Malabar Mail: Celebrating the spirit of the region

When Theyyam breaks bounds of sacred grove

Illustraion for The Hindu

Illustraion for The Hindu

Culture need not be cast in stone, nor should tradition be a liability. For, they are not immune to social changes.

Whether cultural forms and traditions should remain unspoiled by the changing times is a question that pops up every once in a while. Take the case of Theyyam, for instance.

The popular ritual art of North Malabar is a centuries-old tradition, a living cult of performance and worship in the region. Kavus (sacred groves) and tharavadus (ancestral households) of the region are the venues of Kaliyattam (Theyyam). It is a sacred tradition of the region, but the elaborate costumes of Theyyam performers, their headdress and their dances to the accompaniment of rhythmic beats of chenda and the settings of their performance make it a spectacle.

It is not surprising that Theyyam also occasionally gets dragged into debates: should it remain strictly within the bounds of the sacred? There are people who argue that it should. Theyyam presentation as a traditional folk art form or its staging during art and cultural festivals and political processions is unpalatable to them. Traditionalists view it as efforts to “commercialise” Theyyam by clubbing it with tourism promotion.

Kaliyattam is unique, no doubt. But Theyyam brings together people cutting across caste, creed, and religion. That particular aspect needs to be celebrated, especially when there is no dearth of attempts to polarise people on caste and communal lines. The local deities represented by Theyyam performers include even those from communities other than Hindu. Examples are Kalanthan Mukri and Ummachi Theyyams.

No less unique is the fact that the Kolatharis - Theyyam performers - are from Dalit communities. Tradition breaks caste barriers as the actors enjoy special divine status during the performance. People of all castes gather at the tharavadu or kavu to revere the performers. That uniqueness was captured by none other than historian William Dalrymple. He features a Theyyam dancer, Hari Das, a prison warden in Kannur, in his book Nine Lives in Search of the Sacred in Modern India . “Though [Hari Das] he comes from an untouchable Dalit background, he nevertheless is transformed into an omnipotent deity for two months a year, and as such is worshipped as God. Then at the end of March, he goes back to the prison.” Maybe, this element has ingredients for social change as it transcends social discrimination. Whether it has brought about such a change is certainly a matter of debate.

Theyyam performers come from the communities of Vannan, Malayan, Velan, Anjoottan, Munuattan, Kopalan, Pulayan, Mavilan, and Vettuvan. A ritual in which mythological, ancestral, or heroic characters are represented as deities, Theyyam continues to co-exist with the mainstream Hindu rituals, which contrarians would term Brahmanical.

Theyyam is on a revival mode over the past few decades. Kaliyattam and Perumkaliyattam (Theyyam grand festival) are being performed at tharavadus and kavus with much pomp and fervour. The Theyyam season attracts many foreign tourists to the region as well. The Theyyam tradition and performance perhaps would not have drawn the attention it has gained, had it not been for the efforts of agencies such as the Kerala Folklore Academy to honour Theyyam artistes and promote it as a folk art.

(MALABAR MAIL is a weekly column by The Hindu’s correspondents that will reflect Malabar’s life and lifestyle)

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2022 2:29:59 am |