When it comes to telling old folklores or mythological stories, people in India often do it the hard way – by enacting dance or drama on stage. There is some kind of liveliness in such performances that not only give life to the original stories but also bring our life to a state of exuberance and enthusiasm. When you watch a set of people doing complicated dance moves or enacting mythical characters – you get a sense of awe and experience a whole new reality.
I think that is the beauty of such mythological stage plays. And North Kerala’s Theyyam, a popular ritual for worship in the north Malabar region (North Kerala), whose origin can be traced back to over 800 years, is no exception. With a series of ritual dance performances incorporating dance, mime and music, Theyyam showcases the ancient tribal cultures, where performers represent a heroic character with divine power – by wearing heavy make-up, huge masks and flamboyant costumes to give a dramatic appearance.
The headgear and other ornamental items – which are mostly prepared with bamboo sticks, coconut leaves and colours, among other things – look spectacular, in their size as well as in their appearance.
Those who perform Theyyam are known as Theyyakaran. During a performance, a Theyyakaran completely merges himself with the rhythm and powerful dance moves – which goes all the way from giving intense expressions to breaking a coconut with his forehead, to some of the craziest dance moves you might have seen in your life.
These performances are conducted with a belief that they would remove the perils and bring fortune and prosperity to our lives. Mostly performed by men – in their vivid and bizarre makeup – there is one Theyyam form, known as Devakkothu, or the Lady Theyyam, which is acted by women. Where I managed to see only a few performances, in reality, there are over 400 different forms of Theyyam, which takes place between December to April every year, making these 5 months ideal for any tourist and photography lover, who is visiting North Kerala.
Other than being one of the most visually impressive forms of art and dance performances in India, it is unique in a way that it is performed by the people of different castes, altogether. Though that’s a different thing that back in olden days when casteism was more rigid, only the people who belonged to the upper rungs of the social ladder were privileged to take part in this festivity. But if you see it today, it doesn’t seem that it ever had any influence of casteism and superiority. In fact, it very much appeared as one of those cultural events where people, as a community, take part.
If you go behind the main stage, to the preparation room, you can see dozens of volunteers, all charged up and toiling with their own duties – as if almost making sure, at their individual level, that the festival gets concluded with nothing but an absolute success.
I saw a man making simple decorations out of banana leaves in the preparation room. Almost 2 hours later, when I stepped back in the preparation room, as one Theyyakaran concluded his performance, to see how it all looked at the backstage, I found the same man, still engaged with his work, as if looking out for some perfection in the banana leaves.
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Outside, another dedicated bunch was busy carrying heavy logs of wood to prepare for a big fire-party, while the kids walk about the area, engaged in their own lively conversations, or almost hypnotized by different Theyyams.
To me, the entire night of different Theyyams looked more than just a bunch of fancy dance performances. It appeared as one of those subtle gatherings that were meant to bring people together, displaying us simple examples, one after another, about how the society, as one, works together.
After all, I realized, this what festivals and cultures are meant for — in their true, absolute sense.
Have you seen Theyyam or any other art form in Kerala? How did you find it?