In the Malabar region of Northern Kerala, a 1500-year-old ritual sees human beings metamorphose into gods every year. The ritual is called “Theyyam”, an artistic dance form, where the performers of the Vannan community are deified, who then acquire divine powers to heal and bless devotees.
How did the practice of Theyyam come about?
The root of the word “Theyyam” is probably from Daivam, or God, in Malayalam. At one point, there were around 400 different types of Theyyam performances (Pottan, Kari Chamundi, Gulikan, Vishnumurthy, Nagakanni etc)— today maybe about 40 still remain, concentrated in Northern Kerala. Theyyam evolved from the belief that apart from rituals and sacrifices, man could propitiate god by adopting their godly forms.
Can anyone become a Theyyam artiste?
Theyyam is not a profession or an acquired skill. Only certain Hindu communities (Malayan, Vannan, Velan, Pulayan, Anjuttan, Munnuttan etc.) are allowed to practise it. Theyyam artistes are males and possess a wide range of skills: apart from singing, dancing, and playing the drums, the artistes often also do their own makeup and costumes. Being a Theyyam artiste isn’t just about performing, it’s much more than that. It is based on the belief that a human being can, after intense physical and mental preparation, not only dress up as a god but can even become one.
Where and when do Theyyams take place?
Theyyam, performed between the 10th day of Thulam (mid-October /mid-November) and middle of Idavam (mid-May/mid-June), is mainly confined to the North Malabar districts of Kannur and Kasargod. It is usually performed when the villagers prepare for the next year’s harvest. In that sense, the performance is also a thanksgiving for past harvests and a prayer for future ones, apart from the general well-being of the community.
What do Theyyam artistes wear?
Dressing up for Theyyam, with its intricate makeup and grand attire requires long hours of arduous preparation. The waist dress is crafted from coconut leaves. The painting and make-up of the body differ from one Theyyam to another — but usually all are made from natural dyes. Similarly, headdresses vary from Theyyam to Theyyam. Peacock feather, bamboo splices and wooden planks are a few elements which go into making a headdress. The Theyyam of Kshethrapalan and a few Bhagavathies use crowns which are nearly fifty to sixty feet high, fashioned out of areca nut trees and bamboo splices. These need the support of long bamboos and several men to maintain balance when placed upon the artiste.
What happens during a Theyyam performance?
The performance starts off with the “Thottam” or invocation of the deity. Thottams actually refers to the verses recited by the Theyyam, and usually tell the stories of myths, legends and historical origins of the rituals. The Thottham, which is performed with accompanying instruments, slowly leads the dancer to transform to a deity as he moves to the beats of the chenda, kuzhal, and ilathalam. As the drum beats hit a crescendo, the Theyyam is fully absorbed in the rhythm of the music, losing all sense of consciousness, moving among the spectators as a possessed dancer. During the performance, the Theyyam never loses control — even during the self-tortuous sequence of cutting his forehead with a sword or wearing red-hot iron chains which burn his skin. When the artiste seats himself in front of the sanctum, he is given a headdress, which is the most powerful element of the costume. He then looks into a small hand-held mirror. What he sees is not himself but the face of a divine being. That is when the man becomes a god.
An annual affair, Theyyam is one of the many ritualistic art forms of rural Kerala that has managed to survive centuries. Like most others, it is centred on Mother Nature and her ability to provide. While as a practice it may have changed over time, its purpose remains the same: to make divinity accessible. Even if some Theyyam performers belong to lower castes, it does not prevent upper caste devotees from seeking their blessings.
thottam : invocations usually in the form of verses
chenda : cylindrical percussion instrument
kuzhal : a traditional double reed wind instrument
ilathalam: a metallic musical instrument which resembles a miniature pair of cymbals