History & Culture

An Onam without dance of the bhutas

Kummattikkali performers   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

De varunu kummaattiye, padikkalethiye kummaattiye. (‘Here comes the kummatti, it has reached your gate.’) The chorus rings out from a vibrant band of people, walking a few steps behind a small group of unearthly apparitions. At each house they visit, they perform a few songs to which the costumed figures dance in unison, and are rewarded with offerings of rice, paddy and dhotis. The streets of Thrissur reverberate to their songs every Onam as this folk tradition, confined mainly to the city and its suburbs, comes alive annually. But not this year; the pandemic and consequent restrictions have put paid to any thought of Kummattikkali in 2020.

There’s no historical record of this art form’s origins, but scholars estimate that it’s a couple of hundred years old. Some of its own ballads say it was introduced to add to the gaiety of the festivities that welcome Mahabali when he visits Kerala every Onam. According to another story, Siva, the presiding deity of the Vadakkunnathan Temple at the heart of Thrissur, once asked his bhutas to perform Kummattikkali. One ballad begins with, “Siva who abides in Vadakkunnathan Temple eagerly called the bhuta ganas and asked them to present a dance...” This dance is believed to be Kummattikkali, which suggests a historical connection to the temple and explains why the art form is largely confined to Thrissur.

Interestingly, the performances nowadays have no connection to the temple. But according to V.P. Paul, the late folklorist and well-known champion of Kummattikkali, a Nair family customarily used to perform it around the temple’s sanctum sanctorum during Onam. The only character in their plays was Ganapati, the captain of Siva’s bhutas. Afterwards, on their way home, the troupe would visit the Naduvil Madhom, a matha of brahmin priests near today’s Swaraj Round, where the brahmins would offer them plantain and dhotis. Paul further argues that the first Kummattikkali performance was held in front of Siva and Parvati to celebrate the victory of the devas over the asuras!

The masks worn by the performers are the main attraction of Kummattikkali. Carved artistically from the wood of the kumbil (Gmelina arborea) or the murikku (Erythrina indica) tree, they are coloured using nature-based paints, and look quite frightening when worn. The eeriness is only heightened by the grass that covers the artiste’s entire body, down to the toes. Colloquially known as kummatti pullu, this is a seasonal grass that’s only available around the time of Onam, and its medicinal fragrance gives the artistes the energy to perform for hours on end while wearing the heavy masks.

Variety of masks

While the masks depict gods, a host of mythical characters and a few bhutas of Siva, the most popular mask is that of Thalla (granny) with her protruding teeth. Her rapturous expression is believed to be that of Bhadrakali after killing Darika.

No special training is needed for the performer as there is no specific choreography for the movements. They come naturally when accompanied by the energetic songs and strokes on the Onavillu (bow). Perhaps this accounts for the secular nature of the art form.

As any other art form, Kummattikkali has experienced changes and still faces challenges, with the scarcity of the grass being a major problem. People have begun to use the fibres of dried screw pine leaves as a substitute. This has an added advantage, as it lets dancers participate in festivals in distant places as well.

At the same time, other innovations are viewed as threatening the spirit and distinctiveness of the art form. Of late, the conventional masks are being replaced with the headgear of Kathakali, which has drawn flak from all corners. Another controversial introduction is the use of Chetti melam, Sinkari melam and band-sets to provide percussion. Furthermore, the younger generation is not keen to learn the ballads, most of which have faded into oblivion. “But still, there is a ray of hope as our efforts to revive traditional elements have met with considerable success,” says Sreenivasan Kunnambath of Kizhakkumpattukara, the cradle of Kummattikkali.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 5:07:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/an-onam-without-dance-of-the-bhutas/article32455731.ece

Next Story