It’s 2 am on a late January night and there is a slight nip in the air at the Koodali Thazhathu Veedu, a Nair household in Kannur, Kerala. Towards the far end of the massive compound, young boys sip kattan kaapi (black coffee) to fight sleep as the older members of the big joint family sit in the front verandah, deep in conversation.
About two dozen people, mostly from nearby areas, mill around the compound, taking photographs, waiting for the clock to strike 5 am.
“Make sure you grab a good place to sit early on. There won’t be even any place to stand,” a local advises me.
True to his word, by 4.30 am, a stream of people – men, women and children – begins to flow in through the gates. The silent compound is suddenly abuzz with laughter and chatter, as the night gives way to light. By 5 am, the first faint beats of the chenda (a percussion instrument) and the sounding of the kuzhal (a wind instrument) signal the arrival of the ‘Agni Kandakarnan’ Theyyam, one of north Kerala’s rare and glorious forms of ritual worship.
— Laurence Mitchell (@eastofelveden) January 28, 2019
With a 30ft-tall headgear decorated with coconut palm leaves and ornaments, and jet black hair flowing to the waist, the Agni Kandakarnan has a striking personality and is ridiculously difficult to perform. The bright red mask, the bulging eyes, the intricate mukhathezhuthu (face painting) give the dancer a devilish-look that’s extremely hard to lock eyes with. But above all, what makes the Theyyam act even more daunting are the 16 torches, attached to the performer’s body that are continuously filled with oil.
As the lights in the area are turned off, the Kandakarnan, standing in the circle of fire, comes alive, launching himself into slow, periodic tapping of the feet with the accompaniment of the chenda, the thimila (another percussion instrument) and the kuzhal. Within a few minutes, the movements start to pick up pace to match the rhythm of the chenda. These movements are ritualistic and are meant to invoke a particular god, with the performer eventually going into a trance and becoming possessed by the God.
The idea, I am told, is to ‘shed the fire’ by dancing and moving the body so powerfully that the fire from the torches gets doused on their own. At definite intervals, the performer shrieks and screams, his coarse, rough voice booming in the night and adding to the spectacle’s strange divinity. By the time the first rays of the morning begin streaking in, the Theyyam has begun its build-up to a crescendo with the artiste moving in a rapid circular fashion; and, in the process, dousing the fire on each of the 16 torches. After the performance concludes, the audience members individually approach the Kandakarnan to get his blessings and tell him their grievances. For this day, he is the medium through whom God speaks to them.
Theyyam – the theatre of the oppressed
October brings to northern Kerala the start of the auspicious Theyyam season when households, sacred groves and temples gear up to host the state’s centuries-old ritual worship. ‘Theyyam’ can be broken down to mean ‘dance of God’, and etymologically speaking, it could come from ‘daivam’, meaning ‘god’ in Malayalam, and ‘attam‘ meaning ‘dance’. Though the exact antecedents of the art form have not been documented, Theyyam encompasses various aspects of tribal and primitive religion, bringing them under a wide canvas of folk practice. Chiefly among the worshipped are the Mother Goddess (Bhagavathi), who has different forms, along with ghosts and spirits. There are nearly 400 forms of Theyyam, though many of them have faded into memory over decades.
But, perhaps, what makes Theyyam central to Kerala’s socio-cultural ethos is its treatment of caste. The performers are from lower castes and communities such as the Malayan, Velan, Vannan and Peruvannan. The chance to perform Theyyam at an upper-caste household, a kshetram (temple) or a kaavu (sacred grove) is seen more as a right than an opportunity for the artistes, who momentarily take on the role of a God/Goddess.
Rajesh Komath, a distinguished Theyyam practitioner who is also an associate professor of social sciences at MG University in Kottayam, describes this unique metamorphosis: “In those days when untouchability was prevalent, they were treated like untouchables. But when they performed Theyyam, they could be touched. People would fall at their feet and seek their blessings. And the moment he takes the costume off, he becomes an untouchable again.”
Otherwise ignored and avoided, during Theyyam season, they’re revered, says Rajesh, over a telephonic conversation. It is this subversion of the caste system, though momentary, that makes Theyyam attractive for the lower castes, he adds. “When we perform Theyyam, we are seen as equal to God. That’s an extraordinary situation because even a Namboodiri (Brahmin) will fall at your feet and cry. They will cry about their problems at home. They might say that it has been two years and they don’t have a child yet. So we bless them. And by God’s grace, if a child is born, then we are in luck. Next year, we will get a ‘nilavilakku’ (traditional lamp),” he laughs.
This transient elevation is addictive. “So even if he burns his hand or his leg or breaks his back, he is still ready to perform Theyyam. That’s the psychological aspect. It’s a form of ritual reversal,” adds Rajesh, who has co-authored an extensive book on Theyyam and its influence in Malabar.
Experts say that the dream of a society without caste barriers is very much entrenched in the folk songs attached to Theyyam. For example, the Pottan Theyyam, revered by the Pulaya community, makes a very pertinent and profound point during a performance: “Ningal murinjalum onnale chora. Njangal murinjalum onnale chora (When you bleed, the blood is the same. When we bleed, the blood is the same).”
In that sense, Theyyam is seen as a cultural warcry against firmly rooted notions of caste hierarchies. In its purest fashion, it continues to raise pertinent questions through the equations between lower and higher castes in Kerala that may have undergone a massive transformation over the years.
Watch Varavili — a documentary on Theyyam, here.
Globalisation helps Theyyam’s re-emergence
“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t even see a flex-board or a photograph of Theyyam. You were forbidden to take photos. But today, the society is celebrating Theyyam. The media’s influence is huge in making it attractive to the masses,” says V Jayarajan, chairman of Folkland Academy, an institution in Kerala that works towards protecting folklore and culture. The dance form was getting lost, as many of India’s traditions have, but there has been a renewed interest of late.
However, this ‘popularity’, visibility to the masses and Theyyam’s ‘export’ outside Kerala in the last decade has not gone down well with a large number of performers and organisations, who think it’s being denigrated when performed and viewed outside the sacred space. In fact, Jayarajan says there’s a strong movement under way against the decision to take the art form out of the kaavu, where it has been traditionally performed. At the same time, following a trajectory taken by Kathakali, the state’s other distinguished art form, has led to a lot of Theyyam artistes making the kind of money they could possibly never earn in the state. “In olden days, the earnings were very less. But today, more shrines are opening up and there’s more work for Theyyam artists. They can firmly state their pay,” says Kunhirama Peruvannan, a leading Theyyam artiste and guru.
Experts say that what possibly spurred the re-emergence of Theyyam even within Kerala is the nostalgia and imagination connected to the art form, especially among nuclear families which have gone apart. “I have felt that there is a sense of ‘kudumba mahima’ (family honour) being built up by big families. They realise they had an active ‘Theyyam kaavu’ before and there is a need to revitalise it. They get together as a big family and they restart the tradition to show the locals that they have a proud history. This has resulted in several defunct ‘kaavu’ being revived again,” says Rajesh Komath.
As Malayalis in massive numbers emigrated, particularly from the Malabar region, to the Gulf countries in search of economic opportunities, Theyyam, in many ways, travelled with them. In a land of deserts and oil rigs, which couldn’t be more disparate from the Kerala ecosystem and is yet regarded as a second home for Malayalis, Theyyam too has firmly planted its feet.
Watch Uriyattam Theyyam documentary, here.
“Man is migrating to different places, but since his concept of worship is Theyyam, he re-plants it there. Theyyam will not die because it is changing with the tunes of the time. It has the potency to change along with time,” says the MG university professor.
But the core remains: “Because here there is no middleman. There are no Vedic rituals. A man becomes a god. You can see god, touch god, talk to god and tell him your problems,” he says.