R MADHAVAN NAIR
Clouds of red fiery sparks rose into the darkness of the night from a heap of burning logs. .Sound of anklets pierced the chill of the night as the theyyam performer moved around.Dressed in ribbons of tender coconut leaves and his face hidden behind a mask, Pottan Theyyam evoked awe in the onlookers; the crowd braved the chill of the night stood dazed as Ramachandra Panikker dressed as Pottan Theyyam danced in a spells of frenzy and threw himself on burning red hot embers and later walked on fire. More than two tons of tamarind logs and jack wood was burnt to create the small mountain of embers in the open ground near the entrance to the Kozhikode Corporation Stadium.. The occasion was a rare performance of Pottan theyyam in the heart of Kozhikode city during the Malabar Shopping Festival.Theyyam is a colourful ritualistic dance that forms an integral part of the cultural scene in North Kerala. " It is a form of resistance to social evils that re-enacts in ritualistic terms the life of fighters who had laid down their life for a social cause", says Dr EK Govinda Varma Raja, folklorist in Calicut University's Centre for Folklore Studies at Vadakara.Theyyam is also god incarnate to believers. Even though it is the deity of all communities, 'Pulaya' and 'Malaya' have close affinity towards this deity as they consider it is originally their own. It used to be performed before 'Kottam' ( auspicious structure sanctified with a lighted lamp ) or in front of "tharavadu" as an annual performance or as an offering for favours received from God or fulfilment of desire ("nercha" or "vazhipadu" in local parlance ).The myth behind 'Pottan Theyyam' is related to Sree Sankaracharya. While he was going to ascend "Sarwanjha Peedam" (throne of knowldge) 'Siva' intervened, disguised as a Dalit, with the intention to further test his knowledge. Siva came as 'Pulapottan', accompanied by 'Pulachamundi'(Parvathy in disguise) and, 'Pulamaruthan' (his minister Nadikesan).During the performance by using different masks one after another the same performer acts the role of these different deities.Sankaracharya asked them to go away as he he did not want to be polluted by coming near to members of the lower caste.Then 'Pottan', who was Siva in disguise, engaged Sankaracharya in a series of arguments in which the former exposes the hollowness of caste system which divides the humanity into irrational fragments."These arguments are dineated in "thottam" "that are verses pregnant with meanings." "It is blood that flows through our veins (though I am a Pulaya); It is rice harvested from my dirty fields that is served as food for you"-the arguments of Siva in disguise goes.There is another myth that elders in Pulingome', near Payyannur in Kannur about the origin of 'Pottan Theyyam'.According to that story one wise man belonging to 'Pulaya' community entered into argument with Sankaracharya about untouchability and the pollution caused by lower caste. After the departure of Sankaryacharya from the scene his disciples killed him and put in pyre. Later this Pulaya got transformed into 'Pottan Teyyam'. According to another myth he was a "Pulaya" victimised by a few members of the"Thiyya" community.The nearly five-hour long performance of Theyyam begins with 'Thottam Pattu". It is followed by the apperance of the performer as "Pulamaruthan", " Pulapottan" and "Pulachamundi" Theyyams in that order .The most breath-taking part of the performance is "Pulapottan" lying over the burning embers ("meleri", heap of red hot embers ), which is what remains when the logs of tamarind and jackfruit trees.It was an awe-inspiring performance at Stadium ground by the Pottan Theyyam performerThumbakol Ramachandra Panickar. The 44 -year-old theyyam artist residing at Cheruthazham, near Payyannur, than land of the defunct Kolathiri dynasty. He has performed nearly 150 'Pottan Theyyam' in 'Kolathu Nadu'. He is also a stunning performer of "Madayachamundi"', "Rektheswary', "Rekthachamundi"', and "Theechamundi".His younger brother Chandu Panikker performed the other ceremonies that form an integral part of theyyam performance.It was the first Pottan Theyyam performance in Kozhikode and was acknowledged by the more discerning among the local people as the most colourful and captivating event of the Malabar Shopping Festival.The theyyam performance was conducted as a part of valedictory function of International Book Fair organised by Kozhikode Corporation and was coordinated by Centre for Folklore Studies of University of Calicut."Like Books Pottan Theyyam also seeks to drive away darkness of ignorance and social evils... this is the special significance that performance of Pottan Theyyam at the Book Fair has acquired", points out Dr Govinda Varma raja.