Lore enforcers: Meet the artists taking folk icons to a new generation, via NFTs
A children’s writer and an illustrator are bringing Kerala’s folklore icons to life as NFTs, so that new generations can meet the Santa-like patron deity of villages, the traditional jester.
Growing up in Ochira village in Alappuzha, Deepak Sivarajan remembers looking forward to the time of year when villagers made figurines from dried hay, four weeks after the harvest festival of Onam. These figurines, representing characters from myth and folklore, would then feature in night-long dramatic performances, in which tales of their origins and exploits were retold and re-enacted. Each year, the retellings formed another vital link in a long, unbroken chain of oral history going back thousands of years.
Deepak grew up, moved from Ochira to Thiruvananthapuram, built a career in animated content for children. And realised that the folklore he grew up with was entirely absent in the cities. There were no stories or books about these characters, no festivals observed to celebrate them. Most children didn’t even know his favourite characters’ names.
For Deepak, these favourites included the traditional chakyar, a jester-like character who speaks in riddles and tells truth to power, along the lines of Shakespeare’s fool, and Muthappan, the kind and jolly patron deity of north Kerala villages.
It saddened Deepak to see no reflection of this unique folklore in popular culture. “A character like Muthappan is so full of potential. He is our equivalent of Santa Claus. Similar in appearance, he listens to the woes of every village and solves their problems.”
In 2017, a decade into his career, Deepak decided to act. He joined hands with children’s content writer Manu KS to set up a content studio called Pava (Malayalam for Puppet). Their aim: to make lesser-known icons from Kerala’s folklore available to children and adults, in the state, country and beyond.
To get around the issue of production costs and distribution models, Pava has opted to put the legends out there in the form of NFT art works (NFTs are nun-fungible tokens or digital-only assets, typically traded in using cryptocurrency). “With NFTs, our art is protected and it can be accessed from anywhere,” says Deepak, 35.
Seven NFTs — including art works featuring Muthappan in a Santa Claus-like avatar; a traditional chakyar in an ornate but jester-styled headdress; and the Kaurava prince Dushasana from the Mahabharata represented as a fierce Kathakali character — are available on the NFT platforms OpenSea and Foundation, where three works have sold so far, for 0.05 to 0.25 Ethereum (1 Ethereum is currently worth about ₹1.5 lakh).
“We have blended elements of traditional imagery with elements of pop stylisation to communicate better with a young generation,” Deepak says. “Early Buddhism, the revival of Hinduism and Jainism in different phases of history have all contributed to the building of these icons and these stories. In the villages, we live amid this folklore. Yakshis, demons, gods are all parts of everyday life. But few among this generation of children even know about these icons. So we wanted to offer not just unique stories but a unique aesthetic as well.”
What Deepak wants for Kerala’s children today is what he had growing up, he adds.
“The aim is also to do for Kerala folklore what (the 2008 film) Kung Fu Panda did for Chinese culture. That story touches upon the history, the architecture, culture and food of China. Kung Fu Panda’s success made certain elements of Chinese folklore and culture globally familiar and recognisable.”
As part of this effort, Pava is also working on a 12-volume series of comic books aimed at children. The first book in the series, Battle of the Winds (2019; written by Manu, illustrated by Deepak), retraces the tale of the Arab sailor, navigator and cartographer Ahmad ibn Majid and the 15th-century boom in the spice trade on the Malabar coast.
The book was showcased at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2019, where it sparked interest among distributors and readers. “That gave us a lot of confidence,” Deepak says. “Ibn Majid gave us a huge canvas too. Through him, we can tell many stories about the scale of what was happening on the western coast of India, evolving sea trade, and the significance of spices.”
Upcoming comic books in the series will also focus on the plague in Europe, the tradition of pearl-hunting among Arab sailors. Other books in the works include one on how the Western Ghats shaped the culture and politics of south India; and a layman’s guide to the highly progressive 18th-century Travancore empire and how it shaped the Kerala of today.