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.