How caste still rules the social lives of Theyyam practitioners in Kerala

Rooted in faith and a form of worship, the Theyyam ritual involves a performer, usually male, going into a trance, dancing as if possessed, and thereby transforming into a deity. Sachin Ravi
31 October, 2021

In late July, I visited the home of a 70-year-old Theyyam performer in Kerala’s Kannur district. Theyyam is a dance-oriented ritual practiced in Kerala. The road was haphazard, and not motorable. From the main road, one had to meander through the backyards of a series of neighbouring houses, to finally reach his home, the front side of which was partially hidden by a long, blue sheet of tarpaulin. “Don’t slip and fall!” he warned, as I made my way through the moss-ridden path and entered his house, clumsily sheltered from the heavy rain.

The Theyyam performer spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. As we began to talk, his wife handed him some tablets for his respiratory trouble. Gulping them, he told us in a matter-of-fact manner that health issues were natural for any Theyyam performer. “Those are the visible problems, a side-effect of the profession.” Then he spoke of the more insidious issues. “There are other problems embedded within the Theyyam system, against which voices rarely arise, and even if they do, they are deliberately suppressed, because it is not in keeping with the modern values of Kerala,” he said. The 70-year-old virtuoso was referring to the history of caste discrimination and caste-based micro-aggressions that he said the Theyyam performing community faces on a daily basis.

Theyyam is a ritualistic performance, primarily done by Scheduled Caste communities based in the districts of Kasargod, Kannur and some regions in Kozhikode in northern Kerala. Rooted in faith and a form of worship, this ritual involves a performer, usually male, going into a trance, dancing as if possessed, and thereby transforming into a deity. Accompanied by the sound of beating drums and the assistance of few helpers, the elaborately dressed Theyyam practitioner, in his heavy headgear and jewellery, may run through fire, drink toddy or sacrifice a hen in their designated sacred groves, known as kaavus. The Theyyam performer is looked upon as a people’s god, or a dancing god, popularly worshipped by many viewers irrespective of caste or religion and is an inevitable part of northern Kerala’s culture. In the pre-pandemic era, crowds thronged the Theyyam festivals, known as kaliyattams, in the Theyyam season which usually begins from October and continues till May.

Historically, the rituals and customs of a typical Theyyam performance are dictated by and embedded within the caste system. Dominant and subordinate relations between upper and lower castes are evident in it, and each caste is assigned specific duties and roles within. The nine major communities which perform the Theyyam belong to historically marginalised communities such as the Vannan, Malayan, Velan and Mavilan communities, who are classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the state. On the other hand, the ritual is usually held at the ancestral homes of the Nambuthiri, Nair, Thiyya or other dominant castes, in the sacred shrines they personally own, or in other community-owned shrines. This has changed over the years with some other castes earning social mobility and capital to have their own shrines.

Nevertheless, in Kerala’s social context where untouchability, unapproachability and even unseeability were prominent, and the distance lower castes had to keep from upper castes was stringently enforced, Theyyams posit a certain kind of resistance. Though rooted in the caste system, Theyyam spaces witness a temporary inversion of caste hierarchies because upper-caste people are also answerable to and have to pay obeisance to this lower caste dancing god, at least during the span of the ritual performance. Devotees may talk to, touch and even hug the god, and receive consolation and advice in return. Even as the caste system defines the ritual in itself, a limited reversal of the social order can be momentarily seen. However, as soon as the performer removes his make-up and costume, the status quo is often re-established.

Rajesh Komath, an associate professor at the School of Social Sciences at the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, emphasised this. He said that when the Theyyam performance is over, the artist is “shown his place and relegated to the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy quite visibly, reflected in the financial remuneration he receives and the attitude shown towards him by temple authorities and festival organisers even today.” Komath, who has also performed Theyyams in the past and belongs to the Malayan community, noted in his doctoral thesis that Theyyam communities were far behind other castes in the region in terms of upward mobility across social hierarchies.

Without doubt, caste is prevalent in the Theyyam myth and practice. Each Theyyam tells a mythical story. Some Theyyam stories do focus on caste discrimination and anti-caste themes. For instance, the Vishnumoorthi Theyyam, is essentially the story of a boy from the Thiyya community, which is categorised as part of the Other Backward Classes, killed by upper-caste landlords for falling in love with a girl in their family. The Ayppilli Theyyam tells the story of a Dalit boy shot dead for not giving way to the local chieftain. The Thottankara Bhagavathi is the story of a childless Thiyya woman who was murdered by the higher castes for reading religious texts. Such stories show examples of Dalits breaking caste norms or barriers, followed by punishment from upper-caste landlords, who subsequently repent and atone for their sin by deifying the murdered person. Some Theyyam stories also depict upper-caste men and women who transgressed caste norms.   

But are Theyyams necessarily anti-caste, or anti-untouchability in their enactment? “I can’t say if Theyyam is exactly anti-caste,” PP Kunhiraman Peruvannan, a senior Theyyam practitioner and a recipient of 2015 Kerala Folklore Academy fellowship, told me. The Kerala Folklore Academy is a government organisation, established in 1995, to promote Kerala’s traditional folk art forms. “The myths revolve around violations of caste norms. But in its rituals, each caste has a specific designation and role to fulfil, and if that changes, the whole performance changes. Theyyam cannot exist without the caste system. That said, I believe it is possible to separate the ritual life and the social life of the Theyyam performer in our democratic system.”

The modern, social life of the Theyyam performer is often marked by caste and untouchability. Scholars suggest that this owes to Theyyam being a caste occupation, and the boundaries involved in defining this performance as a ritual or secular art form being constantly contested. “This performance is seen as a caste occupation with feudal undertones,” PP Prakashan, author of Daivam Enna Duranthanayakan, or God: A Tragic Hero, a book which fictionally narrates the trials and tribulations in the life of a Theyyam performer, said. “So the general notion is that these performing communities are obligated to do this. ‘They owe us,’ in popular parlance. But the reality is that these practitioners undertake this performance at a huge financial, physical and mental cost, which is often forgotten. Moreover, they have to face violations and micro-aggressions on a daily basis.”

According to VK Anilkumar, a cultural historian and programme officer at Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, such violations are not a thing of the past, “as most progressive thinkers in Kerala would want to believe.” He added, “They happen even today.” The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi is a government organisation, established in 1958, for the promotion and preservation of Kerala’s art forms. Anilkumar recounted an incident of a well-known Theyyam performer being humiliated in a public ceremony as recently as April 2021 in Kunhimangalam village, in Kannur district. “The cultural programme, held in a village some 30 kilometres away from Kannur, was conducted to felicitate him for receiving a Folklore Academy award,” Anilkumar said. “But the Brahmin priest, who was supposed to present the honorary shawl and cover him with it, refused to do so, and instead, just handed over the shawl to him, without touching. He had no qualms in covering the other award recipients with the shawl and congratulating them. This is a clear instance of caste discrimination against a Theyyam performer.”

That a Theyyam performer was humiliated in a cultural function that intended to honour him, signifies the tension faced by the modern Theyyam performer, juggling between the ritual and the real world. Without a formal complaint being registered, the issue died down after an initial furore on social media. YV Kannan, a senior folklore historian based in Kannur  told me that “this is a social issue” and not simply an individual case of caste discrimination. “It must be acknowledged as such,” he said. “Even more disconcerting is the fact that this society does not consider it a crime. They are easily covered up.  Why is this normalised, and why aren’t more voices coming out in support of Theyyam performers?”

Kannan said that the history of the North Malabar region in Kerala is replete with oral tales of Theyyam performers being “outcast” or banned from performing for questioning traditional caste norms prevalent in a village or locality, or even demanding more financial remuneration. The Vannan and Malayan communities, which are classified as Scheduled Castes are granted rights to perform in a certain area, and it is a taboo for them to perform outside of their designated sacred shrines or temples. In cases where this is contested, quarrels and disputes take place, sometimes leading to negotiations with the police and even court cases. However, according to Peruvannan, the fear of being outcast keeps Theyyam performers from questioning caste norms and practices. “Records are hard to find, but such incidents are etched in memory,” Peruvannan told me. He recounted how his father and two relatives, who were Scheduled Caste Theyyam performers, were denied rights to perform after they took a bath in a pond meant for the Thiyya community, near the Cheermbakkavu temple in Kannur district’s Mattul village, in Kannur district in 1932. “Things turned a bit better with some concessions granted for us, but the threat of ooruvilakku,”—being outcast—“still hangs over the heads of Theyyam performers, which stops us from outrightly protesting against injustice,” he added.

P Vijisha and EK Govinda Varma Raja, academics at the University of Calicut in Kerala, detailed some instances of Theyyam performers being outcast in a 2016 paper titled “Existence of Untouchability towards Maari Theyyam.” In 1986, a Theyyam performer from the Vannan community was barred from performing in a shrine in Pappinisseri village, in Kannur district, over an argument about financial remuneration. The performer was replaced by another performer from the Malayan community, even though this Theyyam is usually reserved for performers from the Vannan community. The 70-year-old Theyyam performer told me that in 2006, opinion differences over a ritual led to a performer from Malayan community being barred from future performances in Annur, a village in Kannur district, a ban which continues till today. Hierarchies exist within the performing communities too, and in this hierarchy, Vannan and Malayan performers are not expected to participate in the rituals of people from the Pulayan caste—who are considered to be inferior to them.

Discrimination is visible in other ways as well. “A lot has been written on the ritual-aesthetic aspect of Theyyams by research scholars and folklore historians alike,” Sudheesh Chattanchal, a writer and Theyyam artist from Kasargod district, said. Chattanchal is a member of the Nalkadaya community, one of the Theyyam performing communities in Kasargod. “But nobody talks about the casteism aspect as much. For instance, while Theyyams by the Vannan and Malayan communities perform right in front of the temple’s courtyard, Theyyams from Nalkadaya, Mavilan, Velan communities are often performed outside the temple’s courtyard, at a certain distance from the temple.” He continued, “There is literally no basis for this distance and discrimination among the Theyyams, you won’t find it in the myths or anywhere else. But our Theyyams are outside the temple walls to this day, and it goes unquestioned.”

Sudheesh further noted that this culture of indifference, coupled with a lack of discussion on questions related to caste, meant that these issues were often swept under the rug. Narrating an incident from 2014, he said,  “One can simply take a look at the temporary green rooms assigned to our Theyyam performers to ascertain how much the organisers care about us. You can’t even call it a room. The roof is covered with palm fronds that leak when it rains. Once, fed up, we brought this to the attention of the temple authorities and asked to shift our room to the temple’s front yard. They blatantly refused and said it was part of the ritual to keep us outside. And in most cases, we wouldn’t have the space to question them further.”  The Theyyam system often enforces hierarchies among hierarchies, and in this way, Theyyam performers are bound by caste norms. As Theyyam practitioners, they may be respected within the ritualistic context of the dance itself, but their status in terms of demanding their rights is still precarious. 

One area where this continues to be the case is their ability to ask for the financial remuneration that they think they deserve. The notion that participating in Theyyam festivals are an obligation or duty of the community still runs high among the performers and the temple authorities alike. Historically, Theyyams performed a social function of healing and worship, for which they were paid in kind—in the form of rice, grains, pulses. According to Pradeep Peruvannan, a Theyyam performer from Sreestha village in Kannur district, this was supposedly written down in palm leaves kept under the temple’s custody, and passed over through generations. “It is expected that one must abide by what was written by our ancestors,” Peruvannan said. This practice is followed to date. At present, the performer is also paid a certain amount in cash. The amount is not fixed, and can differ depending upon the Theyyam performed, the nature of the temple or shrine, and even the attitude of the authorities and the performer.

When I asked about remuneration, most performers were hesitant to divulge details. I spoke to several Theyyam performers, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. A performer with over 20 years of experience and a resident of Cheruthazham town in Kannur district told me he was paid Rs 1,000 for three Theyyams in a day, as recently as 2018. “If I ask for more, the temple authorities will either call someone else who is willing to settle for this amount, or cancel the festival,” he said. “There will always be someone ready to take over, and then this could become a whole other issue. The expectation is to accept it without question.” Another Theyyam performer based in Payyanur town in Kannur district mentioned an instance when he was paid Rs 2,500 for three Theyyams in a day, in 2016. “The money is for the Theyyam as a whole, and a Theyyam will need a minimum of 5-8 assistants, including drummers and instrumentalists,” he said. “The drummer will need at least Rs 1,000-1500 for a day’s work these days. You can imagine how much money is left for the performer after paying them.” The 70-year-old Theyyam practitioner reiterated the same sentiments. “A day’s wage is not even considered necessary,” he said, referring to the attitude of temple authorities. He added, “A drummer was paid Rs 1,200 for playing the drums for three days from early morning till night, the compensation for playing such a heavy piece of percussion that is hung from the neck.” 

Kannan told me about the observations of Erik de Maaker, a Dutch scholar, who had studied Theyyams over thirty years ago. Kannan said that his work threw light on how normalised the attitude of accepting low payment was among the Theyyam community as well as the public. “In 1985, this scholar from a Western country was able to note that the quality of paddy given to the Theyyam performer was very bad,” Kannan said. “He compared it with what you get in the market. He narrated how a performer from the Mavilan community,”—a community categorised as a Scheduled Tribe—“received his remuneration, humbly accepting the five rupees given by the temple committee, so much less than a day’s wage. He did not utter a word, but seeing the look in his eyes, the committee gave him an additional two rupees. He is satisfied with that, he has to be.” Commenting on the lack of transparency in such exchanges, Kannan added, “It is only when one sees this negotiation for real do they understand the Theyyam performer’s powerlessness and the uncertainty he faces.”

The Theyyam practitioner who is a resident of Payyanur told me that it is often clear that the performer must not hurt the ego of the ones paying them. “Artful negotiation is key,” he said. “A Theyyam practitioner must know when to lay low, and when to stand high. Obviously, you can’t outrightly demand a huge amount of money. You decide, present it before the temple authorities, and have a conversation. Sometimes they won’t be ready to pay as much as you think. You’ll have to humbly accept and hope for the best in the future, and don’t burn bridges.” However, when asked about this negotiation, members of temple committees have often challenged this and said things have changed.

Some Theyyam practitioners said that the remuneration is better in family-owned shrines than community shrines. Community-owned festivals are mostly large-scale involving greater public participation, while the former is relatively small. In a recent paper, Anil Gopi, an academic at the department of anthropology at the University of Hyderabad, wrote that “the organizers,” in community-owned shrines, “show much authority over the performers. Being a hereditarily entitled duty, the performers cannot stop performing the rituals at such shrines. Here the remuneration will be a very small amount, and any arguments of the performers never meet any favourable result.”

Often, the trope of heredity and tradition is used to justify the low pay by committees. “‘Your grandfather never demanded this money, so you too shouldn’t. And you call yourself a God!’ That’s what they say,” the Theyyam performer from Payyanur told me. Other times, astrology is brought in to belittle a performer and their demands for adequate remuneration. “When you perform for years in the same shrine, you develop some familiarity with the temple authorities,” the performer said. “So, when you demand a greater remuneration, they can’t reject your proposal in the face. Instead, they would bring an astrologer who would find some faults in my stars, my fasting or abstinence rituals or in my performance. That is their excuse to bring someone else to perform in my place, someone who would agree to the lesser amount. This is also used as an excuse to keep some Theyyams outside of temple walls even today.”

The Theyyam performance inevitably includes complicated artistic skills, which are required for painting the face of the performer with detailed patterns, and preparing accessories needed for the dance. This too requires money. “The intricate craft and accessories, made specifically for each Theyyam are indispensable and require a particular skill set in its making,” the Theyyam performer, who is a resident of Cheruthazham, told me. “Some of the materials used in the headgear or anklets require silver, a single item of which can cost between Rs 28,000 and Rs 30,000. Falling into the fire, coupled with heavy movements inevitably means damage. Maintenance is expensive, and this money is usually paid out of the performer’s pocket. Some performers have pawned their wife’s jewellery, taken loans or gone into debt for this.” Performers did caution that not all shrines are hesitant to pay what they deserve. A performer said some places annually increase the amount “by a few hundreds or thousands.” He added, “But the parity becomes obvious when temple committees are ready to splurge on drama artists, firecrackers and fancy lighting for their festivals, but not on us.”

I asked T Ramachandra Panicker, a senior Theyyam performer and a resident of Cheruthazham, if Theyyam performers had a union, and he laughed.  “What for? To hold flags and make noise in front of temples?,” he said. It is a wonder that Theyyam performers have not unionised in north Kerala, particularly Kannur, which is considered to be one of the Left strongholds in the state. Some performers are quick to point out the rifts and ideological differences within the performing community that do not allow for a general unification.

The question of whether the Theyyam is a ritual to be performed only in designated spaces by certain castes or an art form that can be performed on stage and on demand is among the most polarising debates in the community. When Theyyam practitioners performed for the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, it led to conflicting opinions within the community. The late Kannan Peruvannan, one of the eminent practitioners in the field and recipient of the 1976 Art Award from the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy was heavily criticised for taking the performance on stage, a tendency which continues till date. 

Even today, several performers shy away from the “artist” tag, instead, they prefer to be called Theyyam koladhari, or one who adorns the Theyyam, emphasising the ritualistic aspect. This tension was a recurring theme in all of my conversations with the Theyyam performers. “The Theyyam community is not homogenous, we have people from different castes, backgrounds and with different opinions,” the Theyyam performer from Payyanur said. “Our ideological stands are also varied. This is why when problems arise, we are unable to stay together, display numerical strength and be a force to be reckoned with.” However, a few organisations have been in the forefront of supporting Theyyam performers. One such is the Uthara Malabar Theyyam Anushtana Avakasha Samrakshana Samithi, or UMTAASS, which has been demanding financial support from the state for the welfare of Theyyam performers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is also a significant lack of data regarding various aspects of the Theyyam performers’ lives. For instance, reliable statistics on the number of Theyyam performers in the region is unavailable. A 2015 study by Kerala Development Society Delhi, a socio-economic research organisation, approximated this number to be around one lakh, with performers from the Vannan community making up 30 percent. With a sample size of 200 Theyyam performers, the study further noted that most performers had just basic education, received abysmally low income from performances alone, own land less than five cents in rural areas, and receive no benefits from social security schemes. A cent is a unit of measuring land; one acre equals 100 cents. As of 2015, senior Theyyam performers were receiving a meagre annual pension of Rs 700 from the state government. Whether this amount has increased and what percent of performers receive it currently is unclear.

The Kerala Folklore Academy also does not have any specific data pertaining to Theyyam performers, even though since its inception in 1995, it has conducted Theyyam workshops and art training. “There are certain difficulties in collating this data, which includes properly defining categories like performer, folk artist etc,” AV Ajayakumar, the vice chairman of the Kerala Folklore Academy, told me. “The Folklore Academy has to include Theyyam along with other folk art forms in Kerala, so the academy provides certain awards and fellowships to all folk art forms. Some of the recipients are Theyyam performers.” In a reply by the Ministry of Culture at the Lok Sabha in March 2021, Theyyam was not mentioned in the list of “ancient folk cultures” being preserved in Kerala.

Meanwhile, around thirty temples under the Malabar Devaswom Board hold Theyyam performances. Most temples in Kerala come under the purview of different Devaswom Boards, which are government entities. In northern Kerala, the Malabar Devaswom Board is the government entity that oversees the functioning of certain Hindu temples and their financial assets. However, data about the number of Theyyam practitioners hired and the remuneration provided to them has not been collated. “Information about the remuneration and the number of performers is with the respective temple committees. The Devaswom Board has not collected this data; one may access them by speaking with temple committees directly,” CK Panicker, the zonal chairman of Malabar Devaswom Board, said. There is a certain lack of transparency in the procedures of temple committees, which further distances itself from any kind of public accountability and information.

Over the years, the system and societal place of Theyyams has undergone several changes. After the 1990s, with the advent of new media, the consumption of Theyyam moved beyond the ritualistic spaces and was consistently reconstructed within mediated spaces. Today there is a proliferation of Theyyam groups and pages on social media such as Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram. Yet, despite this new-found online visibility, the social lives of performers have remained the same. Owners of family shrines release their own “Theyyam souvenirs” with photos and articles about the family, and contributions to the Theyyam culture in the region. However, most souvenirs do not show photos of the Theyyam performers themselves. As VK Anilkumar pointed out, even people from the region cannot recall the names of Theyyam performers as they would remember famous Kathakali artists or those of other classical art forms. “Not a single Theyyam performer has been honoured with esteemed awards like the Padma awards,” Vijisha told me.

Further, caste still pervades the social life of Theyyam performers. It remains confined as whispers between temple committees, suppressed discussions on adequate remuneration, the threat of ooruvilakku and other micro-aggressions. Most of this is recalled from memory, barely documented and always covered up. The Theyyam performer from Payyanur told me about how he was taunted by a temple committee member for wearing a shirt while going to visit him at a temple. The Theyyam practitioner from Cheruthazham recollected how he was asked to sit on the floor and have his tea, in a canteen near the temple. Such violations are commonplace.

“Performing continuously without adequate food or rest is a given in a Theyyam performance,” Ramachandra said. This can go for hours, sometimes over 12 hours for the bigger Theyyams.” Showing me his burn scars, he added, “We sustain burns from jumping in the fire, and other intense bruises and scars from holding the heavy headgear, and the rigid strings that tie up our whole body with the costume and jewellery in place. We have learnt to live with it.”

Some members of the younger generation in the performing community are cognisant of these issues, and have called for separating caste from the Theyyam performance. As Prakashan said, “As long as this continues as a caste occupation, all these aggressions will continue. A lot of Theyyam enthusiasts we see today are in this for the visual-carnival aspect of it. The question of treating this performer with dignity, with adequate remuneration does not arise. Performers have been conditioned to think this poverty and violence is their fate. Unless Kerala’s public sphere responds, this will continue.”

This story was reported under the National Foundation of India (NFI) Fellowship for independent journalists.