Friday Review

Defining moment

Akash with his face painted. Photo: Pepita Seth

Akash with his face painted. Photo: Pepita Seth  

Akash is 12 years old and as exuberant as all boys of his age. The only difference is that he belongs to the Malayan community which holds the right to perform Theyyam. His entire family, and vast extended family, are all theyyakkarans and from birth, he has been prepared for a similar life.

A prime requirement is being proficient at playing the chenda, the drum used for most rituals in Kerala. Until recently, Akash was neither tall nor strong enough to bear the 10 kg weight of a chenda on his shoulder, yet he played with it externally supported. Almost by instinct, he knew what was required for every stage of a Theyyam and by the time he was 10, he was not only playing without the support but without the reservation that ‘he plays well - for a child.’

At the same time, his childhood play was invariably part of training, a process intended to give the physical strength and expertise required to perform Theyyam. Such passive training is common in many traditional art forms, the child being watched by elders who correct a move or a stance, often without any undue force, allowing confidence and skill to develop in tandem.

Akash’s gurus are his father, Prakashan, and two younger uncles, Praveen and Preejith. The defining moment for this young lad began at the Puthiya-dathukavu shrine in Taliparamba, in Kerala's Kannur district, when he began the process that would culminate in him performing or, more correctly, ‘carrying’ his first Theyyam. The deity was Vishnumurthy, whose story blends Narasimha’s killing of the demon Hiranyakisapu with the local tale of a boy murdered for stealing a mango. This takes two days and is divided into two preliminary thottams (songs related to a concerned Theyyam) that recount Vishnumurthy's story before being followed by the ‘full’ form, the Theyyam.

What was profoundly moving was the gathering of Akash’s extended family as they swarmed the shrine. Akash was his usual self, any doubt or fear well hidden, as a team of major performers gathered round to prepare him for the first thottam. For this, there is little make-up, and the costume, scaled down to fit his small frame, was simple when compared with his full Theyyam costume.

The atmosphere was electric when Akash came before the shrine and bowed. Several faces had barely concealed tears. The process had begun, the shifting to another level of consciousness as this young child began the task of ‘being’ the deity. In so doing, he fulfilled the hopes, and answered the prayers, of all those present, seamlessly and with confidence moving through the complex rituals. Finally, the thottam ended with him being carried back to the make-up area, traditional even for mature performers, but here with an added and more poignant element.

While relatives and well-wishers surrounded him, his extraordinary inner calm precluded any overt display beyond his usual wide grin and open happiness at being congratulated. He still had another thottam and the Theyyam to complete.

By midnight, the second hour-long thottam had begun that demanded considerable skills to negotiate its complexities. Yet Akash never faltered. If anything, his confidence was more apparent, for he began displaying a level of assurance, and therefore power as he moved through the ritual. Finally the time came for him to be carried off and snatch a few hours of sleep.

By 6 a.m. the following day, a forest of hands began tying a range of accessories on his head and body, replacing his features with those of a divine being. Vishnumurthy’s Theyyam costume almost enveloped Akash, the upper section forcing him to hold his arms uncomfortably, and unnaturally high, while the tightly tied tender coconut leaf strands around his waist restricted him during vigorous movements. The deity has to perform with a variety of weapons -- swords, bows, spears and fighting-sticks -- all designed for grown men.

For a time, a heavy mask is worn. Yet there were no allowances for a small boy of dwindling stamina, who never stumbled or hesitated. By the time, Vishnumurthy’s theyyakkaran had accepted the offered feast, everyone knew they had witnessed a remarkable Theyyam.

All that remained was for relatives to ‘please and honour’ him by bringing fruits, sweets and savouries. He smiled but, while undoubtedly happy, never lost his inherent composure. Only later, as his uncle performed a Theyyam was Akash seen beaming, playing the chenda.

(Pepita Seth is a British-born writer and photographer who has authored several books on temple rituals in Kerala.)

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Printable version | Sep 16, 2020 11:12:43 PM |

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