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CREDIT: Ashok Viswanathan

The Dance of the Gods

Ashok Viswanathan visits the Theyyam dance festival in North Kerala

Theyyam is the dance festival  in North Kerala, India often referred to as the “dance of the Gods”. It's performed between the months of December & April in small village temples and ancestral homes deep in the villages. These festivities are usually not accessible to the general public and attended by local villagers and a few visitors from nearby villages. The people consider Theyyam as God and seek his blessings as also advice on matters bothering them. There are about 400 forms of Theyyam each with its own rituals, costumes, make up and style. The body painting and costumes vary.

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This dance form goes back to the Dravidian age and said to be a part of ancient tribal culture. A Portuguese researcher I met said that in years gone by when India was ruled by Kings and Kingdoms, the King of Travencore asked the neighbouring king to send his dance troupe to entertain him. This request was declined and the King of Travencore then decided to have his own dance troupe which evolved into the present day Theyyam.

 

Most performances are held late in the night in the village temple courtyard or in ancestral homes where this has been held for generations. Being in remote interior locations there are few outsiders present. The audience is mainly local residents who attend with their families. There is no  stage or curtain and devotees are standing or sitting on steps around the temple courtyard. It’s an open theatre. The performance lasts between 12-24 hours with breaks. The dancer, along with the playing of the musical instruments describes the myths and legends of the deity of the shrine.

 

The process of make up is lengthy and takes a few hours. The dancer is painted with different patterns in primary and secondary colours made of natural herbal colours. The usual products used for makeup include, saffron powder, quick lime, rice powder, turmeric etc. The colours made into a paste with water or coconut oil are then applied to the skin with a fine brush made of coconut leaf stem.

 

The costume is based on the deity and made of cotton and natural materials such as leaf, bark and stems. Most of the Theyyam forms resemble perfectly chiselled sculptures. In this respect, the headgear has an important role in Theyyam and it represents particular region's handicrafts. The dance is accompanied by the loud beat of drums and wind instruments, usually with fire and with the blessing of the head priest the dance commences. It’s during this time he “metamorphosis” into “God”. Somewhere during this process toddy (palm wine) is also consumed.  The Theyyam dance has different steps known as Kalaasams. Each Kalaasam is repeated systematically from the first to the eighth step of footwork. It’s very precise. A performance is a combination of playing of musical instruments, vocal recitations, dance, and peculiar makeup (usually predominantly orange) and costumes

 

Many of the performances take place at night and light levels are low. The images of the make up process are mostly light by a single bulb. Flash and tripods are prohibited. These are taken on a Fuji Xpro1 & XE3 with 35mm f 1.4 and the 18~55mm lens. Iso floats between ISO 200-1600 with shutter speeds down to 1/30. The dance is very fast moving and often the Xpro1 could not keep up the focus in low light while the XE3 performed better. The camera is set for RAW+Jpg with the jpg giving excellent colour. I was lucky to have access to the make up area at the rear of the temple which yielded some excellent portraits.

 

After the performance, devotees approach the Theyyam to seek blessings and advice. Unfortunately this year the prayers and performances in the temples have been cancelled due to the Corona virus and in order to avoid the crowds. Theyyam is a dying art form as there are few performers and in a some  decades may no longer exist.

 

This is an amazing photo opportunity for the travel photographer. However bear in  mind that you need to plan this in some detail especially if you are a foreigner in Kerala. The temples are in remote villages in North Kerala around the city of Kannur. There are no hotels and your best option is a home stay.  A copy of the Theyyam programme for the season will tell you the village, date and temples where it is being performed. The programme is in Malayalam, the local language and a local guide will be the best option to escort you around and also assist  with stay and transport. Being with a local will also ease entry to the temple but bear in mind that you need to leave your footwear at the entrance and be respectfully dressed. Be prepared for a series of very late nights and early morning shoots. It will be well worth it.