Monday, May 6, 2013


Suddenly the crowd parts and a gust of red soars towards the shrine, and the form of a rattling fearful figure with an overwhelming headgear, a frilly outfit and an intricate yet cruel face paint topped with a pair of metal fangs looms into the unsteady light of flambeaux. The manifestation bows before the deity in calm deference and slowly begins a routine that looks like possessed dancing. 
The incessant percussion and the shrill oboe whistle weaves a labyrinth engulfing the night inside the psychedelic spell. The crowd is hypnotized by every step of that bloke inside the extravagant crimson getup. He is intermittently leaping onto the heavyset wooden pedestal set in front of the shrine spiritedly plying a sword in the air. He is also hollering loud chants in between.
The routine gains tempo and the steps get more and more vigorous and overpowering. The performance lasts for about a half hour. Now the drummers have settled, and the apotheosis is seated on the pedestal, and a bustle of crowd swarm around him for blessings. It’s like a calm after the storm. You are gradually freed from a state that has controlled you up until then and you regain your devices. 
We, people of Malabar, piously call them Theyyam, a local variant of the word Daivam (meaning God) in Malayalam. Theyyam dance, chant, bless and even heal. There are said to be about 400 odd types of this genus. Some walk on blazing coal, and some others bite heads off of live flapping roosters. For those who haven’t lived first-hand the complexities of this ritual art experience before; it could be as unsettling as a Tarantino shootout, as thrilling as a Kubrick suspense and as dizzying as a Wong Kar-wai stop-motion, all rolled into one loud aggressive riff of Thrash Metal. There is no end to the showmanship!

In these parts of Kerala, since several thousand years ago, Gods, Goddesses and heroes from history and local myth are believed to manifest to, and act through human media, and believers strengthen their fellowship with them by means of ritual routines of these impersonations called Theyyam. 

That the performers are exclusively from a certain lower sect of the knotty caste system of Kerala, and that they undergo severe mental, physical and spiritual trainings to be able to don the desired avatar are all much talked about facts about this folk art which is still kept alive by people’s beliefs as well as an unaffected appreciation for this art form. But what had bewildered me the most since childhood about this drama of worship is the solemnity of the mental state the performer floats in during the routine, when he sidekicks a pile of fire and gains inhuman strength to sways under a 600 pound crown. But as I grew up, although the key question remained unaddressed, I learned more about the essence behind the cult. And the key fact that the performer “become” the deity and is not possessed by them was an eye opener. So when he is blessing, he is blessing as the deity, not bearing the deity. Unlike popular belief, no spirits enter the performer, period.
Understandably, the process of “becoming” God from Man is exceptionally complex and gradual. It begins the very moment he starts wearing the make up and the costume. This could take hours given the intricacies of the face paint.
Then comes the second stage, where he is seated in front of the shrine and is annexed with the most important part of the guise- the headdress or mudi (meaning hair).
The third step is where the actual “becoming” takes place. He looks into a small hand held mirror where he sees not his own reflection but of the divine being that stares back at him. Here the final “crossing of the line” takes place and the performer slips into the “other” state of consciousness. In this constitution, he effortlessly fire walk and split live birds into two, all maintaining the rhythm of the dance. But when this “other” state is not supposed to be any kind of possession state contrary to prevailing myths, the frame of mind and the capacity (as deity) of the performer still is shrouded as classified information.

Is he in a trained mental state, inspired by Method acting? Where the actor experiences life in the fiction of the story? Where he lives the character in life, “becoming” the character and react “honestly” as the character? (Here the character is the God, Goddess or the local hero.) And in that case, is his “blessing” a part of the spiritual ecstasy he whirls in? Is it in its true sense, “drama” of worship?
Answers from the horse’s mouth to a question of metaphysics “What is it like?” to be a performer did not quite explain much about his own experience. “It’s difficult to describe,” he says, “It’s a condition where the elevated state of the mind balances with the practical rhythm of the dance.” As to where man ends and God begins still seemed obscured by the sense of imposed mystery. Perhaps that is important and that’s what actually works. He says he is absolutely aware of his surroundings and never is pushed to a state where he forgets the technique of dance. Personally, I can't help but think, how much ever little it may be, some technique like Stanislavski's and Strasberg's Method Acting definitely has a hand in it.

But the effectiveness of this process while relating to a character remembering from one's personal experiences when the character is out-of-the-world or divine is to be reviewed. It would be too vague to assume such a character and act in the light of merely personal memory and individual perception. This is where, I assume, the imaginative excesses of the creator-gurus of this art form come into the curriculum of training, that each artist undergo in the process of becoming the deity. Perhaps the Stella Adler technique of method acting also gains relevance here. The result coupled with the powerful costume design and the ceremonial rites backed with the performer's prescribed discipline becomes the final awe-inspiring enactment that also manages to successfully satiate the spiritual yearnings of the devotees. The long preparations and the routine of penance also adds on to the gravity of the method wherein one makes oneself, rather than others, believe the assumptions of the character.

Everything said and done, it has to be understood that belief is basically at the epicenter of the Theyyam cult. That is what is the higher purpose of this ritual folk art form over its significance as performance. Detaching belief, the spiritual implication of it is debatable… like everything else. 
But the experience of being a part of a Theyyam performance is one of a kind, and it better enter your bucket list quick. Kerala is not just about Kathakali, snake boats and backwaters. You will know better if you leave sooner. There you go! Chop-chop!


  1. gud are superb!!!!

  2. informative & got your view to it...Nice
    BTW the right meaning of "MUDI" is "CROWN" not "HAIR"...
    As u mentioned 'headdress' i guess it represent CROWN than HAIR...

  3. Omg this is amazing...the art form is spectacular..very vibrant...though in trying to understand how the person comes out of the character once the performance is over since the feeling of being 'god' could turn out to be quite addictive for some performers that they may not return to their natural sense of being?


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