Theyyam of Kerala
Dance of Folk Gods
The most visually exciting of all Kerala's ritual arts, Theyyam is a form of spirit possession practised in villages in the far north of Kerala around Kannur (Cannanore).
The name derives from the Malayalam word for god, deivam. In the kathakali and koodiyattam, actors play the part of god. But in theyyam the performers actually become the god. They acquire magical powers for the duration of the ceremony.
These allow them to perform superhuman acts, such as rolling in hot ashes remaining unaffected to flames. They can dance with a crown that rises to the height of a coconut tree.
When watching the performance the audience believe they can partake of the magical powers. It would help to cure illness, conceive a child or get lucky in the business.
Dance of the Folk Gods
The festival is more about the participation of the local people than the actual performance. It is about the plentiful bright colours, particularly red.
One performance of theyyam called "Theechamundi". In this the performer wears tender coconut leaves. Watching the way he jumps into a huge bonfire is an experience which words cannot express.
This dance of Folk Gods is limited to the northern villages of Malabar. But it considered as the foremost folklore ritual art form in Kerala.
The word 'theyyam' refers to both the performance and the performer. It is said that performer attain supernatural powers during the performance.
The roots of most theyyams can be traced the mythological incarnations of Lord Vishnu and Shiva. This art, unlike other temple performances, is not idol-centric. Here the performer assumes temporary incarnate powers. He is god and master, the manifestation of the divine.
Art forms such as kathakali are indebted to this ritual art form for both aesthetic and rhythmic inspiration. The pure dance steps of kathakali are partly drawn from the footwork of theyyam.
The Performer and the Performance
Traditionally performance is staged in small clearings (kavus) attached to village shrines. The rituals are always performed by members of the lowest castes.
Each theyyam has its own distinctive costume. They are made of elaborate jewellery, body paints, face make-up and above all, gigantic headdresses (mudi) weighing many kilos.
Performances generally have three distinct phases. The first is thottam, where the dancer, wearing a small red headdress, recites a simple devotional song accompanied by the temple musicians.
The second face is vellattam in which he runs through a series of more complicated rituals and slower, elegant poses.
The last stage Mukhathezhuthu is the main event when he appears in full consume in front of the shrine.
From this point until the end the performer is manifest and empowered. The dancing around the arena in graceful rhythmic steps that grows quicker and more energetic as the night progress.
The complicated series of move takes up to a decade of training to acquire. Performances are usually preceded by a period of rigorous fasting.
Four hundred or more different forms of the art exist in the hinterland of Kannur. Most are manifestations of the Mother Goddess (Mahadevi) such as Bhadrakali or Bhagawati. Others are spirit folk heroes and legendry characters from the epics.
With each passing year, younger generations of families move away from home or take up wage labour. So performances are getting rarer and many of the performers who danced a couple of decades ago have died out.
Where and How to See a Performance
Finding a performance can be a hit-and-miss affair that requires time and patience. You need stamina as many of the ceremonies run through the night. The best sources of advice are the owners of local guesthouses. Anyone pushed for time might also consider a trip out to Parassinikadavu, where a form of theyyam is staged daily.
Please note that for local people the rituals are far more than mere theatre. It is an event of great religious intensity and significance. As a tourist, you'll usually be welcome to attend, but behave yourself as you would on any other sacred occasion.
Dress respectfully with legs, shoulders and arms covered. Never smoke or eat in the presence of the deity or around the temple or shrine.
The ceremonies always have one main coordinator; ask him where best to position yourself during the performance. The coordinator will also be able to tell you if it is ok to take photographs
Finally, try to stay until the end. As rituals invariably last till night, this isn't always easy. Leaving a donation will also be much appreciated.
Further south from Kannur, the area between Ernakulam and Kottayam in central Kerala has another kind of ritual theatre form known as Mudiyettu. It is almost like theyyam. Mudiyettu is based on the myth of combats between the goddess Bhadrakali and the demon Darika.
An interesting aspect of the rituals in the they're preceded by the making of large kalam ezhuthu powder paintings. The actors later destroy it dancing over them.
Find a performance
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