From Man to God

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His eyes bulged as he stared into the small mirror. His face widened and his lips quivered as if angered by something he saw in his own reflection. The blood-red colours on his face, along with dilated eyes and bulging cheeks made it look like something ominous was about to happen. He put the mirror aside and sprung into action, stepping to the rhythm of drums and encircling the small make-shift shrine in the enclosure. The humble Theyyam artist had now transformed into a fierce man and had slipped into a trance to become the deity of the shrine that he worshiped.

I was witness to this transformation of a Theyyam performer at Trikannad Temple, located in a small village in North Kerala. Theyyam is an ancient practice, in which an artist invokes the temple deity to resolve problems facing the people of the village. In the northern corner of the state where signs of "god's own country" have still not proliferated like in the famed backwaters of Kochi, Theyyam performances happen in the winter months in front of a small gathering of villagers, escaping the eyes of hoards of holidaymakers descending into Kerala.

mantogod2The tradition of Theyyam is said to be thousands of years old, initially in practice by the tribal population of the region. It was normally performed at Bhagavati temples in the villages, commissioned by local landlords and chieftains. Over time the ritual was patronized by Brahmin priests of North Kerala and subsequently gained wider acceptance with all people of the region. To date, performing Theyyam has remained an exclusive right of certain tribal casts and is passed down the generations by inheritance.

Preparation for the day's performance at Trikannad Temple began early in the morning, when the artist and a small group of helpers gathered at an enclosure with a make-shift shrine next to the temple. The artist began with applying colours on his face while others worked on assembling the elaborate costume worn during the performance. The make-up involved painting layers of colouring on the face in shades of red and black, which makes the artist appear frightening. The costumes were made of rough red coloured fabric and a decorative headgear.

Soon after the performer's make-up was ready, the assistants brought the tall red and silver coloured crown adorned with forms of serpents raising their hood. Tying of the headgear was followed by wrapping the artist with various layers of costumes, a task that took more than an hour to complete. A large crowd had gathered by now to witness the final makeover and to watch the performance.

The artist was now escorted to sit on a small stool, where the final additions were made to complete his makeover. The enclosure was now full of people standing around him and watching with reverence. Two young men began beating chenda, a long drum, marking the beginning of the performance and transformation of the artist. A large red disc, decorated with thin coconut leaves projecting out in every direction, was brought in and tied to the back of the artist. The disc, so wide that the artist can barely reach its edges by stretching the hands, looked like a bright red aura with beams of light spreading in every direction.

The beating from the drums now reached a crescendo as one of the helpers applied a dark red powder and marked two large dots to either side of the artist's lips. They gave him a ferocious look, as if he is ready to destroy anything that obstructs his path.  He was now handed a small mirror to look at himself. As he inspected his mirror image, his eyes bulged, lips quivered, the transformation happened and the deity was invoked.

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In the next one hour, the performer made some fast moves, danced to the sound of drums and walked swiftly around the shrine, holding a sickle in his hand. He appeared to be in a trance, unaware of himself and unmindful of his heavy costume, occasionally bowing to the deity and making shrill sounds as he swirled around and moved his head in a slow motion.

A small group of villagers gathered around the artist at the end of the performance, asking him solutions to their problems and requesting to resolve issues in the village. The artist left the enclosure after the conversations and was slowly escorted to the main temple, where he sang praises of the lord.

mantogod4On my way back from the temple, I saw several large banners inviting people to join Theyyam celebrations in their villages. Nearly every other village in this populous region had a Theyyam performance scheduled in the next few weeks. This ancient art appears to have blended well into the local belief system and has continued to survive through the ages.

Information

Theyyam performances can be witnessed in the districts of Kasaragod and Kannur in North Kerala. Kerala Tourism website (www.keralatourism.org) publishes schedules of select Theyyam performances. Sree Muthappan Temple in Parassinikadavu, Kannur, organizes daily performances.

 

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Written by : ARUN BHAT

19-08-10

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