahimsa Say?
Actor Chetan Ahimsa, in a rebuttal to Rishab Shetty, stated that Pambada/Nalike/Paravar Bahujan traditions are more than Vedic Brahminical Hinduism. In one of his tweets, he has urged that aboriginal cultures be represented truthfully on and off the silver screen.
Further, in a press conference held in Bangalore, Ahimsa said that it is important to note how the word ‘Hindu’ is used.
"It is wrong to say that ‘Bhoota Kola’ is part of the Hindu religion. Adivasis practice the ritual and there is no ‘Brahminism’ in Bhoota Kola. Don’t say Hindu in the movie. It is the culture of the Adivasis. Do not put Adivasi culture in the column of Hindu religion."Actor Chetan Ahimsa
Meanwhile, Karnataka right-wing group Hindu Janajagruti Samiti has lodged a complaint against Chetan Ahimsa for "hurting religious sentiments." The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's Minister for Culture C Sunil Kumar has also rubbished Ahimsa's claims. The minister said, "Daivaradhane is part of Hinduism. This is our culture and belong to our land. The government is focused on strengthening and supporting these practices. Those who are not aware of this culture must refrain from making claims."
Is Bhoota Kola Part of Hinduism? No, Not Brahminic Hinduism, Scholars Say
Bhoota Kola or Daiva Kola is
In Tulu, 'Bhoota' means spirit and 'Kola' means play. According to culture experts, Bhoota Kola is an important folk ritual practiced in coastal Karnataka. According to Tulu (linguistic minority) Adivasi tradition, it is a "non-vedic" spirit worship where Bhootas or Daivas – guardians and ancestors – are worshiped.
Speaking to The Quint, Professor KS Bhagawan who writes extensively about Hinduism, Indian culture, and history said that Hinduism itself is a modern-day identity which was popularised during the colonial period or after the British came to India. Bhoota Kola has been a tribal practice of Tulunad even before Hinduism existed and it is continuing till date.
"I agree with what actor Chetan has said. The issue arises because all religions apart from Islam, Christianity, Jainism or Buddhism are being categorised as Hindu."Professor KS Bhagawan
Renowned Tulu folklore scholar Bannanje Babu Amin told The Quint Bhoota Kola is not part of the Brahmin culture.
"We believed in Daivas. People who lived and worked for the community post their death were worshiped as Daivas. In the early days we did not worship Vishnu. Bhoota Kola is Daivaradhane or worship of ancestors for protection and upliftment."Scholar Bannanje Babu Amin
'Bhoota Kola Transcends Hindu Caste Hierarchy'
Writer and culture expert Dr Purushotham Bilimale, who is the recipient of many awards including Karnataka state award and Karnataka Folklore Academy award, said that after the demolition of Babri Masjid, the RSS has been trying to bring all Indian Gods into the Hindu fold. "After 2014, the process has progressed with rapid speed. It has even grabbed Ambedkar, who once said 'I will not die a Hindu,’ into its fold. Now, Hinduism is taking Tulu Gods into its fold."
Bilimale also spoke of the transcendental characteristics of Daivaradhane, which bests the caste system in its mystic practice.
"Historically, the communities which belong to the lower strata of the society were kept outside of Hinduism. They were untouchables and invisible. During deity worship (Bhootaradhane), some of them temporarily move to the top of the hierarchal society, as local deities command all, and then moves back to the bottom after the ritual ends. Once the worship is over, the status quo continues."Dr. Purushothama Bilimale
He further said that scholars have said that the total number of such local deities are about a 1,000. Interestingly this number includes more than 20 Muslim deities including Babbarya, Ali, Ummacchi, etc. In a place called Udyavara, Muslim families participate in the worship which is inclusive.
"The fact that both of these (clubbing of Tulu and Muslim practices) are possible in Tulunad, that made this place very special."Dr. Purushothama Bilimale
He further added that Paddana or Sandhis which are folk song forms constitute an important aspect of the Bhootharadhane of coastal Karnataka. "In a way, they represent the voice of the downtrodden and marginalised segments of society as (those worshiped are) also cultural heroes who are raised to the level of supernatural beings."
Bilimale quoted German Scholar Dr Heidrun Bruckner who defined Paddana as follows: "The Paddanas make up a mythological, linguistic and poetic corpus which strengthens the cultural identity of a major section of the non-Brahmin Tulu speaking population."
So, what we infer from the above conversations is that Bhootas are distinct from the Gods of, what the scholars have called, Brahminical Hinduism. Food for thought?