Folk Gods Down to Earth – introducing an exotic folk ritual form

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Folk Gods Down to Earth

 The word Teyyam, used as singular and plural, refers to both the performance and the performer who becomes a supernatural being when he takes part in it. This highly captivating pageant folklore, ritual art tradition of India (South East Asia) confined to two northern villages of a State by name Kerala and immersed with a Dravidian belief in God thrived in areas that are the strongholds of the communist movement.  Each year the Teyyam season starts during the last week of October and ends by May end.  

By K.K.GOPALAKRISHNAN

 Come October end, the learned tourists and scholars on folk and ritual studies, both domestic and international, speed up towards the villages in Kasaragod and Kannur districts of northern Kerala, a state in the South-West corner of India in South Asia.  That is the beginning of the season of Teyyam, one of the highly captivating folk ritual art traditions of India which is enchantingly colourful and religiously deep-rooted with Dravidian concepts.  In reality, a Teyyam performance is more than merely a ritual.   For the outsiders, Teyyam is fabulously rich folklore, ritual art tradition and a topic of anthropological interest.

The word Teyyam must have originated from the word ‘tevar’ that stands for God. It upholds the prominence of Dravidian ritual artistry in the mainstream culture of the upper class and places the less fortunate as God highlighting the primitive face of social revolution.  Mother concept is highly dominant in the form, about 90%, but interestingly all those Teyyam have performed by men with high physical capabilities.  There is only one Teyyam, known as Devakoothu, performed at a particular place near Cherukunnu in Kannur by a woman and that too from a particular background and connected to a particular family through wedding; technically, it is also not a full-fledged Teyyam.

The word Teyyam, used as singular and plural, refers to both the performance and the performer who becomes a supernatural being when he takes part in it.  The organic factors underlying its make-up and costuming are awe-inspiring. Some of them wear tall headgears. Its attire brings in a fabulous dimension to the final figure who in reality is an unassuming labourer from the marginalised class toiling in the properties of mainly the upper-class Hindus. The whole clan of Teyyam artists hail from subaltern castes such as Vannan, Malayan, Mavilan, Cheruvan, Velan, Paravan and Pulayan, among others. They actively involve their entire family, including women and children in making up a Teyyam and bringing in its ambience.

Indian dance theatre forms such as Kathakali is highly indebted to this ritual art form for both its aesthetic and rhythmic inspiration. The pure dance steps of Kathakali     (kalasham) are partly drawn from the foot-work of Teyyam, leave alone the costuming and the colours adapted.

The Teyyam season begins on the 10th day of the Malayalam month Tulam. It usually falls during the last week of October and start with rituals related to the beginning of a season/performance and followed by performances on the same day or the following day at a very few ancient erstwhile landlord families (and one of those prominent families is Kamballoore Kottayil, this writer’s mother’s family) and Kavus (place of worship different from the usual temples) of northern Kerala. Usually at the end of the performance at one place, they take an oil lamp or a burning wick from it in a plantain leaf to the nearby place to begin the performance there. Therefore, in most of the cases, it goes like a chain. Formally the season lasts until the middle of the vernacular month Edavam (the end of May) with prime performance period during the months December-January-February.   With performing Valiyamuti (valiya means tall and muti stands for headgear – it is 53.67 feet tall) in front of the Kalarivathukkal Bhagavathy (Goddess) temple at Valapattanam in Kannur by May-end-early June (not merely on a specific day as per the vernacular calendar, but based on other astrological calculations as well to find out the appropriate day) the season ends.  However, there are a few exceptions; during the other months too, even on the peak of the monsoon, some Teyyam are performed. For instance, Maari is performed during the main monsoon month of July (the Malayalam word maari means rain) and Muthappan can be performed on any of the days and anywhere.

Interestingly, the form that highlights Godly presence and powers thrived in areas that are known as the strongholds of communism; all while the communist movements in Kerala advocated atheism. From the interactions with many Teyyam artists over the past few decades, I realise it that majority of them believes in communism. Not only that, a few are hardcore and active party workers. Marx and Teyyam are inseparable identities of faith for them.

And there are about fifteen Muslim Teyyam too. Wearing attire partly similar to the local Muslim inhabitants, the Mapla (colloquial usage for Muslim) Teyyam does the traditional Islamic namaz just before taking part in the performance.  But it profiles all of them as an assistant to a significant Teyyam.

However, there is no Christian Teyyam.  This may be perhaps because by the time (19th century) Christianity sprouted into the socio-cultural life of northern Kerala through migration, Islamic migration and conversions into Islam already took place in northern Kerala and the tradition of Teyyam worship got further stylised and established its forms with ritual concepts in such a way it would not any more accept alien elements and characters.  But there is police Teyyam! With attire in proper uniform, maybe later changed, they showcase it at Patannakkad in Kanhangad

as an assistant to the prominent Karimchamundi. Originally there were only 39  Teyyam as conceived by Manakkatan Gurukkal (a tantric whose period is unknown) and subsequently as per ethnic beliefs and astrological predictions the number increased to hundreds; it includes worship of animals (such as Tiger and Bali) to Kalarippayattu warriors (like Tacholi Otenan -16C) and ancestors of the family concerned. Over 400 Teyyams are now identified.

Anthropologically what makes it more interesting is the fact that when the lower caste labourers are transformed into the supernatural beings as Teyyam, their proprietors bow their head before them in devotion. The Teyyam interrogates and criticises any impropriety they had committed earlier, showing recrimination.

Those communities who migrated to Kerala even centuries ago, including the Brahmins, have none Teyyam of their own, or worshipped at their ancestral homes or place of worship. All of them attends Teyyam performances and pays their obeisance.  According to tradition, it believes the supreme reflection to sustain in the performer for about 90 minutes (moonne mukkal nazhika) while we attribute the divinity till the removal of the head-gear for the conclusion of the performance.

Teyyam such as Pottan and Muthappan consume country liquor.  Some Teyyam falls on fire in a supreme trance.  The practice of drinking the blood from the neck of live birds and goats by Teyyam like Karim Chamundi prevailed until recently; in fact, it occurs even now though rarely in the interior villages not earning the attention of prohibiting agencies like the SPCA (Society for Prevention of Cruelty against Animals). Hunting of animals is the forte of Teyyam such as Vayanattu Kulavanwhere the devotees’ make a pilgrimage from miles afar with hunted animals as offerings; not uncommon even now in some interior villages of Kasaragod that borders Karnataka where such Teyyam are performed more. But they strictly prohibit photography and video; none dares as the culprit would be vulnerable to manhandling and equipment getting destroyed.

Often, for festivals and political processions across the state and outside, the tableau of Teyyam are showcased. They do it even at the government level programmes.  Little doubt, such exhibitions never give the feel of performance – both to the performers and the spectators – as it hardly sparks. For the real feel, one has to trudge days and nights to the villages of the erstwhile North Malabar, during the peak of the season.

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 K.K. Gopalakrishnan, author of Kathakali Dance-Theatre: A Visual Narrative of Sacred Indian Mime is a Kerala-based Indian cultural writer cum activist contributing for leading Indian periodicals for over three decades. www.kkgopalakrisnan.in )