Dancers adorning Theyyam costume, Photo Credit Saibal Das
Dancers adorning Theyyam costume, Photo Credit Saibal Das

International Dance Day When Painted Gods Dance

The stretch of northern Kerala from Kasargod to Vadagara is the 'Theyyam belt'

The celebration of International Dance Day reminds us that dance plays an integral part in our lives. From trained dancers to amateurs, dancing has always been an act of expression for all. However, what makes April 29 unique is the commemoration of different dance forms worldwide. Among a range of categories, India also stands out for its colourful folk dances, and one such folk dance is Theyyam. The temple town of Kannur in Kerala is famous for Theyyams &mdash a mix of ancient rituals and performing arts. The stretch of northern Kerala from Kasargod to Vadagara is the 'Theyyam belt.'

Around Kannur town, in particular, are to be found numerous temples famous for their Theyyams. The word &lsquoTheyyam&rsquo is used to mean the art form as well as the deity&mdashyou can watch Theyyam, and you can also describe the characteristic features of a particular Theyyam. In Theyyam, there is no demarcation between ritual and art, making it a somewhat confounding experience for people accustomed to performance-audience relationships in modern theatre. The rituals must be performed irrespective of whether or not there is a captive audience. At the same time, their theatricality makes Theyyams riveting to watch for anyone with a rudimentary interest in performance arts, even someone unaware of the significance of the rituals. The makeshift greenrooms where the performers prepare for the Theyyam are not hidden from public view, and anybody can stop and stare at the face and body painting in progress. Further, there is no fixed space where the Theyyam is performed. A Theyyam will proceed from one place to another, with the performer often barging through the audience in the process. At every Theyyam I saw, I ran between the shrine, the courtyard and the pond, not wanting to miss a single moment.

The first afternoon, I found myself at the Kali temple in Matamangalam, outside Kannur, pleading with the authorities in broken Malayalam to let Saibal take pictures of the Theyyam. No luck. Earlier that day, they had turned away a TV crew, they said, and it wouldn&rsquot be right to let us shoot.

The next morning we headed to the Palotukavu in Keecheri, where temple officials had assured us that photography would not be a problem. The sun hadn&rsquot risen yet, but preparations for the day&rsquos Theyyam had begun. In a tube-lit room by the side of the temple, a man lay on the floor, and his head cradled in a young boy&rsquos lap. The older man lay perfectly still as the boy bent over him, painting his face with a coconut leaf stalk. Using natural dyes like turmeric and quicklime in a base of coconut oil, he painstakingly created the intricate face makeup of the Palotudaivam, a depiction of the Matsyavatara of Vishnu. Next to him lay another performer who was being prepared for the accompanying deity, Angateyyam.

Theyyams are performed by members of lower castes like Malayans, Vannans and Velans who, for the duration of the Theyyam, embody the spirits of local gods and are treated with utmost reverence. The devotees have a vibrant relationship with the deities, who walk amongst them, blessing them and dispensing advice. The upsetting of the conventional caste hierarchy during Theyyams can create complicated political relationships between the performers and the temple authorities. I eavesdropped on a priest, bitterly complaining that the previous day the deity had grown tired during the Theyyam and that it had been quite unbecoming of a god.

The deity sat quivering on a stool as several helpers put his exquisite costume together, tying on tassels, bangles and armbands. The helpers then tied on the deity&rsquos headgear and handed the performer a small mirror in which he quickly glanced at his own extravagantly painted face. Looking at his reflection in a mirror is a crucial part of the performer&rsquos transformation into the deity, a sort of confrontation with his own divinity. Accompanied by drummers, the two deities then walked in a slow procession around the shrine. It was the last Theyyam of the year at Keecheri, and people crowded around the temple to catch a glimpse. The procession completed, the Palotudaivam climbed onto a pedestal, towering over the musicians and the devotees as the drums rose to a crescendo.

At Keecheri, I met Ajayakumar, schoolteacher and joint secretary of the Folklore Fellows of Malabar, a trust dedicated to preserving folk art forms. He invited us to the nightlong Theyyam that was being held at his family home in Kannadiparamba, and I accepted delightedly. I had only seen Theyyams in large temples, and I was curious about the ones held at family shrines. I learned from Ajayakumar that Theyyams at smaller shrines are often more faithful to ancient folk traditions, not having been subjected to Brahminical influences in the years following the Emergency.

That night our taxi wound its way through dark and narrow lanes to Kannadiparamba. As soon as we reached, I realised that this was going to be a very different kind of affair from the Keecheri Theyyam. The deafening clatter of drums filled the air. Aside from a few stray bulbs, the only sources of light were blazing torches that lent a powerful, almost feudal atmosphere to the proceedings. Hour after hour into the night, the tireless Chenda players took turns in keeping up the spectacular din. Instead of resting when they were substituted, they washed their faces and came back to watch each other&rsquos percussive flourishes. Meanwhile, the Theyyam performers brought to life one fantastical deity after another, each with its unique set of rituals and complicated patterns of footwork.

Uchita is a bitingly satirical depiction of Devaki&rsquos eighth child, a female deity portrayed by male artistes. The performer ran about berating spectators in a tinny falsetto, inviting them to suckle at his breast. He was particularly rude to an elderly matriarch of the family, who bore the affront with good-hearted humour. The performer ran through the courtyard, scattering children, and climbed down the steps to the temple pond. There he enacted a bathing ritual, midway through which he turned up to the crowd, put his index finger to his nose and let out an ear-splitting howl, &ldquoEeeeeeee-heeeeeeee&rdquo as if chastising them for watching him bathe. This elaborate and grotesque comedy didn&rsquot end there. Uchita was bent on sitting on red hot coals. His helpers pulled him away, and he seemed to concede. But he immediately shook free of them and, like a child throwing a bizarre tantrum, plonked himself squarely on the coals, showing no sign of consternation as smoke began to rise from under him. His helpers desperately dragged him off, only to have him repeat the exercise again, apparently enjoying the act of placing himself in mortal danger. To the local people, this was an annual ritual they were accustomed to, and they sat around the courtyard eating and gossiping.

Just before dawn came the time to invoke Puthiya Bhagavati, a Shaivite Theyyam revered for ridding the earth of smallpox. It was a scene of frightening beauty. The performer wore a radial headdress, the outer periphery of which was ringed with 21 burning wicks. At his waist were two larger wicks, and flames licked his arms as he danced. A small army of men darted around the whirling deity, squeezing water from wet pieces of cloth onto his arms, which were directly in the fire. A member of the family came forward, holding a chicken in his hands. To frenzied drumming, the deity grasped the bird&rsquos neck and pulled off its head. More chickens were sacrificed, one after another. The flaming deity danced to the hypnotic beat of the Chenda. Headless chickens fluttered at his feet, bleeding. Men ran about, trying to control the burning wicks, trying to make sure that the performer didn&rsquot come to harm. I pressed through the crowd to watch but drew back when the performer came close to me, terrified by the spectacle and unable to bear the searing heat of the flames.

Luckily, the pyrotechnics were causing my city-bred nerves to fray, and the next Theyyam did not involve fire. Gulikan was created by Shiva to be the god of death during the period of Yama&rsquos absence. His headdress is about 30 feet tall, made of coconut leaves knitted together. With this, he dances, walks on stilts and sometimes performs somersaults. I didn&rsquot see him do somersaults, but as he bent backwards till the colossal headdress touched the ground, I wondered how his vertebrae were staying in place. The sights and sounds of Kannadiparamba still haunt me, sometimes in strange ways. In the middle of arguments, I find myself wondering whether I won&rsquot make my point more emphatically by putting my index finger to my nose and screaming an unearthly &ldquoEeeeeeee-heeeeeeee&rdquo

The information

Getting there

By air&nbspKannur (Cannanore) is 115km/3hrs from Kozhikode (Calicut), the nearest airport, which is about 25km from Kozhikode city. Indian Airlines operate flights to Kozhikode from Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. Fares are regular one-way economy classes.

By rail&nbspKannur station lies on the Mangalore-Shoranur line and can be reached from Delhi and Mumbai on the Konkan Railway.

By road&nbspKannur is 155km from Mangalore, 185km from Mysore and 324km from Bangalore. Private buses ply from as far away as Mumbai (1,215km).

Where to stay&nbspRoyal Omars (0497-2769091), Malabar Residency (2765456), and Mascot Beach Resort (2708445) are among the higher-end hotels in Kannur. Hotel Savoy (2760074) is more affordable.

Where to eat&nbspSagar, Taj and MVK on PK Road offer competent biryanis, parottas, mutton, chicken and beef fries and curries. Off PK Road and also near the KSRTC bus stand, you can find roadside vendors who sell fried mussels, squid, fish and liver dishes.

Theyyam&nbspThe season extends from October to May. Between December and April, you could catch a Theyyam every day. To plan your visit, get a copy of the Theyyam Guide at the Kannur Dist. Tourism Promotion Council (0497-2706336), which lists Theyyams and venues. The Kerala Folklore Academy (2778090) and the Calicut University Folklore Centre (0496-2526971) will also have schedule information.

Some major Theyyams&nbspKottiyoor Nanmadam temple at Pariyaram Panchayat, Vadakkathi Bhagavathi temple Theyyam at Ezhome panchayat, Kunnathoorpadi Muthappan Devasthanam at Sreekandapuram, Ivar Paradevatha temple Theyyam at Thaliparama, and the Naniyil Puthiya Bhagavathi temple Theyyam at Kannapuram.

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