Authors Bhawani Cheerath-Rajagopalan and Rajesh Komath talk about Theyyam The Other Gods, a coffee table book produced by Stark World

Rajesh Komath transforms into a living god from October to January. The rest of the year he works as an associate professor of social sciences at M.G. University in Kottayam and a doctoral student of the Centre of Development Studies in the city.

In Theyyam The Other Gods, a coffee table publication of Stark World Publication, Rajesh talks about his dual existence and shares with readers his insights as a practitioner of a ritualistic art form that continues to mesmerise spectators with its rich pageantry and heady brew of colours, custom, music and magic.

Authored by media-person Bhawani Cheerath-Rajagopalan and Rajesh, the book is a feast for the eyes with its rich pictures that document some of the Theyyams, the practice, belief and so on.

“Six years ago, Stark contacted me for a book on Theyyam. I agreed because this was something I had always wanted to do. Although I hail from Kannur, I grew up in Kolkata and Delhi. The first time I saw a Theyyam was in 1989 in my husband’s tharavad (ancestral home), Koodali Thazhattu Veettil, in Kannur. Since then, I have been fascinated by the art form, the life of its practitioners, its ability in uniting the gentry and the subaltern, and its place in the community. So I agreed to work on the book but I told them I would need time to talk to people who were connected with Theyyam in different ways. Dr. K.K.N. Kurup, C.M.S. Chandera, and Dr. M.V. Vishnu Nambutiri are the persons whose articles and books I read and re-read to get clarity about the worship-ritual art form,” says Bhawani. She explains that many of the feudal families of the region had stopped the practice of conducting a Theyyam as employment had relocated many of the family members to different places in India. As a result, even elders in many families that used to conduct the Theyyam had only fading childhood memories of the ritual. In 1986-87, the practice of conducting a Theyyam was revived at Koodali after many decades. “The entire region came alive as the Theyyam involves the participation of several people, cutting across caste and economic barriers. A huge kitchen begins functioning in the house and copious amounts of food was cooked and served,” says Bhawani.

By the late eighties and nineties Onam pageants conducted by the government introduced Theyyam to places outside Malabar. At the same time, in families in Malabar, there was a revival in conducting the Theyyam due to various reasons. Despite the resurgence in Theyyams, Bhawani was unable get anything substantial about the origins of the practice or its performance in a modern context. That is when she happened to see Rajesh’s performance at Vyllopilly Samskriti Bhavan in the city and got in touch with him for an intimate and analytical approach towards the Theyyam.

“Bhawani echi contacted me for a book on the subject of Theyyams, an art form that blends religious beliefs, art, dance and music. She wanted more information and that is how I got involved in the project,” explains Rajesh.

With more than 400 Theyyams in the region, each with its own unique features and regional specifics, the writers had their work cut out in trying to decide what to include and what to edit. Three photographers and several freelancers helped them capture the magic of the ritual and the transformation of men into gods.

“In many places in Kannur, it is a year-long activity for certain communities. In a way, this practice knitted together various socio-economic and political identities of the region. There are artisans who make the decorations for the Theyyam, the costumes, ornaments and the wooden head gear. All these need to be documented before it fades out. The chants that are sung prior to and during a performance is also worth documenting,” says Rajesh, chanting a few lines from one of his performances as Vishnumoorthy. The chant speaks of local customs, people, of the everyday life of the people and their beliefs.

Unlike many coffee table books that attempt to cover up the lack of research and content with the use of photographs, this book has an interesting mix of both and tempts the reader to find out more about this ritual art form of Malabar.

Publisher’s note

P.N. Shanawas, director of the Bangalore-based Stark World, hails from Kozhikode. He says his fascination for the art form motivated him to learn more about its history and practice. For years, he had been snapping pictures of the Theyyams. That is when he discovered the paucity of books in English on Theyyam. “The only one I could lay my hands on was written by Pepita Seth. That is when we decided to commission a book on the subject. It was impossible for the photographers to cover the entire region in a year because some of the Theyyams are performed only once in six years and so on. So, we had to cover the same region more than once. Moreover, at the same time, there would be Theyyams at different places, each peculiar to that region and community. It was a very difficult task for the writers to sift through myth, fact, folk lore and history,” explains Shahnawaz.

He adds that he was particular that the book should meet global standards as he was keen on launching it in the international market. “ Although it was an expensive affair, thanks to the support of the Kerala State Development Corporation, we were able to achieve excellence in production,” he adds.