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Theyyam Artist Having Make Up Applied On His Face, Thalassery, India

In India, you can attend to a popular Hindu ritual of worship called Theyyam. This cult is an ancestral one. Hindu population is divided by castes. This worship has got the particularity of involving all the caste and classes of the Hindu religion living in the region. But Theyyam is performed by male members of particular castes only. Men from Malayan, Pulayan, Vannan, Anjoottan, Munnutton, Velan, Chungathan, Koppalan and Mayilon are part of the castes who perform Theyyam.

The performers of Theyyam are all members of the indigenous tribal community, and they have an important position in Theyyam. This is unique, since only in Kerala, do both the upper-caste Brahmins and lower-caste tribals share an important position in a major form of worship. The term Theyyam is a corrupt form of Devam or God. People of these districts consider the performers of the Theyyam itself as a deities and they look forward blessings from this Theyyam. To get the appearance of super-human, original and colourful costume and make-up are used in theyyam dances. An essential component of the costume of theyyam dancer are the leaves of coconut tree which are cut and made into different shapes and sizes. All the dancers wear a very special massive headgear whom the structure is usually prepared from arecanut tree and bamboo as it is for the « uduthukettu », the waist-dress. It takes hours to make up and prepare the dancers. People from the village attend to the metamorphosis. The face is decorated with a red make up. To make the costumes more attractive, red colored flowers are also sticked to the fancy dresses. The performance stands in front of the village and all the people can attend to it. The devotees would be standing or some of them would be sitting on a sacred tree in front of the shrine. What does Theyyam is all about ? It tells the story of people who lost their lives in battlefield, pangs of women who committed suicide or persons killed by the local chieftains. Such people are honoured through theyyams performed in front of shrines.

The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song, which describes the myths and legends, of the deity of the shrine or the folk deity to be propitiated. The dancer comes in front of the shrine and gradually “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine. There are about 450 known forms of « theyyams » and each has got its own myth and style of costumes, make-up, choreography and songs. After the dance, people consult also the dancers because they communicate forecasts and see the future. There is a charge for the consultation.


© Eric Lafforgue


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Taken on February 22, 2008