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The Dance of Gods

Theyyam, a popular ritual art of Northern Kerala is usually performed in the temples as part of the daily rituals and festivals. The word Theyyam is merely a corruption of Daivam, meaning God. It takes place in Kavu’s and ‘Kottan’s’ of Kasargod, Kannur districts during the festival season (November to May). It is one of the oldest and famous religious ritual dance forms glorifying the goddess.

I am sitting with my friend Vinod with the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea before us.

We are in the most picturesque spot in North Kerala. We are facing the sea and the backwaters behind us. It’s evening. The Sun has bid adieu with a red and fiery salute. The horizon is clear, crisp and the gold of the sky and blue of the ocean have almost merged. A single jet flies high up in the sky creating jet streams that leave a white trail in the now fading light. We both are quiet. The waves crash at a regularity that almost sounds like an orchestra. I get up to walk a bit and see the moon rising from behind the backwaters or the river Kavyii. From the distance I can hear a distinct beating of drums stream in....the rise and fall creating a crescendo. I was wondering if it originating from the The Sri Venugopal Temple or The Sri Bhubaneswari Temple on the other side of the river.

Not leaving anything to conjecture I thought to ask the person who knows the place the best- Vijayan, our caretaker cum manager cum yoga teacher. Vijayan’s house is 200 metres from the Vretreat. He has grown up around and knows the place like the back of his hands. I enquire with him over our evening tea and snacks. ‘It’s Theyyam season sir !’ Vijayan replied with a grin. It all starts in a big way with the Perumkaliyatam at Pullikode Sir. I am bit startled and seeing that he retorts....”The Grand Theyyam Sir. You must go and see it sir. The biggest in this region...between Kannur and Kasargod. “

‘But we are leaving the day after Vijayan Sir.’ I tell him with a sigh. “Your ‘Bad Luck’ Sir! There is another big one on Saturday but I understand Theyyam is not in your luck. Wait Sir, let me call around and find out.” And then he walked off towards the beach....till I could hear him no more. “ Saar, saar , saar” he came walking back briskly. “There is one Theyyam happening tomorrow at Tirkarripur.” My friend Vinod looked towards me and then we nodded in unison towards Vijayan. “Okie...saar...I will call an auto.” He replied with enthusiasm of a small child.

The next day just around noon the auto came. I had dressed traditional keeping in mind the weather which had become warmer and humid and also to look more traditional. Vinod quipped....’Wish I had also got a dhoti. I have so many you know.’ We were on our way Tirakkaripur, the closest town with a bus stop and railway station is 4.5 kms away. The auto crossed the newly built second bridge connecting Valiyaparamba to the other side, and then winded its way amidst rice fields a causeway and a the monkey forrst.

Vinod who is originally from Kerala was telling me how this traditional Temple Dance was earlier always performed in front of deities deep in the forest. A cow temple was the usual performing place. With urbanity seeping in, it moved to the temples in the towns and villages. Vinod further elucidated that the Theyyam dancer is a member of a specific family and caste who have been performing all the rituals of this dance form and have been enacting it in the shrines for several generations. While becoming a Theyyam, the dancer straddles in two very different worlds. The first one is the world of gods and the other is the social world where he belongs to a lower caste. As this lower caste individual transforms into a Theyyam dancer through the processes of thottam and vellatam , he acquires a state of divinity, a unique position and a voice, that even people from the upper castes cannot ignore. But, as soon as this state of being Theyyam is over, he reverts to the state of the same ordinary man from the lower caste.

The narration and self are inseparable here and they give rise to a new way of thinking and feeling about a domain of culture. I was rather mesmerized listening to these insights on the complex universe of the Theyyam. The auto stopped in front of Temple where a Theyyam was being performed. The auto driver told us that this is one of the smaller Theyyams. He insisted that night Theyyams are the one to watch out as they have the famed fire dance to which I told him disappointingly that we are returning the next day so are missing that one.

We stood and watched mesmerized as the dancer decked in vivid colours and costume with thick anklets performed the ancient ritual that has survived since centuries. The drums kept beating and one by one people queued and took his blessings and the prasaddam. From old to young all were waiting patiently attired in traditional attire. I felt rather proud to almost blend in as a local. At one point I was even tempted to get blessed but then I realized the language might be a handicap. I nudged vinod but he seemed completely engrossed in clicking pictures and few videos. At the end of the queue were two small kids and when their turn came the Theyyam Dancer whispered something into their ears a bit loud actually and everyone burst into peals of laughter. As the performance ended and we made our way back to Vretreat,

Vinod made a startling confession. This is the first Theyyam performance he ever saw in his life. I felt luckier than him as I saw it first too…and Kerala is not my home state.

But then Vinod said he should be forgiven….”Why so?” I asked. “I was born in Chennai , grew up in Bangalore though a Malayali by heart.” He said. I replied….”Vinod I beat you to that today…I look like a Malayali in my attire and saw my first Theyyam just like you.” We burst into laughter. It was an afternoon to remember amidst the celebration of a culture that has survived the onslaught of modernity in this land of the Gods.

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