Theyyam or Theyattam is a ritual art performed in the Malabar region i.e. in North Kerala. Kolathunaad (Kannur and Kasargod Districts) is famous for this dance. Theyyam or Theyatam derives is name from Deyvam meaning ‘God’ and Attam meaning 'Dance'. It is hence an awe-inspiring dance of the Gods. It is also known as Thira or Thirayattam in the southern Malabar region. Theyyam is one of the profound ritual arts performed in Kerala with utmost fervor and supreme ardor. Religious reverence runs high and the artist himself is said to experience a oneness with the Divine in the course of performing this dance. Theyyam is also known as Kaliyattam.
Theyyam is performed in the Kavus, Kottams & Tharavads during the festivals. Usually these festivals are held between November and May. Theyyam and these festivals are held in shrines and temples. For example, the Muthappan Theyyam is performed in the courtyard of the Parassinikkadavu temple near Kannur town. This Muthappan Theyyam is performed round the year. Karivellur, Nileswaram, Kurumathoor, Parassini, Cherukunnu, Ezhom and Kunnathoorpadi are other shrines where Theyyams are performed during the Theyyam season. The most prominent Theyyams of Kerala are those of Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaveni, Gulikan and Pottan.
There are more than 400 Theyyams performed in Kerala. Since it is performed by the lower clans of the Hindu social sructure, the main deity of worship or whose dance is performed is Shakti in her various forms such as Bhadrakali, Bhagavathy etc. Theyyams are often performed to appease the spirits and ghosts of the heros and forefathers. Their praises and glory are sung. Deities such as Naga (Serpent) and other spirits like the forest deities or animal deities etc. are also propitiated. As mentioned earlier, the presence of above 400 Theyyams in the state testifies to the worship of these wispy spirits and the fierce yet benevolent guardian deities such as Mari Amman, Vishnumoorthi, Pottan, Chaamundi, Rakteshwari, Karrupan Swamy, Ayyapan etc. When the Theyyams are in praise of the Goddess it recalls her battles against evil and her victories over the Asuras (demons). Theyyam represents the common man's spiritual and metaphysical beliefs as it encompasses the opportunity where the performer identifies with the gods/goddesses or the spirits of the ancestors or bygone heroes and guides the society even in matters of contemporary interest. However aggression is a common trait among all the deities or spirits worshipped in a Theyyam. As the dancer transcends to the divine realm his words are heeded as the deities will and his touch is regarded therapeutic. However the fiery natures of the deities, disregard to the word of prophecies is seldom shown as fear of their wrath exists in every heart.
In a staunch Brahmin based society, Theyyam comes as an alleviating counterbalance. Theyyam is performed by some of the lowest castes of the hierarchy. The performers are essentially from the Velan, Malayan and Vannan communities. The dance performed by these communities is essentially with regard to the established deities such as Bhagavathy Amman, Vishu or Shiva. Other communities from which performers perform Theyyam are Mavilan, Vettuvan, Pulayan and Koppalan but their Theyyams are dedicated to their ancestors and spirit gods. The Theyyam dancers are always men from these tribes and the female characters are also played by them in appropriate costume and demeanor. However it is not an occupation that can be adopted at will. The rights of performing the Theyyam are reserved to these tribes and the right may only be acquired by virtue of birth through the maternal lineage or through marriage to a woman of the reserved clan. Strict observance of tradition in every aspect is imperative. The dancers are well versed in the history, stories and characteristic traits of the deity they play. Great emphasis is laid on the rigorous training and tradition shared by the dancers as it grooms them not only physically but spiritually as well to approach the divine trance in which the Theyyam is performed. The artist is taught all the nuances of the performance- from applying the make up to the songs; from playing the percussion to the legends and beliefs behind the deity’s worship. The artist is prepared not to be possessed as in case of the Oracle but to gain union with the deity. Ironically, these dancers’ words are venerated as the Divine Will while in the Theyyam state but even as the performance ends, they resume their mundane roles in the lowermost strata of society with no special distinction.
The most striking feature of the Theyyam is its costume and make up. The face and body paintings are of supreme significance. In no dance form is the eye make up so emphatic. To represent the fierce deities, the eyes are blackened with mashi; thick bold strokes highlight the eyes and the face painting of a Theyyam dancer is extolled. The artist ties a headband and allows the painters to paint his face and body. Colors commonly used are red, orange, yellow, black and white as these help in playing up the aggressive features of the deity worshipped. The different patterns of face-painting for Theyyam are viradelam, kattaram, kozhipuspam, kotumpurikam, and prakkezhuthu. The face painter is at liberty to try some variety or experiment in his art but in case of the body painting is strictly dictates of tradition are adhered to. A bold colored base is painted and intricate designs made on it. The different styles of these designs depend on the Theyyam being performed. Parunthuvaal Ezhuthu (eagle’s tail) and Anchupulli Ezhuthu (five dots) are some of the styles. The head-dress, known as Muti is made out of bamboo splicings and coconut bark. This head-dress differs according to the Theyyam performed. Some such Mutis are Pookkatti, Ponmuti, Vattamuti, Chattamuti, Valiyamuti, Kondalmuti, Puthachamuti, Onkaramuti and Peelimuti. The head gear is decorated with cloth, flowers, coconut bird feathers and palm leaves. In some Theyyams very lo Mutis (50-60 feet) are also used. It is then quite a balancing act for the artist. Other jewellery worn by are ornaments such as bracelets, bangles and anklets, flower garlands and female characters are provided a breast plate fashioned out of coconut shell called mularu. The skirts are made of bamboo splices and coconut sheaths painted red and black or from red cloth tied around bamboo sticks. A red waistband is usually worn. Painted wooden masks are worn in some Theyyams.
Theyyam is generally performed in the festival occasions in the various shrines and temples in Kerala. Both, the Thandava (aggressive) and Lasya (graceful) modes of dance are adopted in the Theyyam. The religious fervor lends vitality to the performance. The footwork is striking as the accompanying percussions such as Chenda, Veekuchenda, Elathalam and Kuzhal provide beats. Chekor Kalasam, Onnaam Kalasam, Eduthu Kalasam, Chavitti Thullal, Parakkam and Thiriyal are the various stages of the dance. Thudangal and Thottam are the beginning and the invocation. The dances may be slow moving (Pathiniyattom) or fast paced (Elakiyattom) as per the song chosen. A display of martial arts such as swordplay is not uncommon. Other props used are swords, shields, bows, arrows and other weapons. Lighted torches are held during the nightly performance to highlight the dramatic effect and to maintain a fiery ambience.
Theyyam, the ritual performance is almost 2000 year old. The attraction of the art lies in the reverence it holds in the hearts of the devotees. This is probably also the reason that such an ancient and difficult art form survives till date. The presence of the divine in the artist while he performs the Theyyam is indicated by the many miracles associated with the ritual and also the outstanding feats performed by the artist. Dancing with a head-dress as tall as about 50 feet or walking through live embers or dancing with lighted wicks stuck to the waist are indeed dangerous feats but what evokes awe is that the artists come out unscathed. Therein maybe one realizes the presence on the supernatural among us mortals.
The ancient ritualistic dance form- Theyyam is very popular in North Kerala; especially in the districts of Kannur and Kasaragod.It is believed that the word Theyyam evolved from the word Daivam- meaning God. The scenario has improved since, and today Theyyam has come under the focus of travellers, researchers as well as art lovers around the world for its many interesting attributes.It is a unique mix of dance and music and has a great influence on the land and the society that it represents.
Theyyam is usually performed in front of the village shrines as well as in the premises of ancestral houses with elaborate rites and rituals.The initial stage of a Theyyam performance is known as vellattam or thottam , which would have only minimal make-up and body adornments .This would be followed by a second appearance with full make-up and costumes.
Among the performers who gave Theyyam performance an added attraction, the name of Mr.Kannan Peruvannan easily stands out.A highly respected performer of Theyyam, this octogenarian over the years had performed innumerable forms of Theyyam and has always been a favourite among the followers of Theyyam performances.
The full throated singing of tottam songs in the open air, the subdued articulation of the tottam (revelations) and the inaudible chanting of the mantras form different variations of using the inner energy that gushes out while the Teyyam dancer is in a possessed state. The folk singer while he sings out in a loud voice, accompanying the dancing or along with his own dancing steps, uses simple but effective language and straight but thought provoking images. The images reflect his own surroundings charged with an organic strength. Most of these songs are not recorded. They belong to the oral tradition maintaining their own unique characteristics and keep away from the general trend of standardized literature. The major chunk of the Teyyam songs remains well above literary denomination and creates the proper atmosphere with its archaic usages, nuances and rhythmic patterns conveying the subtle emotions of the character impersonated. Teyyam songs belong to a literary tradition of the farthest past which had not evolved through any conscious process of sophistication, but served as life-giving vehicle of the feelings of the village communities.