The Theyyam Experience  

Posted by Praveen in ,

Eminent theyyam artist Aneesh Peruvannan during mukhathezhuthu(face painting)

It was a thursday night, two weeks back. Thats when my friend Munz, the metalhead cum photographer cum politician from Kannur pinged me and asked, 'Coming to watch a theyyam here in my hometown'? I never thought twice when I heard that. And on friday night, I found myself travelling in the general compartment to Thalipparambu in Kannur. The year 2011 seems to have started a strange love affair between me and general compartments with already 3 trips in the overcrowded box in my kitty! After landing in Kannur, I roamed around in the majestic St.Angelo's fort, overlooking the sea. My host was busy with a (secret) high risk photography assignment. My all time favorite food and drink(Kappa-meen curry and Sharjah shake) kept me in high spirits as I started the short bus journey to Thalipparambu. Kannur lived up to its reputation of being a 'communist bastion' with red flags and banners at every junction. And my friend being a staunch communist himself, had renamed his street as 'Che Guevara lane'.

By the time I reached Munz's house, it was time to get out for theyyam. The bike started moving through the narrow inner roads of Thalipparambu. A brilliant sunset over a river provided the perfect setting for a heady evening. We lost our way many times and travelled so much that, atlast when we reached the place I felt like I reached the end of the world. Mulloor kaav is a non-descript temple in the interior of Thalipparambu. A brief digression for the sake of those who don't know much about theyyam.(This was my first theyyam experience, BTW). Theyyam is a ritualistic art form practised in Northern Kerala, mainly in Kannur and Kasargod districts, which were once known as kolathunaadu. It involves intricate movements and dance steps which faintly resemble kalarippayattu. There are hundreds of different varieties of theyyam, each in tribute to a particular deity. It is an art which needs years and years of practise. What makes this art form stand out is that it is performed by those belonging to the lower castes(castes like vannan,malayan). It is a kind of revolutionary uprising of the downtroddens. So, unlike Kathakali, which is for the classes, theyyam is the art of the masses. And to challenge the Brahmanical ideas of purity, the theyyam drinks kallu(toddy) and eats meat. Sacrificing of cocks is a part of the ritual for some theyyams.

The big rings being worn over the legs

getting ready

a mirror is pointed at the theyyam after the makeup. Thats when the theyyam acquires the characters of God...The old man sees God in the theyyam and prays with folded hands

This theyyam was to take place in the courtyard of a tharavaadu(ancestral house). Thanks to my friend, we reached there in time to shoot the process of mukhathezhuthu(face painting). Aneesh peruvannan is a theyyam artist with years of experience and have won several awards. He smiled shyly as we started clicking him. At the end of the painting, a mirror is pointed at him. This is when he acquires the characteristics of the theyyam, changes facial expressions and jumps into the courtyard. The main theyyam for the day was called kandanar kelan theyyam. The first part of any theyyam performance is vellattam or thottam(only one of this will be there for a particular theyyam). In this part, the face paintings and the props are simple. The 'thottam paattu' is sung during this time. It describes the origin of the theyyam and related things in a song format. Its a form of social commentary which tells us the conditions that existed in the bygone era, the stories of oppression and cruelty by the rulers towards the lower castes. 'Vellattam',on the other hand, is a toned down version of the main theyyam, but with more acrobatics as the artist is wearing no props. After 'vellattam', the theyyam goes back to the makeup room. Then starts the long process of the intricate face paintings, body paintings and putting on the props. In this gap, another theyyam might take place. This day, it was a performance of 'kudiveeran', eulogising an ancestral martial arts expert of that particular house.

'Vellattam' for Kandanar Kelan theyyam

Vellattam has more acrobatics than the main theyyam

playing with fire

a cock being sacrificed for 'kudiveeran'


The whole locality had gathered in and around the courtyard to watch the theyyam. Its a time for coming together, for those who have gone to far away places to come back to their ancestral homes and share the togetherness. One of the best things during the breaks were the talks with the old men. They were happy to tell us the stories behind each theyyam. A short version of the story of Kandanar Kelan can be read here. It helped that my friend also knew quite a lot about theyyam. His metal band 'The down troddenz' and some of their songs are infact inspired from ideas behind theyyams. The main performance of 'Kandanar Kelan' was to take place at 4 in the morning. It was a long wait, but well spent with Munz and our other photographer friend Clint Soman. We sat there in that divine atmosphere in biting cold, bitching about everything under the sun. The theyyam artists caught some much needed sleep at that time. Some of the paintings were done while he was still asleep. During the season, they never get any respite, performing at temple after temple, night after night and sometimes during the day.

Exactly at 4, the chendas and the small pipe sounded. Kandanar Kelan's 'mudi'(the big prop on the head) was worn. Big metal rings were put over his legs. The moment arrived and Kandanar Kelan ran into the courtyard in all his glory. A big bonfire was prepared at the centre of the courtyard. The theyyam ran and jumped over it. Two helpers on either side supported him as he ran swiftly over the blaze. It was a sight to behold. Viewed from the front, it looked like a human phoenix rising from the flames. There were many others running around adding fuel to fire, fuel being dry coconut leaves. The fire raged like a mountain. We couldn't withstand the heat even from the distance. The toughness of mind, the years of practice and above all the inner purity needed for a theyyam performance like this is enormous. And its a mystery how the theyyam never get burns. Instead, he was jumping and running over it again and again. The eyes were fierce, as if he would devour the whole big blaze. At that moment, I saw divinity in him. Its no surprise that 'theyyam' is a word derived from 'deivam'(God).

Kandanar Kelan theyyam jumps over fire

rising like a phoenix

get, set, go

I disappear...into the fire

I was mesmerised to say the least. It was a feeling similar to what I had when I came out after my first metal concert. Yes, this will match any metal concert, any day! And, by then I had fallen in love with kolathunaadu too, with its rich traditions and warm, friendly people. Now my aim is to watch each of those hundreds of theyyams. Guess my friend will curse the moment he decided to invite me, after reading the previous sentence.

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your crusader Praveen

This entry was posted on Friday, February 04, 2011 at Friday, February 04, 2011 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


The experience of watching Theyyam live AND the photographs.

10:09 AM

Lucky you!!!aweome article and great photos too!

10:11 AM

Hey Praveen,
Good one man. In TN, we do have art forms practiced [esp]by people from lower strata of the society [Theru Koothu, Thappaattam - to name a few]. At times, it makes me wonder why do we have such differentiation in art forms. Keep'em coming. :)
On a lighter note, Pls do share pics from Blore fashion weeks like the ones you used to share in SLRBB :D

12:11 PM

WOW.. Nostalgic...
True, Theyyam, muthappan Vellattam, very unique to Kannur :)
Its been ages since i saw one of these..

12:16 PM

Aaah. :)
Being from Kannur, I can completely relate to it.


11:24 AM

It was last year January when I saw my first Theyyam at my Husband's place. Nothing can match seeing a Theyyam in temple. Amazing experience. loved your captures.

3:40 PM

Good on you man to take up this one for a post. Nice pics! :)

8:18 AM

Wow! Super glad to know that went to my home town! Kannur is very very dear to my heart and will be so for all time to come.

And about the Theyyam experience, you put it right - it is an experience indeed! Mystical, magical, lasting and connected well within!

7:47 AM

Never seen Theyyam...Would love to..And the snaps have come out well..

8:34 AM

@June, Jon
Thanks :)

The nre blore fashion week pics r in my facebook page myopiclensesphotography :D

@aditya Jayant and Nikhil
nice 2 see natives of kannur getting nostalgic :D

yea!nothing can match it :D maybe a metal concert ;)

12:13 PM

Hey praveen. I just happened to be in your blog and this seems very interesting so I ended reading the whole thing.I dont know much about it though I've seen Theyyam on tv a few times.Anyways well written

1:57 AM

thanks man

u too from Kannur????suddenly everyone's native seems to be kannur :D

yea...the enchanted!

@blue lotus

seeing in TV and seeing it for real are 2 different things!

1:22 AM

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