Theatre

Flames of devotion

Kolathunaadu, consisting of Kannur and Kasargod districts, is the heartland of theyyams. Incidentally theyyam is a corrupt version of the word ‘god' and during the performance the actor is believed to be not a representative of god, but god himself.

Among the innumerable ones that are paradigms of ritual worship ‘Ottakkolam theechamundi' is especially noteworthy for the breathtaking feats of the character in fire (thee). A solo (ottakkolam) performance, it is presented only once in 10 or 30 years.

‘Meleri,' a documentary on this singular form of theyyam produced by Insight Digital Media, Thrikkarippur, was recently screened in Thrissur. The word Meleri is excerpted from the terminology of theyyam and it means the pyre into which the theyyam jumps repeatedly, which is perhaps the highlight of the show.

Educative venture

The 75-minute production appeared to be a comprehensive documentation of the art form. An educative film, it has delved deep into the mythical, historical, social, cultural and artistic backdrop of the theyyam.

The narration by the very performer in the documentary, Sajith Panicker, gives it an authentic touch. A veteran in this field, Sajith has 27 years of experience and has donned this theyyam more than 10 times. An added attraction in this connection therefore is that the film is also a genuine documentation of the dialect of North Malabar.

A well-planned work, it starts with shots of the scenic beauty of the land of this theyyam and its agricultural prosperity. The strains of ‘polika' were a fitting background for these visuals.

Lucid was the narration by Sajith that explained the events in the right sequence. The varied and complex rituals such as ‘Atayalam kodukkal,' with which the preparation for the show began, followed by ‘thedangal,' ‘thottam,' ‘meleri kayyekkal' and so on have been elaborated, both orally and visually. The description of the esoteric costumes of the thottam and the theyyam was impressive as Sajith explained the aesthetic and physical functions of each.

Among them ‘kambi,' a mini floral garland that covered the ears, seemed scientific as it prevented heat from entering the body. Perhaps the most artistic component was the ‘thalamallika' that adorned the flamboyant headgear.

A fan-like piece made of more than 300 strands of tender leaves of coconut, it showcased inimitable indigenous craftsmanship. Worth mentioning is the ingenious fabrication of ‘oli' and ‘arayoda,' protective sheets for the body of the performer, also made of tender coconut leaves.

The construction of Meleri, several feet tall, using firewood collected from pre-selected trees in the neighbourhood of the venue by authorised workers called ‘kollikkaar' and the columns of fire produced by it are amazing to watch.

Capturing the mood

The film has captured impressively the mood of the devotees as the theyyam jumps into the embers. He is pulled back using specially designed ropes fixed on his loins by a couple of experienced, able-bodied men. The hair-raising feats are repeated several times. The intensity of the heat and the frenzy with the performer jumps into the fire have been well shot from different angles.

Interestingly, veterans of this art form such as Kannan Panicker, Sajesh Panicker and Kunjara Peruvannan have been roped in to describe the physical hazards involved in the show. Peruvannan's description of how one of his legs had to be amputated is enough indication of the risk involved in the performance.

The paltry ‘kol' (remuneration) they receive even today and the myopic attitude of the government towards their plight have been well focussed. This makes the film meaningful.

Shots of the tomb of the Manakkadan Gurukkal, believed to be the acharya of theyyams, the remnants of the ‘edu,' a fortress of yesteryear that prevented heat from affecting the onlookers and so on shed light on the historical authenticity of the work.

V.K. Anilkumar and Ameerali Olavara who have done extensive research into the theyyam have jointly prepared the script and further directed the film. Ameer Insight's camera has successfully zoomed in on the varied characters and their awe-inspiring performances. The bilingual subtitles (Malayalam and English) by K.P. Uma and T.M.C. Ibrahim are well structured.

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 11:49:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/Flames-of-devotion/article16240949.ece

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