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.