Music, dance and art are the life and soul of any nation; it brings together communities in a bond that transcends all man-made boundaries. While nations or specific regions within a nation are identified by their cultural heritage; it is very common for people to be drawn to cultural offerings of other nations as well; thus, celebrating the essential oneness of all living entities. This ability to break caste-based hierarchies and supposed religious, geographical, social and economic differences gives music, dance and art possibly the highest place in the pursuit of a truly evolved society or civilization. India is replete with different art forms – visual, literary, performing and culinary and a deep-dive into our own personal experiences of each of these art forms reveals the extent to which they can be unifying in nature. Their core essence is unity, dispelling all semblance of divisiveness.
One such art form is Theyyam, which carries with it several contrasting emotions and historical antecedents along with highly thought-provoking themes. So, what is Theyyam or Theyyattam? Its origin lies in Northern Kerala, which has been witness to some of the most extreme forms of untouchability, caste-based discrimination and slavery in the pre-independence era. Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod districts in Kerala see its vast presence during the Theyyam festivities. The roots of this art form are so deeply entrenched in the caste system prevalent in India that there are designated roles for members of each of the castes in this elaborate art form cum ritual. These role definitions are absolutely rigid and there is no scope for a change across the caste groups. It fell to the lot of the bottom most section of the caste hierarchy, to perform this extremely elaborate and demanding act titled Theyyam.
The highest in the caste hierarchy, it is argued by researchers and those who have witnessed or been subjugated to the atrocities, used their authority to mete out punishments to the lower castes for violation of the order established by this caste-based social structure. The purpose of this blog is to explore the depth of this unique art form, Theyyam and not to further elaborate on the backdrop against which this art form evolved. But a mention of this caste-based distinction is absolutely imperative as the whole art form is deeply rooted in it and the performers touch on those themes which highlight such inhuman practices as slavery, untouchability and other injustices.
Theyyam is a variant of the word ‘Daivam’ which means God in the local language of Kerala. ‘Aattam’ denotes dance and ‘Theyyattam’ literally means Dance of the Gods. In Hindu philosophy this normally has a strong reference to the deity for all dances – Lord Shiva or Nataraja (who is famous for the Tandava). Historians reckon these socio-religious rituals have very ancient origins in the earliest Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlements. Theyyam is as much a ritual, as an art form and therefore it is extremely rare to see it performed outside of certain designated places. Stage performances are uncommon and whenever they have been done, the communities involved in various aspects of Theyyam performances, have not approved of it. The specialized performers (koladharis) appear before ‘devotees’ with facial and body paintings; headgears; masks and vibrant-coloured attires. They appear as a God or Goddess or it is believed that their physical body becomes the medium through which the deity manifests. In this altered state of Godhood, they dance, sing, perform ritualistic acts and engage in dialogue and narration. At the end of such a performance they confer blessings on the devotees, who in turn may ask queries and seek solutions for specific problems in their lives. Rites; rhythmic and systematic dance movements; use of instruments such as drums and cymbals; socially relevant narratives and stories are all essential parts of this art form. The performers, who become Theyyam (God) themselves, need to transcend their normal state and manifest the deity within themselves and therefore, one sees them in a trance-like state which, it is believed, is because they have moved into a higher level of consciousness.
What is inexplicably unique is that, when in this state, people from all strata of the social order, truly believe that God has manifested through the performer, who in his day-to-day life has to perhaps deal with several challenging circumstances pertaining to his social status. People, from all castes, don’t hesitate to touch, seek and receive ‘blessings’ and revere this performer in his altered state of consciousness. People from various religions participate in this all-embracing art form cum ritual. The crux of the whole role-designation process is that, all the ‘performers’ are members of the lower castes (erstwhile untouchables in Kerala) and fall under the Scheduled Caste. They include members of the groups Malayan, Vannan, Velan, Pulayan, Anjutan, Munnutan, Mavilan, Chingathan, Kopalan and Karimpalan. The second group are the ritual specialists at the shrine. The third, consists of the owners of the shrine and finally the group of devotees. While several communities own shrines in Kerala in the Hindu society, the ones belonging to the top must rung in this hierarchy, the Namboothiri brahmins and Nairs, Nambiar, Pothuval, is of relevance. This group historically had authority in all matters religious, including the ownership of shrines.
This whole event surrounding the Theyyam, is referred to as kaliyattam (name derived from the deity ‘kali’ and aattam refers to dance), which is accompanied by elaborate rituals performed at shrines. These shrines are called ‘kavu’ and have the shape of a sacred grove. But there can be a variety of shrines where these performances are seen, depending on the deities who are being worshipped and the ownership of the shrines. Though we see the derivation of kaliyattam associated with a particular deity, the performances themselves could be dedicated to any of the vast pantheon of deities or even heros and martyrs who have lost their lives fighting for some noble cause (thus elevating them to a god-like state). Worship of ancestors, elements of nature (including flora and fauna), deities of particular diseases and village deity (Grama Devatha) is common as well. Kaliyattams could occur yearly at household shrines or community/public shrines (aandu kaliyattam) or at a gap of several years (perum kaliyattam) performed every 10,12,14 or 20 years. The yearly performances normally take place between October/November till May of the following year.
Some examples of Theyyams are: Muchilottu Bhagavathi, the self-sacrifice of a scholarly and educated young lady, due to the overwhelming arrogance of the then prevailing Brahmin community. She is wrongly accused and takes her own life as a consequence. Thottinkara Bhagavathy, in similar vein, is about a lady, belonging to a lower caste, who is murdered for reading religious literature. The objection of the male-dominated high-caste community is based on three factors – the person in question is a female; of lower caste and reading sacred literature.
Potten Theyyam is a similar story, which is highly cited even in Vedanta lectures and discussions, where the highly revered Adi Shankaracharya is accosted by a man of lower social standing, who questions in what way he is different from the ‘learned scholar’. The story goes that, Lord Shiva himself comes in the guise of a man from a lower-caste to teach Adi Shankaracharya that the same divinity exists within all; perceived differences exist due to self-ignorance. Take the case of another Theyyam where the performer jumps into a pile of ember, while his assistants pull him out; an act that is repeated several times. This is Theechamundi, part of Vishnumoorthy Theyyam. Other popular Theyyams include Vaishnava, Manakkott Amaa, Kuttichattan and Chamundi. There are over 400 different varieties of Theyyams with deeply ancient history (commonly placed at above 1000 years but probably even older).
Folk painting comes to the fore in all its glory in Theyyam face art. Elaborate designs, typically in combination of an orange foundation for the face and intricate designs in red are typically seen. Wearing heavy headgears which are several feet high and dancing in fire, walking through fire or performing with lit torches are some of the other features, which makes this a fearsome act for those watching. The sheer weight of the whole ensemble on the performer coupled with the ritual acts, narration, singing and dancing would make one believe, nothing less than supernatural powers would be required to execute this art form cum ritual. How is it made possible can be best answered only by those who perform it. The performers deserve deep appreciation and reverence for the sheer ability to undertake such an arduous task, which incidentally has been handed to them hereditarily.
The performance itself is enacted in front of a shrine in the open air; with devotees gathered around. The first in the series of the rituals is a performance done sans elaborate make-up or costumes, known as Vellatam or Thottam performed only with a small headdress. The deity, in whose honour the performance is being conducted, is alluded to, through a recitation of related legends. Instruments accompany this rendition. The performer then exits the performance arena to prepare for the next act, for which several hours of make-up and donning costumes, is undertaken. Each face painting, clearly represents a different God and is done with meticulous precision by the artists while the performer patiently waits to complete his transformation. The colours are prepared from natural dyes (increasingly synthetic these days) and midribs of coconut leaves are sharpened as tools to produce fine lines on the face. The predominant colours as mentioned earlier are orange and red with black being used in tandem to produce the Ugra (ferocious) form of the deity. Metal craft of Kerala comes to the fore as well with costumes and accessories being made with the aid of bell metal craft and brass craft. The performers are handed a mirror to peer into, as part of their act, before a complete transformation takes them from their erstwhile human state to that of an exalted and perfect ethereal entity. Music, dance, rituals flow freely in the performance that follows. Musical instruments form a core part of this enchanting art form and include the drums, kuzhal, perumbara, conch, chenda, veekni, ilathalam and chermangalam.
A peek into Theyyam, reveals to us how complex the origins and evolution of an art form can be, especially when it is fundamentally tied to the social structure. Even with the passage of several hundred centuries, it retains the original glory but also leaves behind memories and strong remnants of unsavoury practices that were perpetrated on a section of society. Today it probably stands as a silent homage to all those from the so-called lower castes; who may have fought daily battles and endured decades of subjugation. The only hope is that, with Kerala being the most literate state in the country, such discrimination was a thing of the past and Theyyam only remains a celebration of everything divine.
Visit the Circa store at Anjuna, Goa to peruse the Theyyam breastplate or you can purchase it online here.
1. R. Mathew and D. Pandya, Carnivalesque, Liminality and Social Drama: Characterizing the Anti-Structural
Pottential of Theyyam, 2021
2. S. Ahammed, Caste-based Oppression, Trauma and Collective Victimhood in Erstwhile South India: The
Collective Therapeutic Potential of Theyyam, 2019
3. A. Gopi, Gods and the Oppressed: A Study on Theyyam Performers of North Malabar, 2021
4. Damodaran (2008) cited in S. Ahammed, Caste-based Oppression, Trauma and Collective Victimhood in
Erstwhile South India: The Collective Therapeutic Potential of Theyyam, 2019
5. A. Gopi, Gods and the Oppressed: A Study on Theyyam Performers of North Malabar, 2021
8. A. Gopi, Gods and the Oppressed: A Study on Theyyam Performers of North Malabar, 2021
10. R. Mathew and D. Pandya, Carnivalesque, Liminality and Social Drama: Characterizing the Anti-Structural
Pottential of Theyyam, 2021