Books and films rooted in Indian culture capture the imagination. There is no better example than the recent success of Kannada film Kantara that has brought the worship of a tutelary deity in the spotlight. It showcases the annual festival of Bhoota Kola, a spirit worship ritual dance of the Tulu-speaking people of Udipi and Dakshina Kannada in Karnataka. With minor variations, the dance form is popular as Theyyam as it crosses over to Kannur and Kasargod in north Malabar, Kerala.
It is believed that the trained persons who perform the ritual go into a trance and transform themselves temporarily into gods to protect the village from calamities. The essence, beauty and perspective of the ancient ritualistic exercise rides on faith and contemporary stories that flit through past, present and future. It is suitably aided by folk and classical music, stylised dance and drums, elaborate costumes and visual exaggeration, realism and fantasy. As art is used to give expression to culture through tales of myths, legends and superstition, it also provides the rationale for religious beliefs and practices. Kantara’s pan-India popularity underlines how a colourful, expressive and powerful form of storytelling can engage people with the sacred in a changing India. It has put the focus back on native cultures such as the Yakshagana, Daivaradhane, Kambala or Theyyam.
However, there are very few books available in English on Indian folklore.
It was in 2009 that William Dalrymple distilled his 25 years of travel within the country with an enchanting book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. It is a mesmerising piece of work that gives an insight into nine different types of religious devotion. The author evocatively portrays people who face the challenge of holding on to the legacy of traditions. He writes about a Jain nun in the ancient pilgrimage town of Sravanabelagola; devadasi Rani Bai from Belgaum; Baul singers Kanai Das and Debdas Baul from Bengal; Rajasthani hereditary singers of epics, Mohan Bhopa and Batasi; the tantric traditions of Manisha Ma Bhairavi in the holy town of Tarapith. Significantly, Darlymple’s book contains the powerful story of Hari Das, a popular Theyyam dancer of Kannur, who divides his time between jobs as a manual labourer during the week and a prison warden during weekends for nine months a year. For the remaining three months, from December to February, he turns into a dancer possessed by gods. It is his calling as an incarnate deity that makes Hari Das incorporate the physically demanding martial art form into his training as a dancer besides the intense mental, physical, and spiritual preparations before the performance. Dalrymple details the strict code of conduct for performers, including celibacy and abstinence from alcohol and non-vegetarian food for 41 days before a performance to purify themselves for the ‘consecration of the deity within their body’. He writes that Theyyam finds its origins not just in the worship of ancestors and forest spirits, but also in a polarised society which once allowed only higher castes to enter temples and compelled people of the lower castes to employ other means to engage with their gods; it created an egalitarian space for the oppressed. They discovered a powerful voice to narrate to their feudal persecutors’ stories of injustice and exploitation. The transformation from man to god initiated a dramatic status reversal within prevailing social hierarchies.
The exclusiveness of other dance forms such as Therukoothu, a Tamil street theatre form, and Kalayaripattu, one of the oldest surviving Indian martial art forms from Kerala, also transport people into the magical world of artists, who put their heart and soul into their performances. Though Kalarippayattu got a lease of life in movies, there are not many books to be found in English about these art forms other than the University of Durban’s 1992 publication Therukoothu: A Traditional South Indian Dance Drama Form as Manifest in Natal Since 1860 by Sathasivan Annamalai and Kalarippayattu: The Complete Guide to Kerala’s Ancient Martial Art by Chirakkal Sreedharan T. Nair written in 2016.
In comparison, Theyyam finds more references. Theyyam The Other Gods by Bhawani Cheerath-Rajagopalan and Rajesh Komath takes the reader through history, legends, performers, locations and different types of the dance form. In God’s Mirror; the Theyyams of Malabar, Pepita Seth talks about the synthesis of tribal, Dravidian and Aryan cultural practices and how the communities draw strength from the protection of the Theyyams. The Kannur University publication (2012) Theyyam: Patronage Appropriation and Interpolation by Mannarakkal Dasan, and Kerala Bhasha Institute publication Theyyam by Dr. Vishnu Nambutiri (2015) are important works that pay respect to obscure people whose lives are made vivid by eloquent piety and devotion. Furthermore, Theyyam: Merging with the Divine by Chinta Indu (2018) and The World of Theyyam: A study on Theyyam, The ritual art form of North Kerala by Dr. R. C. Karippath (2019) unfold the unique and colourful culture of Malabar through its mythical stories and celebrate the tales of extraordinary individual devotion.
Words may be inadequate to describe the visual grandeur and phenomenon of Theyyam. The ecstatic god-dance conveys the beauty of an ancient society that have held communities and generations together. It is important to read about them to be sympathetic to a cultural milieu that places everybody on par.