It is an unusually hot day. At the Poluppil Bhagavati temple in Kadavankodu near Kannur, Kerala, a theyyam moves to frenzied drum beat. Through his 20-foot-high headdress, a concoction of cloth and wood, the glowing orb of the sun pirouettes and belly flops, as though it, too, has caught a touch of the noonday madness. As the dust settles and the last of the beats dies down, the petitioners start approaching the theyyam now incarnated as the Poluppil devatha, the local deity. A young, lanky man bows before the devatha or matha.
“What bothers you, my son?” the theyyam asks in a deep baritone. “We want to build a shrine near my house. I want to seek your blessings for it, and ask you what I need to do to make sure the shrine is built,” says the man.
“What you need is kinship with those around you,” says the theyyam. “The same respect you show to matha, you must show to others and all your plans will succeed. Matha will pray for you.” The man accepts prasadam from the theyyam and drops Rs.10 into the wide expanse of his lap. The next devotee is summoned.
The day moves sluggishly forward. Petitions are heard, prayers are offered and plans are consecrated. Men go back with their pockets a little lighter but their hearts and hopes a little brighter. Two hours later, the crowd starts dispersing. The drum beats resume and the theyyam gets up, takes two turns around the temple and then, framed against a tangerine sky, gives one last shuddering performance.
Propped by two men, he then waddles to the aniyara, or the thatched hut near the temple where the troupe of theyyam artistes belonging to the Vannan caste are staying. There, he sinks down in sheer exhaustion. He has been performing for the last six hours without food or rest. The men quickly go to work. The headdress is dismantled, the make-up scrubbed off and the strings of the breastplate untied. Gradually, the sacred becomes the mundane and the goddess morphs into a low-caste construction worker called Krishnan, 32, who lives with his wife and one-year-old daughter in a place called Kulachil, some way off.
The construction work he gets is erratic. On good days, he makes Rs.800 and on others, nothing. But it beats donning the garb of a theyyam. The temple committee will give them Rs.2,400 for four days of work which has to be divided among 12 men. They make their living from the dakshina that the devotees offer which, again, is unpredictable. Make-up and costumes are an additional expense. The costume for a type of theyyam called Kathivanoor Veeran, for example, will cost Rs.1 lakh. It will last only one season.
The rest of the year, theyyam performers are auto-rickshaw drivers, well diggers, government employees and toddy tappers. Krishnan builds houses and does other menial work for the same high-caste men who worship at his feet when he is theyyam. The irony is hard to miss. “When we are theyyam, they worship us,” says a man in Krishnan’s troupe. “The rest of the year, we worship them.”
The life of a theyyam dancer is hard. He fasts for a week before he performs. For some of the more difficult types of theyyam, a theyyam artiste will have to perform for 15 hours continuously without food or sleep. During peak season, from December to March, the artistes are constantly on the move, routinely away from their homes for weeks on end. The costumes they don are heavy, the strings used to hold them up leave welts and bruises on the skin and hinder blood circulation.
One theyyam artiste shows me a chain of scars around his neck left by heavy cowrie shell necklaces. “Like a noose,” he says with a wry smile. “What can we do. This is our destiny,” a member of the troupe tells me. “Not for you though,” they lightly rib Krishnan. “Your face will appear in the papers and you will become rich and famous.” “No thanks,” says Krishnan. “This theyyam will live and die as a theyyam.
And a poor man working with stone. Do you have stone where you come from?” “These days, they have stones even in kidneys,” says one of the men. The men erupt into laughter.
Closely associated with theyyam is the question of caste. Earlier, dalits in the northern Malabar region of Kerala used to be murdered for not bowing down before their upper caste masters, or for failing to stand at a respectable distance from them.
Theyyam, performed by members of lower castes like Vannan, Malayan, Velan and Pulayan, arose as a form of protest against caste atrocities. There are more than 400 types of theyyam. The stories they tell are a variation of the same theme: local heroes and ancestors defying caste barriers and later being incarnated as gods.
In Pottan theyyam, one of the most famous types, for example, Lord Shiva, his wife, Parvati, and their son Nandikesan take the form of poor landless dalits and stand in the way of the great saint Adi Shankaracharya as he is crossing a paddy field. “How dare you cross the path of a Brahmin,” Shankaracharya screams, furious. Shiva agrees to move if Shankaracharya answers a question. “If I cut my hand and you cut yours, can you tell me the difference in the blood that comes out?” Shankaracharya is stumped. Later, his sixth sense opens up and he perceives the presence of the lord and fervently asks his forgiveness.
“You are a great man but you will attain enlightenment only if you understand that all men are worthy of respect regardless of their caste or social status,” says the lord. These theyyam stories have not only provided inspiration to the lower castes but, over the past 10 or 20 years, they have also helped narrow caste differences. “It is because of theyyam that protests against caste like the Guruvayoor Satyagraha and the Vaikkom Satayagraha that occurred in other parts of Kerala didn’t happen in the Malabar region,” says folklorist Valsan Pulikodu.
Earlier, they wouldn’t be admitted beyond the thulasi thara of a Nair’s ancestral home, says an auto-rickshaw driver and theyyam performer called Pradeepan C.P. He calls himself a jack of all trades, having worked as a toddy tapper and well-digger earlier. “Today, all that has changed. We are allowed to go inside their courtyard. Of course, we still have to keep a respectable distance from them.” Pradeepan, 41, and his uncle, a herbal healer called Kunjuraman P.P., are taking a tea break in between getting a theyyam ready to perform the Kathivanoor Veeran at a temple in Kalyasseri.
But suppression is continuing in another form. As atrocities in the name of caste have lost legitimacy, social discrimination has been replaced with economic suppression. “These artistes get paid Rs.180 a day by the temple committee during theyyam season. A vegetarian meal at a restaurant costs Rs.50. How are they expected to pay for electricity, water, ration and milk with this?” asks a theyyam aficionado. Kunjuraman concurs: “There have been days I couldn’t afford milk. Then we would make do with black tea. What else can we do?” There is a reason for this.
What the theyyam artistes are paid is not a wage. It is called kolu, a rate which has been written down in pattolas or palm leaves wrapped in silk and passed down through generations. This, members of the higher castes argue, is tradition and cannot be changed.
“Even after the corporates have started ruling the state, there has been no difference in the kolu,” says Pulikodu. “What is sad is that during the perumkaliyattom or the theyyam performances in temples which happen only once in 20 or 30 years, lakhs are spent to get tabla players and singers. Theyyam artistes are given only a small percentage of what they get.”
M.G. Kunjukrishnan, a member of the temple committee of the Cheruvathur Shri Muchilottu Bhagavati temple, contests the claim. “Earlier,” he says, “this used to be the case. But today, theyyam artistes have formed associations. If they want to perform at our temple, they approach us. We bargain and fix a rate. During festival, they get at least Rs.1,000 a day, besides the dakshina they will get from devotees.”
Kunjuraman says this economic suppression is a result of jealousy. Earlier, theyyam artistes lived in abject poverty, completely at the mercy of their upper-caste landlords. They would sleep in the compound of their masters and carry their equipment and other accoutrements from one shrine to the next. Now, this is no longer the case. “We have alternate employment,” he says. “We work as auto-rickshaw drivers and weavers. Many of us are educated and are government employees. The upper castes feel threatened by this. Their way of suppressing us is by denying us our wages.”
Still, there is nothing else these dancers would rather do. It has been five days since Pradeepan left his home. He started performing theyyam at the age of five, when he used to follow his father from one house to the next during the Malayalam months of Chingam and Karkidakom.
He had a late marriage at 39 because he had to take care of his parents and three sisters. He has no savings and lives on a day to day basis, not knowing how to repay the loan he took to buy his vehicle. Some years earlier, he was bestowed the title of peruvannan by a local ruler called Chirakkal Thamburan, a matter of prestige for him. But he doesn’t use it because the government doesn’t officially recognise the title. “They won’t afford me the benefits of scheduled caste if I call myself a peruvannan.”
But when he performs theyyam he forgets all his troubles and dances with purity of mind. Only then will the gods and goddesses possess him. Once they do, he is transformed. Predictions he makes come true. A while ago, for example, a man came to him. His dog had run away several weeks earlier. “Don’t worry,” said Pradeepan. “Your dog will be home when you get back.” An hour later, the man came to Pradeepan with his dog by his side. “But the respect we get only lasts the duration of the theyyam season,” says Pradeepan. “After that, I go back to being a nobody. If I were to fall sick, no one would come to my aid.” As Kunjuraman asks, “We work for the good of others. Who will work for our good?”
Some of the theyyam performances are extremely rare. At the Cheruvathur Shri Muchilottu Bhagavati temple, a Muchilottu Bhagavati theyyam takes place every 30 years. To perform there as the Muchilottu Bhagavati is a coveted opportunity. The day we visit the temple, the thottam, which is a prelude to a theyyam performance, is taking place.
Inside the dimly-lit aniyara, a 27-year-old painter called Sanish is donning the garb of Puliyurkannan, one of the five sons born to Shiva and Parvati as a tiger cub. A man is drawing black paisley shapes around his eyes. His feet, shackled by heavy iron anklets, are covered in sores.
His uncle and guru, a wiry man called Gangadharan K.V., says they do what they do because it is a divine calling. “I have performed day and night for Rs.7 and a kilo of rice. I don’t do it for the money. I do it because it is my destiny, my fate and my calling.”
Outside, the crowd is swelling. Young girls in frilly frocks mill near makeshift stalls selling balloons, bangles and bindis in psychedelic colours. “It is time,” his uncle whispers into his ear. The theyyam gets up and walks into the dusk, a smile on his lips, blood on his feet.
(In arrangements with THE WEEK)