Festival of the month: Theyyam, Kerala

Head to Kerala to witness its most popular ritualistic art form.
Image courtesy: Supriya Sehgal

Winter is the best time to be in Kerala. Or that’s what the guidebooks say. The days are pleasantly warm, the evenings cool. The fish is fresh, the backwaters alluring as ever and the hills fragrant with the aroma of spices and tea. Winter in Kerala is special for one more reason — Theyyam.

If you happen to be in Malabar, the northern belt of Kerala, this month, chances are that you will hear the rhythmic thumping of feet accompanied by hypnotic chants. Believed to pre-date Hinduism, Theyyam is a religious dance-drama performed by dancers mostly from the scheduled castes and tribes. The dance is an invocation of spirits, ancestors and even nature. There are various reasons why Theyyam recitals are organised — from family custom to village rituals. There are more than 450 types of Theyyams, each with its unique aspects.

There are around 450 different theyyams, each with a distinct costume.
Image courtesy: Kerala Tourism board

A Theyyam dancer almost always wears red. The body is often smeared with green and the headdress more elaborate than anything seen on the Paris runways. The peak Theyyam season is November to March, though January is the most hectic month for the dancers. Some theories say these dancers actually assume the form of God and are not mere impersonations. Whatever the theory, the dance itself is a visual feast of colours, sights and sounds. An all-male orchestra plays the drums with vigour as the dancer(s), also male, takes to the stage. The performance is usually held at the village temple, and the audience sits around the dance floor. It’s not uncommon to find the dancer blessing members of the audience. Some performances end with dancers walking on hot coal or the sacrifice of a rooster. The dancers tell a story through the act, and the length of the performance really depends on how long or short this story is.

For an authentic Theyyam experience, head to Bekal, Kasargod and Kannur. Stay for a few days in any of these places to catch both a day and night performance. Usually, posters in Malayalam are pasted along the roads to announce a performance. The most fascinating part of this experience is when the dancers get ready for the act. This shed close to the temple serves as the green room. Artistes lie on the floor for hours while intricate designs are painted on their face with red. You must seek permission for photography if you are watching the dancers get ready.

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AUTHOR'S BIO: With a penchant for travelling ‘ungoogled’, Supriya has willingly got lost a number of times in the most obscure places of India for the last 8 years. She lives on a healthy diet of anecdotes and tea with auto drivers, co-passengers and locals! Supriya currently runs a Bangalore based travel-photography outfit called Photography Onthemove and writes regular features for India and International travel publications. More on www.supriyasehgal.com.