God’s Own Country, Kerala has always been a muse for me, for many reasons. Beyond blue waters, sprawling coconut groves and calm backwaters, there’s so much more to life in this mystic land that inspires an artist.
A visit to a friend’s ancestral house at Thaiparamba, Kannur for ‘Theyyam’, the art of Dancing Gods opened new doors to the imagination for me.
Anyone who knows about this performance arts would have heard it’s the Gods themselves coming down to earth. And anyone who has witnessed it first-hand would believe it to be true. Such is the sanctity that goes into the preparations and the performance. And no performance is more surreal than Theyyam.
Theyyam flourishes in small temples and Kaavus. They are performed in and around shrines without a stage. The Kaavu, located in shady groves, rich with local plants and herbs, where the Goddesses and the Nagas (serpent Gods) are worshipped. This kavu was a bit different with brick wall and a grid of oil lamps adorned the outside walls of the kshetram. The mood was festive. It is a three-day affair that transforms the place into a fair of sorts.
A grid of oil lamps adorned the outside walls of the Kshetram.
The right to perform is restricted to 3 main communities, The Malayans, Vannan, and Velan. The beauty of this performance is the coming together of the classicism of the upper caste and the lower caste. Theyyam is a beautiful act of preserving an age-old ritual and keeping the souls of ancestors and gods happy.
This performance that I witnessed is called ‘Rakta Chamundi’ that represents the ferocious one. The slayer of Mahishasura, Chamundi is supposed to have drank the blood of the demon to protect it from spilling and thereby allowing him many more lives.
The theyyam ritual begins with the singing of the ‘Thottams’ that are verses that narrate the myths, legends, significance and the origin of Theyyam. Supported by the high pitch music, the rhythmic beats of the percussion, the dance, the bright colors, exaggerated forms, the warmth of the embers burning in the pit and the fragrance of coconut oil lamps.
Rhythmic beats of the percussion.
The Theyyam follows no prescribed movements or steps like other classical dance forms in Kerala. They just follow the slow and quick rhythmic movement simultaneously accompanied by the aesthetic beat of the music. The performer is followed by Malayan women carrying a cluster of fronds in both hands. One would be lit and the other would come in handy to replace the one that burned out. This torch creates a magical and divine aura all together making Theyyam an other-worldly experience.
The performer’s elaborate costumes made with bamboo, areca palm, and layered with cloth or palm fronds cut with precision and arranged beautifully. The silver and brass coated crescent shaped decorative accessories create an enhancing effect to the persona of the deity. The performer draws strength to support the massive headgear from the thick padding of meters of starched cloth wrapped around his body.
Costume making in progress.
The face painting and dress varies according to the deity represented. The colors and the brushes are drawn directly from nature. Turmeric yellow, red of Vermillion, white from rice paste and lamp black completes the Theyyam palette. The vibrant red against the black canvas of the night creates a stark contrast and aura which is surreal.
The ornaments are mostly made of brass silver or gold. The ‘Thalapali’ ornament worn on the forehead of the performer has 21 dangling bells that represent the 21 gurus or teachers who have contributed to the evolution of the form. After some ritual the performer will touch the Thalapali with both hands and place them on his forehead, he is actually taking blessings from all those 21 Gurus.
Putting the thalapali in place requires expertise.
Pleated costumes which are worn in layers creating an exaggerated persona.
Wearing the Chilambu (anklet)
Headgear being put in place. The central wooden structure is set on a cloth lined bamboo framework.
Once ready the look in the mirror completes the transition of the godly , a moment when the ritual performer transcends the human into a deity. The Theyyam now acquires a god like status and qualities and a voice that cannot be ignored.
The look in the mirror completes the transition of the godly.
The heightened pitch and the awesome sight of the theyyam creates an aura of the divine, otherworldly experience.
It’s this magical surrealism that I have tried to capture in my Theyyam collection. The masks, the body painting, the headgears… the Gods come alive in every detail. Having conversed with the members of the communities that are privileged to perform Theyyam, I wanted to evoke the same sense of devotion that they have for their art, through mine.
There said to be almost 100 forms of Theyyam, so it’s difficult to capture an art of such magnificence and magnitude in all its glory. But through my art which is a riot of colors, along with patterns of folk art, and traditional design forms I’ve tried to do justice to the unassuming charm of Theyyam.
Each piece of handpainted Jewelry is painstakingly created with absolute perseverance over two to three days. Given that the Theyyam performers take three days for preparations, it’s only fair that its jewellery adaptations take the same amount of time in the making.
An attempt to capture the magnificence and magnitude in all its glory.
Hand-painted and handcrafted jewelry by artists on layered wood, embellished with gold finish brass and Swarovski crystals, strung together by tulsi beads by the traditional community of Patwas, shop this unique handcrafted unisex jewelry collection online: Theyyam Broches & Buttons, Theyyam Necklaces, Theyyam Earrings Theyyam Rings, Theyyam Bangles.