Just my imagination?: puzzling through a Duryodhana festival near Dharmapuri, Tamilnadu
What is the role of imagination in fieldwork? What are its limits? When do we bracket it? There are plenty of times where the fieldwork situation is a cooperative and artful venture among researchers and the people who are being studied. But what about the times when the researchers and those being studied both want, for perhaps different reasons, to leave things unspoken? These questions are all compounded in a situation where the fieldwork is about a festival whose rituals refer to a story everybody knows, but knows in different ways. This chapter is about such a situation. The “principal investigator,” namely me, knows the “great epic of India,” the Mahābhārata, both as a classical Sanskrit text and as a story ritualized. I have seen it reenacted in festival dramas in a genre called terukkūttu (“street drama”), and narrated by storytellers at Tamil festivals for Draupadī, the epic’s chief heroine, whose temples and festivals celebrate her as a goddess. My two fieldwork companions and Tamil interpreters, whom you will meet, also know these “versions” of the Mahābhārata, both from their own background and from reading on the subject. What kind of imaginings come into play when this trio seeks to learn about a festival not for Draupadī but for Duryodhana, the villain of “the same” Mahābhārata story? More puzzling, who would imagine telling the Mahābhārata around Duryodhana as Cāmi, [a] God? Incidentally, a nominal familiarity with the story of the Mahābhārata is useful when reading this chapter. As has already surfaced in its title, this essay has a refrain from a song by The Temptations. While doing this stint of fieldwork, the tune and words-Is this “just my imagination, running away with me?”— ran repeatedly through my head.