I still remember it was sometime around mid-2005 when my good friend Sudhar and I sat at the legendary Sathya’s Bar in Koramangala, Bangalore. The topic of discussion was the Theyyam performance in Kannur. Sudhar is from Kannur (now settled in the US). He fondly recollected his childhood days in Kannur, explaining how his family would organize the Theyyam performances at their ‘Tharavad’ (ancestral home).
Sudhar explained Theyyam so passionately that I immediately wanted to pack my bags and head to Kannur to see the performance. But then, life had different plans. Years passed, and things happened. Sudhar moved to the US, and my desire to see Theyyam got buried deep in mundane life affairs.
Manish’s Theyyam image blew my mind and revived my desire to watch Theyyam firsthand. Manish is a regular visitor to Kannur, photographing and documenting Theyyam performances for over a decade. Over the years, he has spent much time in Kannur, making friends and educating himself about the local culture and various forms of Theyyam performance.
So I finally decided to make this trip happen. I spoke to Manish and accompanied him to Kannur this March. The agenda was to experience Theyyam performances at various Temples and Tharavads. Theyyam performances can be super crowded, but thanks to Manish’s deep local network, we could avoid the hyper-crowded performance, mostly 🙂 …and I also got to photograph the performance myself 🙂
Most of the Theyyam performances we went to were actually at Kannur’s neighboring villages, and not really at Kannur city.
Theyyam performance often starts with an elaborate makeup session, often lasting a few hours. The makeup is on dot with perfect symmetries and patterns.
Body artwork, costumes, and jewelry follow the face makeup. The costumes and jewelry can be heavy, and I wonder how they can carry off themselves with so much grace, given the humid Kerala weather.
The Theyyam performer starts zoning into a trance as the makeup approaches completion. You can see him vigorously tapping his legs, itching to explode into his performance. I found this bit extremely fascinating to watch.
Once the makeup is done, the performer is given a mirror to look at himself. He spends a few minutes looking at himself and as he does, he goes into a complete trance. This is when he transitions from a mere human to ‘God.’
From then, he is no longer himself. He is ‘Theyyam‘.
As the performance starts, the Theyyam is on his own, like a Rockstar on the stage, doing his things, captivating the audience with his aura. I took several pictures of the performance. Of course, my pictures don’t do any justice to the actual performance, the performer’s aura, or the energy of the people at the venue. You have to witness the performance yourself to experience Theyyam in its entirety.
Fire in an important element in Theyyam, and you will find fire in almost all the Theyyam performances. Needless to say, fire also adds to the photographer’s delight 🙂
As the performance nears completion, in his state of trance, the Theyyam God advises families in the community on ways of life and blesses them. The human-god interaction is an important part of the Theyyam performance.
Besides the performance, what amazed me was the community participation in pulling off the event. For the family, organizing a Theyyam performance is no joke. Each event takes months of careful planning and preparation (besides resources). The best part is that the entire community helps the family pull off the event.
The community spirit is phenomenal, and I realized that local traditions like this play a key role in keeping the community united by working towards a common goal. Much needed in a country like India 🙂
Kannur is just 1hr flight from Bangalore, 7 hrs by drive, or an overnight bus/train. It’s a shame, despite the proximity, it took me 18 years to make this trip happen. But like they say, better late than never.
Here are a few more images, click on it to enlarge. Each image has a story, but maybe I’ll keep that for another day 🙂
I hope you like these images. Do let me know.