Documenting a rare art

Raman Nambiar Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

A yyappan Thiyyattu is an age-old temple art. Ritual and several elements of fine arts are blended so intricately that it becomes a tough art to master. There are no training schools and the art is practised and propagated by a handful of Thiyyadi Nambiar families of Central Kerala. Till today no one from outside the families has learnt this art. Although a few members are active in the field, only four or five elders can perform it independently in its full form.

In fact, there are only two members who can actually claim to have mastered the elaborate version of Thiyyattu, that is, ‘Udayasthamana Koothu.' One of them is Mulamkunnathukavu Thiyyadi Raman Nambiar. The artiste, who retired as Deputy Manager, BPCL, Kochi, is hugely responsible for taking this art out of the temples, when there were very few takers in the families for this art. Raman Nambiar took it upon himself to keep the flame alive, he did not wait or cry hoarse for the usual governmental assistance for the preservation of this art. He has now trained five children of relatives, including his son, of the young generation in the art form. Raman Nambiar shares his views on the art and what it means to him. Excerpts from the interview...


I don't know when I was initiated into the art. I must have been hardly five years old when I began accompanying my father. When I began to understand that I was being groomed to take over, I did, like any young child, feel embarrassed. There were moments when I tried to hide myself during a performance as there were many children of my school watching me. But the training and performances went on and I was gradually drawn into the richness of the art. It was the traditional way of on-the-job-training.

Ayyappan Thiyyattu

It is performed by a community called Thiyyadi Nambiars. There are eight such families attached to specific temples in Thrissur, Palakkad, and Malappuram districts. It is generally performed in these temples. Thiyyattu is elaborately performed in temples of Northern Kerala and also in a few Namboodiri illams.

Thiyyattu is a ritual art that is an elaborate demonstration of ‘thouryathrikam' that involves ‘nritta,' ‘geetha,' ‘vadya,' and ‘kalamezhuthu,' the esoteric art of painting. A performance is a combination of ‘kalam,' ‘paattu,' ‘koothu' and the dance of the komaram or oracle. The make-up, mudras, and abhinaya have close resemblance to Koodiyattam. One can also see in this art the precursor of Kathakali. The unique style of rendition of paattu is known as ‘kalam paattu,' which is similar to that of Sopanasangeetham.

A performance

First we draw an Ayyappan kalam. Then there is the kalampaattu, followed by koothu. Usually, only the last part, ‘Sankaramohanam,' ending with ‘avatharam' of the Lord is enacted. Then, the performer transforms into an oracle and breaks into a dance with marked rhythmic steps and the kalam is erased. But a full performance of the whole story of ‘Amrithamathanam’ is acted out in ‘Udayasthamana Koothu,' that lasts more than 12 hours. In this case, apart from the usual kalam, another drawing, typically tantric and well-defined ‘swastika padma kalam' is also made. In the case of elaborate programmes and also in the case of Udayasthamana Koothu, there is what is called ‘Kanalattam' (wiping out three fire heaps with speedy steps) and also ‘Pantheerayiram' or breaking of 12,000 coconuts. Remember, all this is done by the performer himself. The assistants are there only to pass the coconuts and also for accompaniment.

Contribution to the art

Along with other members of the family we have managed to take this art out of the temples to other venues such as universities, colleges, various government institutions, cultural organisations and so on in and outside Kerala. We have attempted to retain its ritualistic and traditional forms and are also trying to give it the colour of a classical art form.

Being asked to perform in places like Kerala Kalamandalam by staging it along with other classical art forms, and being honoured by the institution, we hope to transcend the ritualistic level often giving it shades of classical elegance. We introduced lecture-demonstrations. And I have written numerous articles in major publications in an attempt to educate the public on the art. I'm in the process of writing a detailed guide on Ayyappan Thiyyattu, which will be published soon. And three programmes we conducted have been documented and preserved by the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi. Udayasthamana Koothu that was on the verge of extinction was revived. But, perhaps, my biggest contribution is training a new group of youngsters systematically. They are now proficient to carry on the tradition.

The Delhi factor

For a few years I worked in the Ministry of Labour in New Delhi and on transfer, in Thiruvananthapuram. Looking back, these years proved to be crucial in my creative understanding of my art and also in providing aesthetic inputs. I never missed an opportunity to watch Kathakali, classical dance and to listen to classical music. I realised there were definitive influences of all this in Thiyyattu. From then on, rather unconsciously, I began using these influences in my art. I'm sure it enhanced it.


I have been fortunate to be recognised for whatever little I have done for my art. The Kerala Kalamandalam, in 2005, presented a certificate and memento for my contribution in keeping alive this rare temple art form. In 2009, I was presented Kerala Folklore Academy Award. And I also got the first Anushtana Kalaratna Puraskaram from Airanimuttom Thunjan Smaraka Samithi, Thiruvananthapuram.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 6:02:51 PM |

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