Being from an orthodox family in Kasargod, I was not allowed to go for festivals during my childhood. Only permission I got was to go for Kaliyattom. The entire people in the village buy new clothes and ornaments and eagerly wait for Kaliyattom. Kaliyattom is not only a movie starring Suresh Gopi, but it is a Theyyam festival, a popular dance ritual worship of northern Kerala. Its roots can be traced back to 1500 years ago, and it still preserves its tribal and Dravidian features. There are more than 400 different kinds of Theyyam in Kerala.
Theyyam means daivam. It is said that during the act, the performer will be in a divine state. One of the specialities of Theyyam is that though it is sponsored by members of the upper class and ruling class families, the artisans hailed from low-caste communities such as Malayan or Vannan and this would act as the great equalizer of the course of history. In those days when untouchability was prevalent, they were treated like untouchables but when they perform Theyyam, people would fall on their feet and seek their blessings.
Theyyam is generally done in the courtyards of ancestral house.It is the time for get- together of the family members. There is no stage or curtain or other such arrangements for the performance. This dance is performed to honour the ancestral spirits. The season for Theyyam last from November to March each year. During this season the dancer adheres to a vegetarian diet and celibate lifestyle. He consumes no meat or alcohol, nor does he lie or speak badly of others. He prays at the temple daily and cleanses himself before the dance.
The major part of the Theyyam is done in the night. In the night the vision of Theyyam along with chenda and fire torches gives a perfect ambience so that we feel, we are taken to an imaginary land. Truly an unparallel experience. The Theyyam starts with Vellattam or Thottam. It is executed with a small red headdress without make up. The dancer along with the drummers recites the particular ritual song, which describes the myths and legends, of the deity of the shrine. After finishing these primary rituals, the dancer returns to the green room for a proper makeup.
One of the highlights of Theyyam is the lengthy makeup session that can go on for four to five hours. One of the attractions of Theyyam is its costume and make-up. And among these, the headgear (Mudi) and facial make-up (Mukhathezhuthu) are the prime factors. Natural ingredients are used for facial paint.Colours such as Red, black, yellow and white are mainly used for the same. The headgears are known by different names like olamudi, ilamudi, pala mudi, thoppi chamayam, vatta mudi, neelamudi, peelimudi, purathattu, omkara mudi etc. Other than headgear the costume includes , straw skirts and several layers of highly coloured dress.
The face paint (mukha thezhuthu) the chime from anklet and huge headdress gives the dancer a bewitching look. Then he comes to the yard and gradually “metamorphoses” into the particular deity of the shrine and begins dancing. The dance movements are very interesting to see in that they use different kind of steps with properties such as sword, shield and even fire torch in their hands. At intervals the performer shrieks and screams. The dancer run fast in the courtyard with the sword and rush in to the crowd,people run behind him and try to catch him.
He Calls people from the crowd by their family name and give them some advice. He often jumps or hurls himself on a heap of red hot ashes. To my surprise, I have never noticed any one getting burnt. Throughout, folk instruments are played in a certain rhythm. In the end, the crowd gathers and seek blessings from the Theyyam. They receive yellow powder as prasadam and go home with a strong belief that they are protected from all evils and diseases. Overall Kaliyattom gives a mesmerizing experience.
Theyyam is not just an art form like Kathakali but much more than that. Rituals like Theyyam, give positivity and happiness to us. These are our legacy. It is important to preserve it.