From Darśan to Tirusti: ‘Evil eye’ and the politics of visibility in contemporary South India

Melanie Dean, University of Pennsylvania


This ethnographic study in South Asia studies documents transformations in contemporary “evil eye” belief and practice in Tamil Nadu, south India. As the first in-depth study of the Tamil conception of tirusti, or “evil eye,” the dissertation makes an important contribution to south Indian ethnography, revealing the important ways that tirusti practices serve to mediate social relations in the post-liberalization urban milieu. The dissertation illustrates the important connections between tirusti (as inauspicious sight) and darśan (as auspicious, “sacred” sight), theorizing them as different modalities of supernatural seeing within Hindu visual culture. Through an analysis of ritual events of tirusti prophylaxis (like āratti ), which occur in “sacred” contexts, the dissertation argues that Hindu ideologies of supernatural sight understand vision as fundamentally transactional—as always involving an exchange between the auspicious and the inauspicious. An in-depth and exhaustive analysis of the ubiquitous tirusti prophylactics deployed in Tamil public spaces reveals underlying beliefs about how sight works to perfomatively act on people and things. Turning to the social functions of tirusti accusations and prophylaxis, the dissertation shows how a politics of visibility—with respect to caste, class, gender and skin color—constrains both an individual’s attempts to protect herself from tirusti , and her attempts to achieve upward mobility through acts of conspicuous consumption. Because the need to protect oneself from “evil eye” is associated with persons of status, acts of prophylaxis can be considered implicit claims to status only “appropriate” for certain categories of persons. The dissertation concludes by showing how this secondary function of tirusti prophylaxis, as a means of status signaling, makes tirusti practices a principal idiom through which status is negotiated in contemporary urban Tamil communities where upward mobility is a real possibility.

Subject Area

Religion|South Asian Studies

Recommended Citation

Dean, Melanie, "From Darśan to Tirusti: ‘Evil eye’ and the politics of visibility in contemporary South India" (2011). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3485603.