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Divine intervention

An ancient art form of Kerala affirms a centuries-old belief — that with adequate preparation, a man can take on superhuman properties

art and culture Updated: May 02, 2009 20:29 IST
Radeesh Raman

An ancient art form of Kerala affirms a centuries-old belief — that with adequate preparation, a man can take on superhuman properties

Theyyam or theyyattam is a popular ritual dance of North Kerala, particularly found in the present-day Kannur and Kasargode districts. “Theyyam” — which is a corrupted form of the word daivam or God — is a centuries-old tradition common to Hindus of all castes and classes in the region. It is a combination of dance and music, performed in honour of the mother goddess. The ritualistic art form, which is only performed by men, is considered a nod to the Neolithic custom of weapon worship. The “kuva” or the shrine of the mother goddess before which the dance is performed, does not have an idol but small swords instead.

A theyyam performance is preceded with a great degree of preparation. The elaborate costumes in black, white and red are crafted out of fresh coconut fronds and dry coconut shells. The hood, headdress, breastplate, bracelets, garlands and facial make-up for each performance are distinct. The facial decorations are rich with symbolism.

Some preliminary rituals precede every performance. First, certain deities are appeased with the tottam, or song ritual. The artist, minimally made up and wearing a simple costume, sings a song about the deity, and his or her relationship with that particular shrine. For the warrior gods, a vellattam or energetic ritual dance incorporating martial arts, is performed.

After this, the performer retires to a temporary structure where he will don the garb of the actual theyyam. The most sacred and powerful element of the costume, the mudi or headdress, is put on once the artist has been seated on a sacred stool in front of the sanctum. After this comes the actual moment of “becoming” the deity, when he stares into a small hand-held mirror. It is believed that at this point, the performer slips into another state of being, when he takes on the features of the divine being. This moment is known as mukhadarshanam, or the seeing of the face. It is believed to be the moment when a mortal becomes a god.

There are 400 kinds of theyyam, which are usually performed in front of village shrines. There are a number of temples in Kannur where you can watch these performances between October and March. Don’t miss an opportunity to watch one of these performances when you make a trip.

Pradeesh is a mumbai-bases freelance photographer