Arts - Culture - Heritage


Theyyam: Dance of Deities

Theyyam is a temple art that expresses the past glory of northern Kerala culture, performed all over the world by the artists belonging to the tribes of Kannur, Kozhikode and Kazargode districts of Kerala. Theyyam in Malayalam means god or deity. Worship of immortal and super natural spirits, invoking them through the mortal human body of the Theyyam dancer is the myth of this dance art. Theyyams are considered as offerings to god to beget the individual and social desires and is believed that the blessings of the Theyyams remove their sorrows, eliminate the evil and win the good over the bad. 

The make up and costume of Theyyam using natural material like coconut’s tender palm, black and red paints or natural painting of the animal skins like that of tiger, monkey etc. assume a grotesque and archetypal image to display the secular thought of the theme and deity he offers. Different types of ornaments made of metal and flower are worn on hands, legs and neck. Arms like sword, bow and arrow, shield knife, tri-pointed arrow (Thrisul) etc. form part of its costumes. Gods of warriors and Goddesses respected as heroines are dressed in elaborately ornate costumes, large head dresses or head gears (sometimes of 5ft. diameter), false golden eyes etc. 

Neither any training nor a rehearsal before performance is given to the dancer. This ritual art has been practiced by primitive men for 2000 years. ‘Theyyams’ as the impersonated dancers are called, belong to certain communities like vannan, velan, malalayan, kuravan etc. They learn it by natural observation. Hence the social status of the theyyam never went down during the transformation of culture and social renewal, though it is not a professional art. Certain theyyams are not permitted to be performed outside the community and place of its origin and that is the testimony of its relationship with the original Dravidian culture of Kerala. It is mainly the ritual dance of the tribes and nomadic groups. If the goddesses impersonated as theyyams to appease for relief from natural calamities and epidemics are Kali, Chamundi, Bhagavathi etc., the gods appeased for power, vigor and victory are Bali, Bhairavan, Gulikan, Vishnumurthy and Pottan. The animal spirits like Hanuman (monkey) and Puli (tiger) are impersonated for courage to face the evil and win the right over the wrong. Theyyams are usually performed in the Kavus, shrines of muchilod, palliyara, mundya, tanam and madhapura. 

The Theyyam dancer passes through three stages during his metaphysical experience of the performance. The first stage is impersonation by negation of his own self and affirmation of the spirit he possess. During this period of austerity the dancer concentrates on his favorite deity with extreme devotion as followed by priests as a pre-requisite for any ritual performance. The second stage is “mukhadarshana” – seeing the face that is looking in a mirror after fixing the head gear by which the dancer reveals the identity of the deity he possesses. The last stage of the act is with full accompaniment of songs, drums, horns etc. At this stage the demeanor in the dancer not only adjusts to the rhythm but also his utterances are attuned to a totally non-realistic mood beyond his conscious level. Dating back to centuries the theyyam deities are said to have their origin in the Dravidian culture, but transformation has taken place in indigenous culture as impersonated theyyam. Some of the theyyams usually performed are Muchilotu Bhagavathi, Kathivannoor Veeran, Kurathi and Puli. 

Muchilotu Bhagavathi Theyyam: She is an auspicious and protective goddess. The theme expressed is, her journey from Mount Kailas to the left region of the earth. On her way she reaches the garden of King Padyanar at Muchilot. After a bath she changes her warrior type attire and sanctified the place before disappearance. 

Kathivannoor Veeran Theyyam: This is the story of a warrior hero who was killed and cut into 64 pieces by his enemies. The theyyam enters backwards on the stage indicating his arrival in the netherworld. He searches his wife Chammarati who desperately try to identify his body. This theyyam depicts the life of Kathivannur Veeran, his love for his wife, his desire to help his co-existents in combat, his death during the war and his last wish to protect his body from animals and show himself to his wife. The story ends with the dance celebration of his reunion with his wife after her death. Like this goes the stories of theyyams whereas Puli ( tiger) depicts the story of heroism and Kurathi (wife of Kurava- the male of a downtrodden caste) gives a narration of the social aspect of the struggle and disgust of the exploited towards the evils of richer and higher class in the society. 

Theyyam songs are full throated singing of Thottam (revelation) songs and the inaudible chanting of the mantras using the inner energy that gushes out of the possessed theyyam dancer. The folk singer vents out a loud voice, accompanying the dance with his dance steps using simple, straight and effective language to provoke the thoughts of audience. The images reflect his own surroundings charged with an organic strength. Most of these songs which are not recorded maintain their oral tradition, unique characteristic and literature of birth. It conveys the subtle emotions of the character impersonated, remaining well above literary denominations and creates the proper atmosphere with its archaic usages, nuances and rhythmic patterns. 

In spite of its custodianship with the people known little to the world, Theyyam is a ritual art performed world wide due to its fancy and fantasy. This art of Kerala receive a lot of support and encouragement from international community which is vital for the protection of its tradition. ••

Curtsey : Kerala Traveller.



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