Theyyam: A Dance from Ancient India

It is said that ‘Theyyam’ begins when God has arrived. An ancient ritualistic art form, Theyyam is derived from tribal animism and predates Hinduism. The performance wherein involves a dancer attaining a state of trance before the culmination. An exclusively male domain, Theyyam dancers are trained from their tender teenage years and disciplined in very particular ways before being indicted into the dance form. The preparation process is tedious and requires years of training (both physical and spiritual), and commitment. 

The art form is accompanied by local music like the chenda, veekku chenda (percussion instruments), kurumkuzhal (a wind instrument similar to a shehnai), and elathalam (similar to cymbals). For those witnessing its climax, the spectacle is meant to bring peace and prosperity. It is at the point of transcendence from the earthly realm that the artist ceases to exist and time becomes non-existent. 

Theyyam originates in the Northern districts of Kerala, namely, Kannur, Kasargod, and Kozhikode; similar forms are found in Karnataka as well (called Bhuta kola). The dancers’ make-up is elaborate with deep black, kohled eyes that are exaggerated to the point of transhumance. The face is painted vivid orange with intricate meshes of red paint across the artists’ visage. It is a glorification of other-worldliness and invocation of the dark and divine. Showcased in the open (often in front of shrines and under sacred trees), the dancer is adorned in grass and fronds of palmyra leaves, his head crowned with an over-sized diadem. He begins to don the costume only after rigorous preparation and chanting for weeks that prepare him for the final performance. 

Stretched over minutes or even hours, Theyyam is a feeling that binds the supernatural. It is to be understood as a personal journey or invocation that sets the tone for the rest of the evening. People from all over flock to see this journey that promulgates the human to the divine. It demarcates the artists’ journey from mere mortality to the magical. So, Theyyam enables an exciting personal trajectory to experience the unknown and miraculous.

The Editorial Team at Pluskul aims to inculcate heritage knowledge in conventional curriculum to enable a new generation of ‘Rooted & Free’ Leaders.

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