This past Monday (November 23), I have had an opportunity to participate in the performance titled, “Ricelihood: A Tale of Livingness and Rice Beings in NortherThai Ricelihood,” which is a part of a dissertation project of my colleague and friend, Sirithorn Siriwan. Siriwan is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Asian Studies, Cornell University. Her research is an ethnographic and creative research on rice rituals along with their emotional, aesthetic, and ontological aspects. According to Siriwan, rice rituals used to be an essential part of lives in agricultural areas like Mae Cham, a district of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where she is conducting her research. People and rice beings or entities were sustained through rituals and rites of passage related to rice. However, the industrialization of rice farming and rice fields has damaged both people and rice, leaving behind only residuals in rice fields and rendering rice rituals useless and irrelevant to the ways of rice and living.
Combining anthropology, ritual studies, and theater studies, she produced a ritualized performance titled “Ricelihood” that narrates the past and fading stories of rice rituals and ways of living, interwoven with rice, for the people in the area. Ricelihood refers to livingness or lives and ways of lives of both rice and people who are engaged with rice cultivation, culture, and rituals. She intends to use the performance to regenerate the livingness by telling, retelling, and enacting the residual experiences.
There are countless studies of rice and rice rituals in Thai academia and elsewhere, but her project and performance are innovative and uniquely engaged with human and non-human entities. Before the performance, I and my friend had a spontaneous and long conversation on the motivation and transformative mechanism of the performance. We were thinking about how such a performance can actually change the situation and bring back lives? And how can we explain it in a more concrete manner? The conversation soon turned into a discussion on global philosophy when my friend brought in new materialism, while I was trying to rationalize her explanation and add to the depth of the conversation with Mīmāṃsā ritual theory, which was more familiar to me. I want to share with you here the seedness of our conversation.
First of all, I understand that a ritualized dramatization gives rise to two features of ricelihood. The first one consists of lives and ways of living. On the other hand, “Ricelihood” is the performance, as Siriwan named it. In other words, the performance presents both action and a message for the audience to do something. In this regard, I understand that the performance has the same function as an imperative statement or injunction gives rise to the desire to restore ricelihood. Following a Mīmāṃsā paradigmatic injunction, “The one who desires heaven should sacrifice” (svargakāmo yajeta), in this case, we might think of a statement, saying “The one who desires ricelihood should perform” (something like odanajīvanatvakāmo yajeta ?).
Then, what type of rituals one is enjoined to do with such an injunction?
To give some background, the Mīmāṃsakas divide rituals, especially sacrificial rituals, into three types. The first type is obligatory (nitya) rituals which one has to perform as long as one lives. The one who fails to perform a ritual would accumulate sins and will not obtain the desired results. The second type is occasional (naimittika) sacrifices which are to be performed on a special occasion such as when a son is born. The last one is desired-based (kāmya) sacrifices which one performs according to one’s desire. Some rituals like agnihotra can be categorized as obligatory or desired-based since it is done for the first time due to the desire for heaven and then turns into something obligatory.
I interpret the performance as enjoining an obligatory ritual since ricelihood, as Siriwan’s project claims, has to be continuously sustained, and the failure to do so would entail damages. One could use the agnihotra ritual as a model in this scenario. The performance is indeed intent on a particular desire when it is undertaken first. However, once one desires ricelihood, one has to keep performing rice rituals to generate ricelihood so that it lasts.
Mīmāṃsā ritual theory gives us a way to better understand how the performance “Ricelihood” as a ritual aims at potentially planting the seed in peoples’ minds and revitalizing rice cultures and communities in Thailand, despite the difference in temporal and geographical contexts.
I attached the poster below in case you are interested in knowing more about “Ricelihood.”
McCrea, Lawrence. “Mīmāṃsā.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, edited by Knut Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan. Vol. 3, 643-656. Leiden: Brill, 2011.