Theyyam: A Ritualistic Folk Dance of Kerala, India

India’s rich history and culture teem with folk art available in multiple forms such as art, music, dance. Each of the 29 states celebrates their folk art in the traditional way, as reveled by their ancestors, throughout the year. Kerala, the coastal state of India, is home to many vibrant and enchanting folk dances. The likes of Kathakali, Padayani, Mohiniyattam, Ottamthullal are some of the famous dance forms that are acclaimed in Kerala, India, and even internationally. 

Similar to the aforementioned dance forms, one of the most renowned and recognized art from Kerala is Theyyam. It finds its origin mostly in the northern Malabar districts of the state, namely Kannur, Kasragode, and Calicut. This ritualistic folk dance is a detailed medley of dance, music, mime, and passionate devotion.

Theyyam: The Dance of Gods!

Theyyam, also known as Theyyattam, is emanated from the Malayalam words Daivam (meaning God) and Attam (meaning dance). It is often heralded as The Dance of Gods due to its deep association with the Gods and Goddesses. The dance form originated hundreds of years ago when tribal animism prevailed. People worshipped trees, plants, animals as well as the Hindu Gods. This piety is depicted in Theyyam with dance as its medium.

Image acquired from Fotorbit.

Incorporating mime, dance, and music, Theyyam personifies several stories of the past to its spectators. There are over 400 types of Theyyam, many of which have perished as the year’s progress. Each type exhibits its own style, moves and music. Traditional instruments such as Chenda, Elathalam, Kurumkuzal and Veekkuchenda serve for its music. They depict mythological stories involving Gods, Goddesses, demons and spirits through the act. Some of the popular forms of Theyyam are Pottan, Vishnumurthy, Kari Chamundi, Raktha Chamundi, Veerali, Gulikan, Nagakanni, Bhagavati, and Mutiappan.

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The Performers and the Performance

Theyyam is performed only by men belonging to a certain social caste. The art form is passed down from generation to generation, wherein the artist spends years learning and perfecting the craft. Younglings spend their adolescent year’s training before they are ready to perform.

Image acquired from Le Malabari.

The performers of Theyyam stand out with their flamboyant costumes and makeup. They don themselves in leaf dress, headdress, breastplates, arm ornaments, bangles, garland made by other skilled artisans. The dresses are usually made from coconut and bamboo leaves in an intricate, woven pattern, which are then covered in a red cloth. The headgear measure from 6 meters to 18 meters, depending on the place and type of the performance. Some wrap coconut leaves dress around their waist if they leap themselves into a pit of fire as part of the performance (which is not an unusual sight in Theyyam).

Orange paint masks the face and body of the performers. Over it, proficient makeup artists sketch different styles in naturally sourced colors such as red, yellow, white, or black. The process could take up to 12 hours to see its full completion. With the makeup done, the performer gets into their full attire and channels their spiritual connectivity. It is believed that once assembled, the performer becomes one with God and exalts divinity.

Usually, Theyyam is conducted in small temples or shrines without a stage. It’s a three-day affair, starting late in the evening and stretching into the early hours of dawn. People crowd themselves in the open space while high-pitched music and percussion from the Chenda excite the performers to get into their trance-like zone. The performers enter the ground and spin, lurch, jump as if drunk and dazed. Occasionally, they’ll fall into the crowd while young priests quickly get them back to their feet to complete their performance. The dance could go on for minutes or even hours, depending solely on the performer.

Theyyam is as energetic and frenzy-inducing as it sounds. The deftly made costumes and unique makeup are a sight to see, and the performance is nothing short of a masterpiece.


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