The intermeshing of the sacred with satire found in the Kutiyattam ritual immediately struck me as foreign and strange. Is it possible for the cosmic and comic to get too close? Such intentional sacrilege as a working model of humor seems to inherently violate what it seeks to uphold, not spanning the liminal gap that exists between the human and the divine but driving these two entities further apart.
However, I noticed a strong parallel between the intended purpose of the satire in Kutiyattam and a fundamental teaching of my own religion, Catholicism. Turner writes about the ‘leveling’ or communitas that occurs in the socially disparate congregation as a result of the Vidusaka’s artfully aimed jests. The concept of communitas and the Catholic idea that we are one body in Christ seem to rest on the same perfectly leveled foundation. But we have nothing that even comes close to a Vidusaka in Catholicism to bring us to such an understanding. We do not laugh to achieve our unity—not at ourselves and especially not at the aims of the Catholic life! (The clown’s satire on the four aims of Hindu life is said to be one of the highlights of Kutiyattam.) Like so many principles of Catholicism, belief in the collective unity of all is something that is simply accepted. Though our belief in the collective unity of all people may be enforced actively by doing service, it is internalized passively, reinforced by prayer and our own sacred texts, the Gospels. Occasionally a priest will say an amusing homily, but otherwise, chuckling in Church is taboo.
But if I were a South Indian Hindu, I would probably raise my eyebrow at the ritual of eating the tiniest piece of wafer and taking a delicate sip of wine in communion with one another to effect unity. Reading about Kutiyattam and reflecting on my immediate reaction to it has driven home a very important truth for me: religion operates by as diverse means across cultures as humor does. I don’t care how funny and artful someone’s delivery may be—after six straight hours of listening to him speak, it is highly unlikely that I will be capable of deriving comic relief from anything he says. The multiplicity of languages seems like it would get tedious and frustrate me more than it would awaken my sense of wonder and prime me for a humorous response. And given the deeply ingrained sensibilities from my Catholic upbringing, it seems like it would take a lot for me to allow myself to let loose within a sacred space (even when surrounded by an uproarious audience). It is exactly this kind of disparity that makes life interesting and anthropology possible. Examination of cultural rituals confronts us with the selective nature of central aspects of our lives like religion and the things we find funny—both in the ‘ha-ha’ and the ‘strange’ sense of the word.